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Building the Future for Digital Health: A Talent Perspective

Spotting talent in a field where leaders are being built in real-time is a major challenge. Here’s how to approach it.

  • June 2023

Digital health has been a major growth segment in the healthcare industry. Like many major disruptions we’ve seen in recent years, including ESG, artificial intelligence, big data, once it is widespread, companies need to rapidly build capabilities or get left behind. For those that embark on this new and rapidly evolving segment, there are limitless opportunities to develop breakthrough services and treatments for patients, enable access to care and improve costs. 

As companies build digital health business portfolios, one of the first challenges to overcome is solving for leadership. The problem? The leaders are being built in real-time in this growing field. Whether working with a start-up or an established corporation, solving for digital health talent challenges calls for a creative and fluid approach to recruiting as well as a sharp focus on spotting talent in previously untapped places.

Searching to Get the Right Executive 

If digital health talent is scarce, where can we search for it? With a small established candidate pool as compared to demand, and relatively new playbooks to build from, we need to think creatively and across industries for high-quality leaders. Searching for talent in this space requires looking broad across software, healthcare services, medical devices, connected products, biopharma, payors, regulatory bodies, and consumer organizations among other areas.  

Understanding the intricacies related to variation within digital health is key to hiring successful leadership. For digital therapeutics, a specific spike in scientific and clinical understanding, coupled with product management, can be quite important. In the healthcare services spaces, understanding value drivers, patient experience and the healthcare ecosystem channels can be quite important. In the pharma services space, spikes in data/analytics/ai coupled with scientific understanding can be quite important.

As a talent partner to both small and large companies across the spectrum of digital health organizations, we approach this holistically to guide and pinpoint the different variations of talent, the tradeoffs, the risks, and the broader context and goals of our clients. There are considerations about what kind of leader will disrupt and fit within an organization’s ecosystem, the interconnectivity inherent to smaller organizations that are expanding, and how leaders need to transcend organizational boundaries to shape a broader market strategy.

In two different instances, we were brought along to fix broken, lengthy searches for a leading global pharmaceuticals company and a large, diversified healthcare services organization entering the digital therapeutics and digital health space. The latter had no clarity of what they were looking for; the former got stuck on things that would make sense in a more traditional search, but not in this new space, such as P&L size and span of control. Their approaches are understandable—and truly testing the ‘must have’ requirements is paramount in creating a diverse and broad enough candidate pool.   

This approach is not immune to market disruptors and innovators. Understanding the capabilities required for the inaugural go-to-market commercial officer for a digital health disruptor requires nuance around deep relationships and understand of the healthcare ecosystem as well as SaaS models and economics. In much of our Product and Technology work with digital health disruptors, finding the secret sauce of vertical software experience and connection into patient experience has been important.

We apply a much more fluid approach to find executives that met the requirements of each role. Final candidate choices came from nontraditional backgrounds that a rigid approach would not have uncovered. Regardless of the company they are hired for, the candidates chosen for these positions don’t come from obvious places or have the obvious type of backgrounds. Rather, they’ve often had multiple chapters to their career across industries and spike high on innovation and change leadership. 

Leadership Qualities May Surprise You 

There aren’t set checklists, traits, or qualifications for digital health roles. Leading in digital health requires a multidisciplinary set of skills—technology, healthcare, marketing, regulations, etc.—and the ability to think unconventionally, connecting the dots across multiple sectors. 

Given the landscape, these leaders will act as evangelists, harnessing support of and developing relationships with internal stakeholders, and external players (peer businesses, regulators, government) to champion and advance their mission. This person is a storyteller who can convey the core message of the product, shape regulation in addition to develop the product themselves. These leaders champion change and may have an outsized external presence.

At the same time, digital health leaders also need to highly empathetic and collaborative as change continues to shape the industry. It’s important to be a change agent who can truly pioneer and foster innovation. But for companies that are looking to truly pioneer and innovate, compassion and empathy toward others is vital – and lack thereof can become sources of frustration. 

Companies can tap into Egon Zehnder’s Potential Model, a proprietary method that assesses individuals across their level of curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination. The desired traits are innate and can be further developed. This level of knowledge equips companies to make optimal hiring and development decisions. 

When the Industry Grows, Everyone Benefits

As the saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Digital health is a purpose-driven field that is working collaboratively to improve the lives of patients. Expanding the number of companies and products available is a win for the industry—and people—as a whole. 

With the right talent, from the most established to the newest innovators, these organizations will be able to deliver much needed results for patients and seamlessly work together to operationalize, innovate, comply with emerging regulations, and scale at the speed that technology is evolving today.

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