Tapping R&D talent pools in senior academia

Faced with a shrinking pool of top R&D talent, a growing number of companies in the sector are recruiting academics and top researchers for senior management roles.

But many of these appointments are unsuccessful, with failure rates as high as 75%, because candidates from academic backgrounds lack the managerial skills required to complement their scientific expertise. To boost the success of such appointments, companies need to understand and clearly identify the leadership competences required by academic candidates seeking to switch to a commercial role. But what are these key competences?

Based on the results of over 25,000 leader and executive assessments in recent years, Egon Zehnder has developed a leadership model built on the following 5 core competencies:

  • The ability to collaborate and influence: instead of issuing commands and operating in isolation, like many lab chiefs, senior R&D leaders need to be capable of cooperating with colleagues in different functional areas and influencing those outside their direct line of command.
  • Team leadership calls for strong consensus-building and alignment skills as R&D leaders must often head highly matrixed, cross-functional project teams. Looking to the future, R&D leaders should also be able to develop the leadership talent pipeline.
  • Commercial orientation is a key attribute that many academics lack. Their funding track record, however, is often a good indicator of a candidate’s business sense, as is any industry consulting experience.
  • Results orientation: while even failed experiments can be considered interesting in science, pharma companies want results. Potential R&D leaders must consequently demonstrate an ability to find creative short-term solutions to setbacks and to achieve goals on schedule.
  • Strategic orientation: unlike researchers, companies do not share their R&D expertise. On the contrary, research programs are secret and conceived with a maximum commercial yield in mind. R&D leaders must be in a position to understand this dynamic and assess the broader impact of individual research projects on a company’s overall product portfolio.

After finding suitable candidates in academia, companies must then persuade them to make the move to industry: And that is not always easy. Greater job instability, the fear of isolation from the academic world and misgivings about their business skills are all obstacles to accepting an industry job that companies need to overcome. Firms should also ensure that new recruitees are supported by a comprehensive onboarding process tailored to address any possible gaps in candidates’ commercial knowledge.

Although recruiting senior academics may seem like a complex process, the results can be impressive. Moreover, as conditions in the global pharma industry toughen up, innovation will become an increasingly important source of competitive advantage.

Investing in recruiting senior R&D talent from the academic sector should therefore be seen by pharma companies as a major step towards future success.

Please note: This is a summary of an editorial entitled: “Going to the dark side: success factors for companies leveraging senior academic talent,” by Joanne W. Yun published in Drug Discovery Today

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