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Less Technical, More Versatile: How Life Sciences services organizations are reshaping the Chief Commercial Officer role

If science and technology were the traditional distinguishing factors, today's primary differentiator is a CCO’s ability to lead.

  • August 2023

It’s no surprise that Contract Services providers in Life Sciences are facing increased competition to win and retain contracts with big pharma and emerging biotech companies. To outperform their competitors, elevating the Commercial function has become an imperative, not an option: what has worked before simply won’t be enough in today’s global arena. This elevation begins with having the right Chief Commercial Officer.

Drawing from our experience and partnerships with CEOs and Boards of Contract Services companies around the world, we have identified critical, and uncommon, insights to help you hire and develop the right Commercial leadership in this increasingly competitive landscape.

Setting the Vision: What do you need in a Chief Commercial Officer? 

In a recent executive search, we partnered with the CEO of a global Contract Development and Manufacturing Organization (CDMO) who began the mandate with the ask to find a “forward-thinking CCO.” Domain experience in drug development and manufacturing was a nice-to-have. The Board, on the other hand, wanted to retain a focus on the more traditional mix of sales and science for the CDMO’s next Commercial leader. 

After a deep reflection with the company on what competencies are needed to win in tomorrow’s landscape, we reconciled this difference of expectations and took a provocative turn in our search. With an eye on best-in-class B2B customer engagement, which meant those who know machine learning account management tools and analytics, for example, we looked far beyond the traditional “hunting grounds” for contract services Commercial leaders. For example, our journey brought us to customer-obsessed leaders in tech and social media companies, as well as B2B business-process-outsourcing companies. Without this creative process working alongside our client, who would have imagined a Commercial leader from a large social media company might be considered a potential CCO candidate for a global CDMO?

Who would have imagined a Commercial leader from a large social media company might be considered a potential CCO candidate for a global CDMO?

In another recent example, a contract services company called on us to recruit a Chief Commercial Officer, who would bring strategic muscle to shape the market for their innovative offerings. Despite growing 50 percent year-over-year, the company was looking for someone to better define and articulate their value proposition to the market. Similar to the example above, our client’s initial preference was to look at the “expected” Commercial leaders in the industry – those who had come up the ranks in the big CDMOs with requisite sales, key account, and marketing experience. And again, upon reflection on the available candidate mix, we turned our sights to an adjacent space, this time the B2B product side of the Life Science industry. These leaders tend to be much more versed in today’s suite of online, AI-powered and traditional marketing tools needed to both grab and win customer attention, plus they understand the sales process to ensure clients are converted from a lead to a long-term customer.

These scenarios aren’t uncommon, and in fact we’re seeing them more often. They illustrate the need for alignment on the vision of the CCO role from the outset. The winning formula for tomorrow’s Chief Commercial Officer brings less of a technical background and more of a diverse skill set. We’ve seen that this should include a curiosity element to learn the science and technology (without needing to be a drug development veteran), a sophisticated toolbox of product, pricing, digital, and analytics capabilities, along with versatility, creative thinking, and an experimenting mind. That’s a lot to ask!

Involving the right external partner in these discussions early on, as well as working with cross-functional advisory teams that have insight into other industries, will surface the right questions upfront. This will also prevent you from investing time in evaluating candidates who polarize stakeholders or just simply don’t have what your business will need to win. 

Defining the Next-Generation CCO

Talent development has not kept up with the rapid market evolution, resulting in a significant gap between the supply of qualified candidates and the increase in market demand. To address this major challenge, we recommend raising your expectations of your top Commercial leaders to become “next-generation CCOs.” The success factors are no longer deep technical knowledge and one-on-one relationships with customers, but a leader who brings a nimble and creative approach to challenges, more likely coming from an industry where a Commercial paradigm shift have already taken place.

Potential for growth and adaptability to rapid industry changes in the B2B services space are crucial for these Commercial leaders. They must be capable of navigating the complex challenges of the pharma industry, while also having an eye on where things go next. Remember how in just the last few years, we’ve seen the CDMO value stream stretch from discovery to commercial-scale manufacturing. Cell therapy and viral vector offerings have almost become a given within larger CDMO offerings. Drug substance bioprocessing at mega-scale is available around the world. A forward-thinking CCO, who is able to become well-versed in the complexities and dynamics of our industry, is instrumental in transforming what the company stands for, what it is known for, and why it wins in the marketplace.

Investing in Your Existing Talent 

Contract Services providers in Life Sciences have been driving incremental growth from new technologies, scientific breakthroughs and massive capital investments. Now it’s time to apply that same level of rigor to human capital investments – the development of the employees – within these companies. This is where a formal Talent Development program comes in. As executives from outside industries increasingly step into leadership roles in these companies, accelerated and richer onboarding becomes paramount for them to learn, feel supported, and enable them to more quickly transfer their skills to this new industry. Additionally, organizations need to be more proactive in coaching and developing existing leaders within their own ranks, as the demand for skilled Commercial leaders will only continue to grow. Development initiatives, typically conducted by a leadership advisory firm like ours, can support current Commercial executives as well as up-and-coming leaders. 

This is where leveraging tools such as Egon Zehnder’s Potential Model, to assess both external candidates and your internal talent pool, become competitive game-changers. Our model analyzes individuals across four dimensions: Curiosity, Insight, Engagement, and Determination. By evaluating these leadership traits, organizations create the optimal conditions for each leader to achieve his or her full potential. 

Contract Services providers in Life Sciences have been driving incremental growth from new technologies, scientific breakthroughs and massive capital investments. Now it’s time to apply that same level of rigor to human capital investments – the development of the employees – within these companies.

Figure: The Drivers of Executive Potential

Should you hire from outside or embark on a systematic development of your internal talent pool, focusing on potential is essential to guide your decision making: When hiring externally, the ultimate question is not whether a candidate is familiar with a certain technology or ticks all the boxes required as we believe it today; rather, the question is whether they have what it takes to come up to speed fast, learn the market dynamics, and then shape the business and organization to win. When developing internal talent, our model effectively sheds light on the areas where individuals need to focus for greater impact and long-term success. 

Looking Ahead: Unlocking the Next Chapter of Growth

The future of our industry hinges on the leadership of innovative executives who adeptly navigate tomorrow’s challenges, out-compete their competitors in the game, and are courageous in pursuing untapped opportunities. With the right talent in positions of influence, and a focus on talent development, Life Science Contract Service providers will unleash the next chapter of transformative growth and technical breakthroughs for the Life Sciences industry. While the talent journey will demand broader thinking and creativity when compared to the past, it opens doors to discover and nurture leaders who bring a fresh perspective and powerful set of Commercial skills to the table.

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