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.

Resources

These resources offer additional insight on leadership in life sciences:

Beverly Harvey, an executive career coach and job search strategist for senior-level and C-level executives, is passionate about identifying her clients’ unique talents, crystallizing their brand, articulating their value proposition, and creating dynamic marketing materials and job search strategies to achieve a successful landing. She is the author of the book "Landing An Executive Position" and has contributed to 23 career books. >>>Certifications include: *** Credentialed Career Manager *** Certified Career Management Coach *** Certified Job & Career Transition Coach *** Reach Certified Personal Branding Strategist *** Reach Certified Social Branding Analyst *** Certified 360Reach Analyst *** Certified Executive & Leadership Development Coach *** Certified Job Search Strategist *** Certified Social Media Career Strategist *** Certified On-line Identity Manager *** Master Resume Writer *** Certified Professional Resume Writer

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