What It Takes to Be a Leader in Retail

Retail, an industry disrupted to its core by the COVID-19 pandemic while already facing significant challenges, cries out for strong, transformational leadership. “COVID-19 has shaken retail markets everywhere,” notes the report The Pandemic and Global Retail Markets. “While many other segments of the economy were strong prior to the pandemic,” the report continues, “the retail sector was in the midst of a correction, reacting to growth in ecommerce and other changes in consumer spending habits.”


The pandemic has slammed the retail industry with unpredictable restrictions, temporary and permanent closures, consumers staying home and shopping online, along with operational changes, such as curbside pickup and contactless payment. “Retailers all over the world are stress-testing their leadership principles and capacities,” Bob Phipps writes in an interview with Ralph Lauren’s CEO on the pandemic’s leadership lessons. Even more daunting are predictions that the industry will never be the same even after the pandemic. Researchers expect consumers to continue buying online in massive numbers. Ecommerce purchases are expected to increase 169 percent post-pandemic, predicts a report from Accenture.


Retail executive teams need leaders who can rise to COVID and post-COVID challenges. Retail leadership teams currently are predominantly male; a 2017 study by consulting firm Russell Reynolds found 84 percent of the 300 retail executives they researched were men. More than two-thirds of these executives, whose average age was 54, had been internally promoted, having spent an average of 15 years with their current firms. Most of those hired from outside had retail backgrounds.


“Women — and other minorities — will likely continue to face significant barriers when charting their path into those roles,” asserts Sheena Butler-Young, who also writes about “second-generation bias” — in which women candidates are recruited for top slots but expected to “have experience in roles that were traditionally offered almost exclusively to men.” In 2020, just 5.6 percent of retail CEOs were women, reports Sarah Hoodspith in Retail Insider. Meanwhile, Cara Salpini notes on Retail Dive that “since 2010, the percent of executives of color in retail has hardly changed.” The Retail Leadership 700, a report that reviewed the diversity composition retail boards of directors, suggests retailers risk productivity and profit by failing to address diversity gaps.


Preferred Background

In terms of education, the retail industry has a low barrier to entry; most people can enter the field with no more than an associate’s degree or even a high-school diploma. Those who progress into retail management will likely attain a bachelor’s degree in business, and those seeking senior leadership will benefit from an MBA. Significant informal education happens in retail, as well. Interviewing three retail CEOs to glean their leadership lessons, James Coker, a reporter for Essential Retail, stated, “One effective method of learning how to be a CEO is to regularly pick the brains of those who have experienced this type of role.” Coker shared the experience of one of his interviewees, Timo Boldt, on this type of learning: “Every CEO or entrepreneur you meet has rich learnings, so I think the faster you can absorb them, and you develop a growth mindset, you can learn from failure.”


Career paths into executive retail leadership vary. In fact, Barbara Farfan identifies four ways retail leadership aspirants can advance. Relatively uncommon today, Farfan says, is the traditional rise through the ranks. More common is a path that includes company and industry hopping. Farfan cites Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who had no background in retail before founding the online behemoth, as an example of her third path, specialized focus and expertise. The fourth path is to start your own retail enterprise as Walmart’s Sam Walton and Costco founder James Sinegal did. It is noteworthy that retail is thought to provide relatively weak leadership pipelines. “We have found,” say Chain Store Age writers Maryam Morse and Ryan Dixon, “that retailers in particular have often insufficiently invested in strong leadership pipelines.”


Desirable Characteristics

Because consumer behavior spawned by the COVID pandemic is predicted to stay with us for the foreseeable future, retail leaders are already focused on re-skilling and re-training workers. “The involvement of retail leaders in managing this momentous transition will in itself require the acquisition of new skills,” writes Rosanna Iacono, managing partner at The Growth Activists. A Multimedia Plus COVID-19 Impact Survey noted that new-employee training and training in communication and contactless payments are current re-skilling priorities, while training in 2021 was expected to emphasize leadership development and safety. Skills mandates pressing on retail executives even before the pandemic have centered around technology and championing customers.


Desirable leadership characteristics for retail executive leaders include the following:


Leadership Styles in the Retail Field

Transformational, transactional, and democratic leadership styles get the most attention in retail literature. Researchers Adel Mekraz and Raghava Rao Gundala found the transactional style to dominate among their retail study participants, but by a small margin. They linked both transactional and transformational styles to lower employee turnover. Cuiping Zhang found the transformational and democratic leadership styles to positively correlate with job satisfaction in the retail industry.



These resources offer additional insight on leadership in retail:

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What It Takes to Be a Leader in Consumer Packaged Goods

CPG - Consumer Packaged Goods acronym concept

Recurrent themes among experts in the Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) industry point to a discipline that would benefit from a boost in innovation, disruption, and digital transformation. “Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) companies are classic examples of organizations that have to move from a static-control to a dynamic-innovative focus,” write Penn State’s Samuel Hunter and his co-authors in “Shifting to a Strategy of Innovation: The Key Role of Leadership in Consumer Packaged Goods.” “Innovation is critical to the success of CPGs,” he notes.


Despite lagging in these areas, the industry has more than held its own during the COVID-19 pandemic, thanks to consumers stocking up on essentials and more, though not without significant supply-chain woes. Writing about how the early months of the pandemic changed the mindset of CPG CEOs, Geoff Freeman, president and CEO of the Consumer Brands Association, characterizes the CPG response as “companies ensuring the delivery of products needed to help fight COVID-19 and doing the right things for essential employees.”


Whether building on COVID-driven momentum or tackling the mandates of innovation, disruption, and digitization, CPG companies need strong leadership. A 2020 study from TCS Business 4.0 Institute, Opportunities for Leadership and Disruption in Consumer Packaged Goods,” distinguishes digital-leader companies – those with strong leaders promoting digital initiatives that contribute to increased revenue – from digital-follower firms that have little digitization going on and minimal success in increasing revenue. The study found that CPG companies tend to be followers. The risk of the follower position is falling behind in the world of online sales. In a brief account of the recent history of the industry, Richard Stark and co-authors note that between 2013 and 2020, “more than $17 billion in sales shifted from CPG giants to startups and 90 percent of all CPG e-commerce growth came from new, smaller companies.”


Consumer Packaged Goods executive teams, reports a 2019 study by consulting firm Spencer Stuart, have an average of 12.8 members. Four-fifths of CPG company leaders have devoted their whole careers to consumer packaged goods. Of the 50 leaderships teams Spencer Stuart researched, 17.5 percent of studied executive-team members were women;16 percent included no women, and 36 percent boasted three or more women. Among CPG industry CEOs, only 5-6 percent are women.


Like many leaders in CPG, CEOs also tend to have long tenures at their companies – an average of 22.6 years – and have been CEO for an average of 5.3 years, reports Spencer Stuart. Very few are hired from outside their companies. Laura Gurski, senior managing director and global industry lead for consumer goods and services at Accenture, paints a picture of a typical CPG CEO: “male … aged in his mid-fifties, and overwhelmingly from an industry background in management, sales or marketing.”


Preferred Background

In addition to the most common functional backgrounds, CPG leaders come from finance operations/supply chain sales/commercial consulting, strategy, technology, quality, R&D, and innovation. Common industry backgrounds, Spencer Stuart’s CPG Leadership Index reports, include beverages, food, household products, tobacco, personal products, healthcare, and private equity. Frank Birkel and his co-authors of a 2019 Spencer-Stuart report on the “CPG CEO of the future” observe that experience in regional general management and global category management is advantageous.


Desirable Characteristics

An array of hard skills, soft skills, and personal traits are keys to success in CPG leadership. “Changes sweeping through the CPG sector require new capabilities within the top team,” proclaims a 2018 McKinsey report. Pointing to the need to level-up in digital, big data, and analytics skills, Patrick Guggenburger, writing for McKinsey, warns, “for the consumer-packaged-goods, the skill crunch is just around the corner, driven in part by the shift toward digital channels.” The Spencer-Stuart CPG CEO of the future report notes that “the next generation of CPG leadership must anticipate how to better connect with consumers, invest in the right technologies and business models, and use culture to spark innovation and growth.”


Additional desirable leadership characteristics include the following:


Leadership Styles in the CPG Field

Research on leadership styles in the CPG industry tends to focus on effects of various leadership styles rather than predominance of any one style in the field. A study by Anthonia Adeniji and co-authors found that transformational and transactional styles had a positive effect on employee engagement and performance. Similar results were reported from a South African study in which Solomon Omonona and co-authors found the transactional leadership style to have a greater influence on employee performance than other styles of leadership.



These resources offer additional insight on leadership in Consumer Packaged Goods:

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What It Takes to Be a Leader in Life Sciences

As the industry under pressure to produce vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutic medications to address the COVID-19 pandemic, life sciences faces disruption, along with significant leadership challenges and diversion of attention away from normal business. EY reports in How life sciences CEOs can rewire strategic planning and execution on research in which 76 percent of surveyed life-sciences industry CEOs and other senior executives said COVID-19 will impact or even pivot their organization’s medium- to long-term strategy.” A study by McKinsey indicates that up to 80 percent of the time spent by surveyed top-level executives (CMOs and other medical leaders) is currently on crisis management. The EY report suggests the addition of roles such as chief digital officer and chief innovation officer “to help bring necessary viewpoints to the table in order to develop a sustainable long-term strategy.”

Even before COVID, however, the industry, according to a 2018 McKinsey report on developing tomorrow’s life-science leaders, faced “demographic shifts, mounting cost pressures, advancing digitization, emerging scientific breakthroughs, and powerful new competitors.”

Top leadership roles in life sciences include CEO, Chief Scientific Officer, Chief Medical Officer Regulatory Affairs Director, Chief Operations Officer, Business Development Officer, Chief Finance Officer, Senior Director, Executive Director, Assistant/Associate Vice President, Vice President, Therapeutic Head. A list of 166 life-science roles at all levels can be found on the Biospace site, which also offers a life-science job board.

A disproportionately small number of women and people of color populate top leadership roles in life science’s most dominant sector, biotech. Ned Pagliarulo reported on a 2020 study by BioPharmaDive showing that only 30 percent of executive positions and just 18 percent of board seats are held by women, despite their making up half the companies’ workforces. The study found that about 80 percent of CEOs were men and almost 90 percent were white.

Preferred Background: Education and Experience

Unlike in many industries, where education takes a back seat to experience, a strong academic background, particularly in the sciences, is required in many top life-science leadership roles. The ability to translate that academic science background into a business setting is seen as a highly desirable trait in life-science leaders. “A transition from a science-oriented to a business-oriented culture seems to be essential to survive ‘the valley of death,’ and must begin within the company’s leadership,” writes biological scientist Isabela Oliva. At the highest level – Chief Medical Officer – a medical degree and state licensure as a physician are required, sometimes enhanced by specialty-practice certifications and a degree in business, as well as management experience and 5-10 years of clinical experience beyond residency.

McKinsey’s Developing tomorrow’s leaders in life sciences report suggests leadership development, given that only about 30 percent of current leaders surveyed had participated in such training. Leadership coaching may also be desirable, especially for those transitioning from academia to business.


Desirable Characteristics

 An array of hard skills, soft skills, and personal traits are keys to success in life-science leadership. The field “requires people who are willing to take risks, conquer new science, and have endurance for the many years it takes to develop a new medicine,” asserts Deanna Petersen, CBO of AVROBIO.

The COVID pandemic adds new dimensions to what is needed in a life-science leader. The EY report notes “life sciences industry CEOs and other senior executives need to address a few critical areas as they develop strategy for the post-pandemic era: building resiliency into their supply chain, addressing fast-evolving customer needs, supporting effective innovation to develop new treatments and staving off threats from unexpected competitors.

Additional desirable leadership characteristics include the following:

Predominant Leadership Styles in the Life-Science Field

Research on leadership styles in the life-science industry is limited. Jolyn Taylor and Diane Bodurka acknowledge that “all leadership types may be used at some point by effective leaders,” while pointing to democratic and transformational styles as especially effective in the life sciences. A chapter in the textbook Enhancing the Effectiveness of Team Science recognizes the dominance of the transformational style in recent years, but also points to use of behavioral, relational, transformational, transactional, contingency, and contextual styles.


These resources offer additional insight on leadership in life sciences:

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What It Takes to Be a Leader in the Telecommunications Industry

As vast numbers of employees became remote workers when the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, telecommunications-industry leaders were called upon to provide “ultra-reliable connectivity for at-home, work, school, and social interaction,” as a KPMG report noted. The pandemic disruption has challenged the strategic vision of top telecom leaders and turned their attention to what the report describes as “organizational resilience to capture emerging opportunities and new revenue streams.


Though they could not have anticipated the specific disruption wrought by the pandemic, Patrick Viguerie, Keith Cowan, and Brian Hindo knew when they wrote The Future of the Telecommunications Industry: A Dual Transformation in 2017 that, while disruption is inevitable, “opportunities are greater today than ever before for industry players that embrace disruption, reimagine their network services capabilities, and drive growth.” The authors recommended a customer-centric approach to these tasks.


Most diversity initiatives in the telecom industry appear to focus on the underrepresentation of women in the field. The Global Leaders Forum, for example, has launched an initiative to “drive improvements in gender diversity, both within the organizations of members, and more broadly across the industry.” Eric Cevis, who spearheads the initiative, notes that “in 95% of surveyed GLF organizations, women represent fewer than 50% of direct reports to the CEO.


Preferred Background: Education and Experience

A report from Spencer Stuart on telecom CEOs indicates that backgrounds in technology, media, or telecommunications dominate among top leaders, more than a third of them having spent their entire careers in telecom. Functional areas from which CEOs have emerged include operations and general management, finance, and to a lesser extent, strategy and business development, IT and engineering, and sales and marketing. A healthy portion of the studied CEOs had also been CEOs in their last job, while others had been senior vice presidents, executive vice presidents or regional presidents, COOs, or CFOs.


Educational backgrounds solely dedicated to telecommunications are uncommon, according to the study. Most followed an academic program focused on business administration, finance, accounting, economics, IT, or engineering. Bachelor’s degrees were universal among the studied CEOs, with about a quarter also earning an MBA or PhD, and another quarter gaining other advanced degrees.


Desirable Characteristics

 An array of hard skills, soft skills, and personal traits are keys to success in telecommunications leadership. Customer-centrism is currently seen as highly valuable for telecom leaders, especially given that customers are using telecom services in greater numbers for working and learning at home, as well as consuming online entertainment. The ability to stay on top of trends and the competitive scenario are also seen as critical. Some experts suggest that hiring leaders from outside the telecom industry will result in fresh perspectives. Blogger Syed Ali cites creativity as one of the most crucial soft skills today. The telecom section of KPMG’s web site notes that amid the disruption, those who are “agile, strategic, cost conscious, and driven by data and analytics will be best positioned to benefit.”


Additional desirable leadership characteristics include the following:

Predominant Leadership Styles in the Telecommunications Industry

A number of researchers, primarily outside the U.S. and focused on specific telecom companies, have explored leadership styles in the telecommunications industry. Transformational, transactional and laissez faire leadership styles have been mentioned as common in the telecom industry, along with lesser known styles – contingent, inspirational, and intellectual, with the intellectual style shown by research to promote employee engagement.



  • Global Leaders’ Forum: Offers GLF Community, an “ecosystem for leaders across telecoms infrastructure, platform and applications providers, as well as the technology providers that serve them.”


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What It Takes to Be a Leader in Technology Security

A significant key to success for technology-security leaders appears to be the ability to combine business acumen with technology expertise. “It’s assumed that the information security leader has both the technical and tactical/operational skills to do the job,” states a report from consulting firm SpencerStuart. “Strategic and business acumen will distinguish the successful security leaders,” the report notes.

Similar to technology security (also known as IT security) but not precisely the same are data security, cybersecurity, and information security.

At the highest level, the leader in charge of technology security may be the Chief Information Security Officer (CISO). Some roles along the way to the top include security analyst, security engineer, security administrator, security architect, security specialist, and security consultant. Fifty additional titles are listed in this article.


Preferred Background: Education and Experience

The SpencerStuart report notes evolving opinions about the importance of strong technical expertise for tech-security leadership. “While most executives we interviewed agreed that it may not be necessary to be an engineer or to have spent one’s entire career in IT,” the report states, “a good understanding of IT networks and systems is important, particularly as an increasing percentage of most businesses relies on technology.” Verbiage from a job posting encapsulates this idea of combining technical, leadership, and business knowledge: “[The role] includes the technical integration aspects of security technologies and processes, but also the leadership responsibilities related to leading effective corporate initiatives.”

Cybersecurity consultant and global CISO Phil Ferraro identifies three types of tech-security leader: (1) Technically savvy leaders who rose through the ranks from the technical side of IT, but may not be adept at communicating how tech security affects business risk and impacts shareholder value; (2) excellent presenters who are good at getting buy-in but may not completely understand technology security’s effect on business; and (3) “Those who have a deep technical understanding and excel at executive program management. These are the rock stars,” Ferraro says, “They have it all.”

A review of job postings in the discipline indicates that many, but not all, roles require a bachelor’s degree; some ask for an MBA or other master’s degree. Certifications, such as CISSP (Certified Information Systems Security Professional) are also available and sometimes desirable to employers.


Desirable Characteristics

 An array of hard skills, soft skills, and personal traits are keys to success in tech-security leadership. The field suffers from a skills gap, according to a 2020 report in Forbes. Citing House Research and Technology Chair Haley Stevens (D-MI), Forbes writer Ted Knutson cautions “many of the half-million cybersecurity job openings are going begging because college computer-science graduates often lack the needed skills and hands-on experience.” Knutson also pointed to Stevens’s observation that lack of women in the profession exacerbates the skills shortage.

The SpencerStuart report summarizes top traits for tech-security leaders: “An effective security leader will be a strategic thinker, knowledgeable about IT and physical security issues, as well as the business. He or she will have superior communications skills and be able to make decisions quickly based on the available information, whether in day-to-day operations or in crisis situations.” Additional leadership characteristics include the following:


Predominant Leadership Styles in the Technology-Security Field

Several researchers have considered leadership styles in the tech-security field. One academic research study by Debasis Bhattacharya found a significant correlation between transactional and transformational leadership styles and the level of concern towards information-security problems. Analysts Jeff Pollard and Josh Zelonis also support transformational leadership for these leaders, especially since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the authors say, “changed the security landscape” with “employees working remotely off non-work-provided devices, data flowing haphazardly, and strategic plans disintegrating.”

Christophe Veltsos looked at the pros and cons of a charismatic tech-security leadership style, noting that charismatic leaders are good storytellers, have magnetic personalities, and “can clearly and eloquently articulate a vision.” On the negative side, however, a leader’s charisma can “undermine communications about cyber risks,” Veltsos asserts.

Given that no one leadership style dominates tech security, the multiple authors of the eBook, 90 Days: A CISO’s Journey to Impact, offer the practical advice that “leadership styles vary, so the best way to lead the security efforts in your organization will be the one that you are able to implement most effectively.”



These resources offer additional insight on leadership in technology security:


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What It Takes to Be a Leader in the Internet of Things

Leadership in the discipline known as the Internet of Things (IoT) is unique because the field itself is not seen as a technology, but rather “a leadership opportunity; a mechanism to transform businesses.” That’s the perspective of MIT’s Sloan Executive Education Blog, which goes on to assert that “preparing for IoT and broader digital transformation requires a strategic approach that carefully considers human capital and broader organizational transformation.”

While some firms have specific a Chief Internet of Things Officer, at the top levels, it is often the Chief Information Officer (CIO) who has responsibility for leading IoT initiatives. In a 2017 report, “Leading the IoT,” Gartner revealed survey results in which a third of responding organizations “expected that the CIO would be leading their IoT activities.” Other candidates for IoT leadership include the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and Chief Data (or Digital) Officer (CDO).

Stacey Higginbotham, who blogs about IoT, notes a new role that is “a step below the CDO.” Higgintbotham reports that “the person who takes on this role — titles include chief of automation and IT/OT architect — works closely with both the information technology (IT) team and the operational technology (OT) teams to accomplish business goals.”

As a relatively new field, IoT is plagued with skills gaps and a lack of understanding of what IoT can do for a business. The MIT Sloan blog notes that the Internet of Things Talent Consortium (IOTTC) surveyed 1,500+ senior executives about roadblocks to success in digital transformation and found that half of respondents cited lack of digital expertise and skills as a top barrier.

The blog lists leadership challenges in IoT that include improving strategic thinking and risk tolerance, implementing agile IoT product development, conceptualizing the IoT strategy and roadmap, mapping and monitoring the IoT ecosystem, developing dedicated IoT capability, diminishing limitations and mitigating risks, engaging in rapid decision-making, and championing trust and teamwork.


Preferred Background: Education and Experience

A scan of job postings in the IoT realm reveals that some firms do not even list educational requirements, while others require a bachelor’s degree and sometimes specify that the degree be in computer science, software engineering, or information systems. An MBA or other master’s degree is often required, as well. Certification programs are available for prospective IoT leaders; an article by Jamie Leigh lists seven such certifications.

Among the possible roles on the path to top IoT leadership are product manager, project manager, software engineer/architect, web development engineer, database designer, data scientist, IoT cloud engineer, and industrial engineer.


Desirable Characteristics

 An array of hard skills, soft skills, and personal traits are keys to success in IoT leadership. The publication 2019 Trends in Internet of Things includes a comprehensive resource on competencies in IoT. The ability to leverage teamwork is seen as especially important in IoT. “When I discuss these IoT projects with organizations,” writes consultant Tripp Braden, “it becomes very clear that almost all of them are using a team-based model to deploy their pilot programs and beyond.” Additional leadership characteristics include the following:

Predominant Leadership Styles in the IoT Field

Rather than citing any particular traditional leadership style as dominant in the realm of the Internet of Things, researchers have suggested that leadership in this field calls for a new style. In her blog on leadership and trust, Dr. LauraAnn Migliore rejects an autocratic leadership style for IoT (“because no one person can know all and be all in the advanced knowledge, communications, and connectivity of the IoT”), and instead suggests a Holocratic style, “which involves the redistribution of power from the head of the organization (e.g., CEO and executive team) to the cellular level (e.g., the individual employee),” Migliore writes.

Other researchers propose a “connected” or “networked” leadership style. In a report titled, “Leadership in the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” the search firm Stanton Chase suggests a networked style, emphasizing creation of a diverse environment, agile leadership, and ethical responsibility.

Some experts discuss “digital leadership,” a term that describes subject-matter expertise but may also point to a distinctive style of leading. That’s the implication of a 2016 report from consulting firm Russell Reynolds in which the firm examined profiles of digital transformation leaders and discovered that successful “digital leaders exhibit psychometric attributes different from those of other senior executives. In fact, they have less in common with C-suite colleagues than anyone else in executive management.” These leaders stood out, the report says, for thinking outside the box, challenging traditional approaches, cutting through bureaucracy, and going against the grain.



These resources offer additional insight on IoT leadership:

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What It Takes to Be a Leader in a Pharmaceutical Firm

Pharma Medicine Pill Capsule Pharmaceutical Industry 3d Illustration“Change fatigue” is a phrase that a report from the McKinsey Company uses to refer to leadership in the pharma industry. Indeed, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, pharma wrestled with globalization, the quest to reduce costs, regulatory issues, and efforts to add value while remaining customer-focused, among other challenges.

An overview of pharma-leader responsibilities includes aligning services with institutional goals, generating maximum revenue, collaborating with the leadership team to reduce costs, and managing technology investments. Senior pharma leadership teams may include such roles as Chief Medical Officer, Chief Ethics and Compliance Officer, Chief Quality Officer, Senior Director, Executive Director, Assistant/Associate Vice President, Vice President, and Therapeutic Head. Some emerging executive positions observed by Adam Millinger and his co-authors include Transformation Leaders, Ecosystem Leaders, and Enabling Leaders.

A comprehensive study of the career paths of 50 pharma CEOs by Nathaniel Brooks Horwitz reveals that the average age of pharm leaders is 58. Only three companies in his study are led by women, Horwitz points out.

The pharmaceutical industry, of course, has been particularly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. “The COVID-19 lockdown has exposed deep dependence of the global economy on various aspects of pharma and healthcare companies,” writes Sonny Iqbal and Niveditha Viswanathan of consulting firm Ego Zehnder. The authors cite an emerging need for leaders to make rapid decisions, as well as to trust decisions that come from decentralized sources. Leaders need to be agile, responsive, and resourceful at this time, Iqbal and Viswanathan note. For Dana M. Krueger and Saule Serikova, the concept of “purpose” is key to pharma leadership in the pandemic. “Across all the activities of pharma companies,” the authors write, “from their investments in product development to directly impact patients in need, to the research and supply alliances they are building, to the charitable donations they make – the COVID-19 crisis has reinforced the need for pharma leaders to commit to, communicate, and exemplify the purpose that is at the center of their strategies and organizations.”


Preferred Background: Education and Experience

Horwitz’s study provides valuable insight into the kind of backgrounds that propel pharma leaders to the top. Horwitz made the surprising discovery that 35 of the 50 CEOs he studied have no advanced scientific or medical degree. MBAs, he notes, are by far the most common advanced degrees. He describes the typical career path of the leaders he studied: “a college STEM degree, an MBA or entry-level job in sales or operations, followed by a couple decades of conventional upward mobility through management roles of increasing geographic and financial responsibility.”

The management roles typically included in the “upward mobility” Horwitz describes may be country manager or a director of a minor franchise, followed by head of sales for a region or head of development for a small division, VP of sales or operations or R&D, and then a promotion into a role as SVP, EVP or president of a continent or franchise, and finally the C-suite as either COO or CFO. “A few leap directly to CEO,” Horwitz says.


Desirable Characteristics

An array of hard skills, soft skills, and personal traits are keys to success in pharma leadership. In the white paper, The Leadership Challenge in the Pharmaceutical Sector: What Critical Capabilities are Missing in Leadership Talent and How Can They be Developed?, Jean Brittain Leslie and Kim Palmisano report that the ability to build collaborative relationships was identified as the most important skill. Additional characteristics from this and other studies include the following:

Predominant Leadership Styles in the Pharma Industry

Globally, leadership styles in the pharma industry have been extensively studied, with many scholars and experts arguing for a mix of leadership styles. In 2016, Partha S. Mukherjee, director of analytical development at Bristol-Myers Squibb, promoted the situational-leadership style, while also giving a nod to the transformational style, noting that “transformational leaders have integrity; they are excellent communicators, self-aware, empathic, lead with humility, take accountability, and they inspire by emotional intelligence.”

Experts also point to a trend in leadership styles oriented toward building relationships and leveraging teams. In a chapter in Value Creation in the Pharmaceutical Industry: The Critical Path to Innovation, Aubyn Howard observes that “the rapid rise of the Pluralistic–Social paradigm over the last 20 years has brought more collaborative styles of leadership which enabled the emergence of conventional forms of open innovation.”

Leadership style can be especially significant for women making their mark in the pharma industry. Barbara Morgan, an executive at Lubrizol Life Science Health, advises women to embrace various styles, noting that “highly extroverted and assertive leadership styles” manifest themselves differently in women than in men. “We have to be inclusive and open,” Morgan writes, “to allow female leaders to be authentic to themselves and not feel pressured to personify the accepted leadership style.”



Several excellent guides to leadership paths in the pharma industry are available:


What It Takes to Be a Leader in Healthcare

Because labor costs typically consume 50 to 60 percent of a hospital’s operating revenue, less-than-stellar leadership can have a significant impact. “Healthcare organizations represent a system of processes, people, and other resources that must be led effectively to achieve the desired outcome of high-quality, safe patient care,” writes Carol J. Huston, a nursing leader and nurse educator.

While healthcare leadership encompasses a number of diverse roles, the functions of healthcare leaders usually include planning and overseeing healthcare services in compliance with laws and regulations while striving to improve quality and efficiency, often with the assistance of new technologies. “Effective leadership,” notes the blog of Advent Health University, “has been positively associated with increased patient satisfaction and lower rates of adverse health results.”

Leadership roles in healthcare include population-health leader, patient-safety leader, patient-experience leader, change-management leader, staffing/scheduling leader, in addition to C-Suite positions like Chief Compliance Officer (CCO), Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Chief Financial Officer (CFO), Chief Operating Officer (COO), Chief Learning Officer (CLO), Chief Medical Information Officer (CMIO), Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Chief Nursing Officer (CNO), Clinical Department Manager, and Chief Quality Officer (CQO).

Arguably, the COVID-19 pandemic has affected healthcare more than any other industry and has required an adaptive leadership style. Writing for the New England Journal of Medicine’s Catalyst site, physician Kevin Lobdell and his co-authors assert that the healthcare system is not well structured to address a pandemic in an interconnected and interdependent world. “Prioritizing engaged leadership, and emphasizing a more team-oriented approach to care delivery and collaboration across institutions,” Lobdell et al write, “will improve systems in the short-term, and ultimately, set conditions for long-term change.”

The pandemic is not the only leadership challenge healthcare leaders face. Tim Flanagan of HealthCare Recruiters International also cites revenue outpaced by spending, increasing regulations, demand for new levels of quality and cost transparency, a surge in non-traditional competitors, expansion of population health, and rapidly changing technology.

Preferred Background: Education and Experience

Because leadership roles in healthcare are diverse, no typical path of education and experience exists, but for the top leadership role of hospital CEO, a Master of Health Administration or Hospital Administration degree is common, along with at least eight years’ experience in administrative, healthcare, and management positions, notes the University of Scranton’s page on executive-leadership strategies in the medical field.

Desirable Characteristics

An array of hard skills, soft skills, and personal traits are keys to success in healthcare leadership. Comprehensive resources on competencies in healthcare leadership include the Healthcare Leadership Alliance Competency Directory, downloadable as an Excel spreadsheet, Leadership Competencies for Health Services Managers from the American College of Healthcare Executives (ACHE), and the Health Leadership Competency Model from the National Center for Healthcare Leadership (NCHL). Additional leadership characteristics include the following:

healthcare leadership skills table

Predominant Leadership Styles in the Healthcare Industry

Researchers have found that simply deploying a leadership of any kind has a positive effect in healthcare. Danae Sfantou and co-authors write of their research, “Leadership styles were found to be strongly correlated with quality care and associated measures,” going on to document associations between individual styles and positive outcomes: “Transformational and resonant leadership styles are associated with lower patient mortality, while relational and task-oriented leadership are significantly related to higher patient satisfaction.” The researchers found increased patient satisfaction closely related to transformational, transactional, and collaborative leadership.

Bhagyashree Sudhakar Joshi studied 41 healthcare leaders, learning that they used 10 leadership styles (autocratic, democratic, bureaucratic, laissez faire, paternalistic, transactional, charismatic, transformational, visionary, and coaching) to some extent, with the majority adopting a democratic style. Joshi concluded that hospital leaders should adopt a mixed leadership style.

While many healthcare experts like Joshi argue for a mix of leadership styles, others promote one specific style as most appropriate for the healthcare field. Victor Trastek, Neil Hamilton, and Emily Niles make a case for Servant Leadership in an article for the Mayo Clinic. “Servant leadership [is] the best model for health care organizations because it focuses on the strength of the team, developing trust and serving the needs of patients,” the authors assert. Tony P. Ospina touts transformational leadership, noting that “transformational leadership is not a ‘cure all’ remedy for the current issues in healthcare, but it addresses many common challenges that are faced.” Similarly, scholars Alenka Žibert and Andrej Starc point out that “transformational leadership is often associated with greater efficiency and positive organizational results, and consequently achieves a higher success rate of change.”


These excellent guides to leadership paths in the healthcare industry are available:

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What It Takes to Be a Private Equity-Backed Company Leader

When businesspeople refer to private equity-backed company leaders, they are typically referring to CEOs hired by private-equity (PE) firms to run new acquisitions in their portfolios (these portfolio companies are sometimes abbreviated as “portcos”). PE firms may hire other leaders, such as CFOs and other C-suite executives, but CEOs are the main focus.

Much of the literature about private-equity backed CEOs emphasizes differences between the environment in which portco CEOs operate and that of CEOs of other companies. “Effective leadership in this space is very different from other types of ownership platforms,” writes John Myers, managing partner, Kensington International, noting “the acquisition of a company by a private equity firm is a seismic change for its leaders and employees.” Executive-search expert Chris Reinsvold points to a tight timeline with an anticipated ending since the PE firm’s goal is typically to eventually offload the portco at a profit. As private-equity search specialist Joe Hunt writes, “private equity is looking for CEOs who can drive and deliver performance in a defined timescale, optimizing the crystallization of value on exit.” Board interaction is different because often, “the majority of the board directors are principals in the private-equity firm,” Reinsvold says. CEOs in portcos invest their own funds in the portfolio company, with, Reinsvold says, “greater emphasis on the CEOs having enough ‘skin in the game.’” But, while the portco environment may be different from the environment at other companies, CEO skills and characteristics are not so different. Successful portfolio company CEOs are very similar to non–private equity CEO profiles, asserts What makes a great PE portfolio company CEO?, a report from Russell Reynolds Associates.

The same report shows portco CEOs offer a stronger skillset over other CEOs in certain areas, indicating superior skills among portco CEOs in juggling priorities, empowering others, exhibiting an even-keeled demeanor, and maintaining humility about their own achievements.

Private-equity-backed companies evince an emphasis on organizational culture, both in terms of performance and in terms of a CEO’s fit with the portfolio company’s culture. “The right corporate culture at a portco is essential for generating the business results required by the company’s PE sponsor,” states Alix Partners’s 2020 Fifth Annual Private Equity Leadership Survey, “and a portco’s culture depends to a great degree on who’s at the helm.” This emphasis on cultural fit is sometimes blamed for weak representation of women in portco CEO roles. “Humans tend to connect socially with those who share similarities to themselves,” notes an article from private-equity talent platform Falcon. A 2019 analysis by BoardEx of privately held US and UK businesses owned by PE and venture-capital firms showed that in the 12,221 companies studied, only 7 percent had female CEOs.


Preferred Background: Education and Experience

The aspect of a prospective portco CEO’s background considered most important for success is having had total P&L responsibility, the majority having held that responsibility as a general manager or CEO, states the Russell Reynolds Associates report, which also cites sales leadership and operational experience as key to “high growth and returns.” Relevant industry experience is also prized as a success factor, asserts the report, which goes on to state that prior portfolio company CEO experience “is actually not necessary.” Other studies claim the opposite, with a Harvard Business Review article noting that experience as a CEO in a publicly traded firm fails to prepare people for success in the intense PE environment. The literature on private-equity-backed CEOs is silent on education requirements, but job postings suggest master’s-degree-level training.


Desirable Characteristics: The Need for Speed

The trait most frequently cited for success of portco CEOs is speed of execution. Words and phrases such as “sense of urgency,” “warp-speed,” “agility,” and “quickness” are often mentioned with regard to this role. While hard skills take a back seat for portco CEOs, an array of additional soft skills and personal traits are keys to success in private-equity-backed leadership of portfolio companies:

Another frequently mentioned condition for success for the portco CEO is alignment with private-equity sponsors.


Predominant Leadership Styles in Private Equity

Rick DeRose of search firm Acertitude notes that “PE leaders must embrace a range of leadership styles,” which is another way of saying the primary leadership style for portco CEOs should be a situational approach. DeRose discusses a transformational style deployed by leaders who “thrive amid rapid change” and possess “the ability to persevere, even when overwhelmed and overloaded,” as opposed to a “maintenance” style characterized by feeling “most comfortable with the status quo.” DeRose suggests that “extreme transformers” are the key to a portfolio company’s exponential growth. The Russell Reynolds Associates report points out that CEOs who are too independent and lacking “regard for rules and processes” often don’t succeed.

The importance of leadership in helming a PE firm’s portfolio companies is timely in the age of COVID-19. “In private equity,” writes Marcus Beale, managing director at Drax, “leadership is a vital aspect of value creation. Leaders and their leadership teams, along with the culture and the environments they create, have the potential to deliver exceptional returns. Whether wartime or peacetime in leadership style, the Covid crisis’ effect on portfolio businesses has only amplified this fact.”



These reports shed additional light on success factors for those interested in the private-equity-backed company-leader role:

·       What makes a great PE portfolio company CEO?

·       Alix Partners’s 2020 Fifth Annual Private Equity Leadership Survey  

·       The Missing Ingredients: Three Things PE Investors Should Look for in a CEO

·       What It Takes to Lead: Challenges for the New Private Equity CEO


What It Takes to Be a Leader in a Private Equity Firm

Those who aspire to lead at the director level and above in the private-equity (PE) industry have no lack of opportunity. Private equity has been on a growth trajectory since the 1980s when very few PE firms existed compared to today’s $4 trillion global sector, according to a 2020 study by Prabhpal Grewal, Charles Hendren, Johan Öberg, Jonathan Croog, Markus Massi, and Maxim Khristenko of Boston Consulting Group (BCG). The authors speculate that “the industry’s success to date is a drop in the bucket compared with what the next ten years could hold.” Despite the growth, experts describe PE leadership roles as among the most competitive in finance and best suited to high achievers.

Top leadership roles in PE include Vice President, Director or Principal, and Managing Director or Partner. An emerging role is that of Leadership Capital Partner (LCP), estimated to be found in 80 percent of large private-equity firms, writes Dan Hawkins, founder and president of Summit Leadership Partners, who explains that the LCP oversees talent and organization performance of the firm’s portfolio companies. “Key attributes of the most impactful private-equity talent executives,” Hawkins notes, “include strong business acumen, a hands-on approach, functional expertise in talent, the ability to partner with company CEOs, and enough confidence and ego to work with investment partners as a peer.”

A consistent thread running through contemporary reporting and commentary on the PE sector is the need to increase diversity in PE firms, given consistent research that shows diverse teams outperform homogeneous teams. Experts note that diversity needs to include not just more ethnic and gender inclusiveness, but also greater varieties of leadership styles. A 2016 study by Financier Worldwide Magazine refers to “cookie cutter leadership teams.” Study authors Richard Thackray and Tom Thackeray, suggest “the bias (conscious or unconscious) that nudges leaders to hire and promote people ‘just like us’ remains strong.” The authors point to the risk that lack of diverse perspectives may result in sub-optimal investment decisions.

As PE firms increasingly recognize that diverse leadership means better performance, opportunity will open up for women leaders in the sector, who are currently in short supply. Just 5.2 percent of private-equity firm board seats are held by women, reports a survey by data provider Preqin. The study also shows women comprise less than 18 percent of private-equity employees globally and just under 10 percent of senior roles. A comprehensive 2019 study, “Moving Toward Gender Balance in Private Equity,” by the International Finance Corporation, reveals only 15 percent of senior investment teams are gender balanced, and nearly 70 percent are all male, despite the fact that “the performance of gender-balanced investment teams is correlated with higher returns.” Blogger Brian DeChesare compares PE firms to “frat houses.”

Preferred Background: Education and Experience

An MBA is valuable (in fact, getting hired right after an undergrad degree is rare), but two to five years of investment-banking experience before or concurrent with the MBA program is critical. While high academic achievement and prestige of the business school (think Harvard, Wharton, Insead, and Stanford) are low priorities to hiring managers in many fields, they are important in private equity.

Experience in investment banking is, by far, the top route to PE leadership, but strategy consulting and accounting can sometimes provide a foothold into the sector, according to the site Askivy, a recruitment and training platform. DeChesare, however, downplays the likelihood of breaking in from a non-investment-banking role, emphasizing that a background that includes transactions is key. He also emphasizes the importance of cultural fit with the PE firm.

Desirable Characteristics

An array of hard skills, soft skills, and personal traits are keys to success in private-equity leadership. DeChesare notes that the higher up the leadership chain an individual progresses, the more important soft skills are, especially skills associated with nurturing relationships.

In addition to the above, readers who seek an insider, “tell it like it is” view of the traits needed in the sector should check out DeChesare’s The Private Equity Career Path: The Complete Guide

Predominant Leadership Styles in Private Equity

As noted above, the PE sector comprises little diversity in leadership styles. The Financier Worldwide Magazine study of 51 managing partners, partners, and principals of European private equity firms revealed the majority of leaders gravitate to just two leadership styles, among the eight styles the study identified – collaborator, energizer, pilot, provider, harmonizer, forecaster, producer, and composer. Two-thirds fell into “forecaster” or “pilot” as their predominant leadership style. Study authors Tom Thackeray and Richard Thackray describe the forecaster style as “anticipatory,” focused on conceptual thinking, and possessing a depth and breadth of knowledge. Those with the pilot style offer strategic vision, the ability to manage complexity and build teams, along with a clear point of view.

Noting that both these styles come with blind spots, the authors also lament that “the least prevalent style is that of the ‘energizer’, a style characterized by the ability to build enthusiasm and inspire buy-in and engagement in others.”


Several excellent guides to careers and leadership paths in PE are available:

·       A Guide to Private Equity Careers

·       The Private Equity Career Path: The Complete Guide

·       How to Get Into Private Equity: Step-by-Step Guide

·       Career Guide to Private Equity Jobs

·       2020 Global Private Equity Survey (focuses on CFO role)