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How to Address the Pharma Talent Shortage

Posted by Rick Lepsinger June 19, 2019

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Disruptions throughout the global economy over the last few decades has left many industries with a talent gap. Although the pharmaceutical industry has experienced tremendous growth in recent years, it’s becoming more difficult than ever for companies to find high-quality talent to help them capitalize on that growth. Many pharma companies are already understaffed and industry reports forecast that as many as two million positions could go unfilled by 2025 due to talent shortages.

A recent article by Ian Marison, CEO of the Biofactory Competence Center, and Dr. Peter Levison, Executive Director of Business Development at Pall Biotech, makes the case that while university programs are doing a good job of teaching the scientific knowledge necessary to work in the life sciences, the industry is moving much too quickly for them to prepare students to actually apply that knowledge. The development of new technologies and shifting business needs have had a serious impact on the industry’s talent needs, creating a serious skill gap. At the same time, the demand for leadership skills and the ability to work in virtual and cross-functional team environments is nearly as important. The lack of these qualities in many aspiring job candidates has significantly contributed to the pharma talent shortage.

Identifying High-Potential Leaders

Despite the challenges posed by the global talent shortage, many pharma companies already have the next generation of leaders working in their organizations. They just need to do a better job identifying them. By improving their assessment efforts to find high-potential leaders who might be capable of stepping into a leadership role in the future, companies can fill their succession pipelines with qualified candidates. Building a strong leadership bench can help them avoid the potentially disruptive impact of a talent gap and ensure that their most promising employees don’t leave the company for other opportunities.

In order to assess candidates effectively, organizations must first ensure that the expectations and competencies associated with leadership positions are aligned with company objectives. Given all the changes that have taken place in the pharma industry over the last decade, this step is incredibly important. Assessing leaders on outdated assumptions about what will be expected of them is a recipe for disappointment. All assessment and development programs should be redesigned with these new competencies in mind.

Assessing for Cultural Fit and Values

Skill competencies are often critical for leadership positions in the pharma industry, but companies can’t afford to ignore the question of how well someone fits in with the organization’s culture. That’s because a lack of cultural fit is the biggest reason why leaders don’t succeed in their new roles. The pharma industry occupies a unique space in the business world, with increased media attention focusing on issues of drug development, pricing, and research ethics. In addition to possessing the right competencies for their position, pharma leaders must also be able to navigate questions of corporate responsibility and social expectations.

Without a comprehensive assessment strategy, pharma companies could potentially select leaders who, while skilled in some areas, lack the emotional intelligence needed to succeed in their position. The last thing an organization wants is to suffer enduring brand damage due to leadership behavior that is inconsistent with its stated values (such as the comments made by pharma CEOs before a Senate committee in early 2019).

Anticipate and Avoid Career Derailment

About thirty to fifty percent of high-quality leaders experience career “derailment” at one point or another. Signs of derailment could include being passed over for promotions, being cut out of the communications loop, or having key responsibilities taken away. Derailment can occur for a variety of reasons related to the employee themselves, including a lack of emotional agility, an inability to adapt to change, or some other skills shortage. In many instances, however, derailment is the result of broader organizational factors.

This last factor is especially true of the pharma industry. Many high-potential candidates who come up through a siloed department lack the skills and experience necessary to think strategically across the organization. They have come up through the ranks of a single department, leaving them ill-prepared to deal with the challenges facing other departments. For instance, a top-performer in the sales department may lack the desire or skills to be an effective leader in another area of the company. As mergers and acquisitions become more common and pharma companies make greater use of cross-functional teams to pursue their goals, understanding the role each department plays in organizational success is critically important for aspiring leaders.

Assessment and development programs can address these needs and combat career derailment by providing high-potential leaders an opportunity to build a comprehensive view of the company and gain a diverse set of skills. Lateral promotions that allow candidates to “cross-pollinate,” building relationships throughout the organization and understanding how different departments are managed. Targeted assessment can identify candidates who possess the flexibility necessary to move throughout the organization and thrive on new challenges. This can help overcome the pharma talent shortage by filling succession pipelines with experienced candidates with the diverse skill-set and competencies necessary to drive success in the pharma industry.

Overcoming the Talent Shortage in Pharma

As pharma companies look for ways to confront existing and future talent shortages, they should pay close attention to the way they approach assessment and development. Many of the high-potential employees already in their organization could easily develop into the successful agile leaders they need to confront business challenges and promote much-needed change efforts. By reorienting the way they assess and develop candidates to focus on building key leadership competencies and helping employees gain the experience they need to become better leaders, the pharma industry can maximize the talent it already has and minimize costly and time-consuming process of hiring outside candidates who may be a poor cultural fit for the organization.


Topics: Talent Aquisition

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