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Beyond “Tech Talent”: New Leadership in Pharma’s Digital Age


Pharmaceutical Executive

With an increase in digital technology being utilized as a strategic differentiator and business enabler in pharma, where is talent coming from?

In pharma, digital is increasingly seen as a strategic differentiator and business enabler. But who, exactly, is pulling the digital strings within pharma companies, and where is talent coming from?

In 2019 we met with digital and technology leaders at 10 of the largest global pharma companies to understand the talent, leadership, and regional strategies behind the efforts to advance their organizations’ digital capabilities.

From “technologist” to “game changer”

Starting with the “who," it is clear that digital leaders have disruption in their DNA. In pharma, these leaders have become more than technology specialists, and this is clear based on the emergence of three leadership archetypes that span the range from a digital focus on one side and a technology and engineering focus on the other:

  • Chief Digital Officers in pharma companies are driving demand and leading in the areas of customer acquisition, conversion, experience, and retention.

  • Chief Information/Technology Officers have at the top of their agendas cloudification and automation as well as integration as it relates to front- and back-end technology and legacy and new platforms.

  • Chief Digital and Technology Officers represent a hybrid of the domains described above, bringing to bear their “commercial DNA” and building bridges between the pharma organization’s technology and commercial functions.

Despite the diversity of mandates, leaders within each of these archetypes must also possess key “game-changing” qualities:

Visionary: Where previously a top-notch technologist or IT professional would have fit the bill, today’s pharma digital leader must also be a visionary with an informed and bold perspective on the future.

Commercially astute: The next generation of digital leaders in Pharma must be able to translate digital innovation into revenue and shareholder value.

Change agent: Pharma's new digital leader must be capable of leveraging the excitement of change and transforming culture and mindset, all the while managing unpredictability and successfully ushering the organization on its path forward.

This skillset is a departure from the profile of the typical pharma CIO or IT leader of the past. Today’s leaders are driving sweeping cultural and structural changes, and the Pharma organizations most open to these transformations are the ones finding the most success.

Digital transformation “takes a village”

Pharma’s digital leaders of tomorrow have a wide remit, but it is also the case that-despite their mix of domain knowledge, business acumen, and change-management prowess-they cannot singlehandedly usher in a pharma organization’s digital transformation. As pharma companies move aggressively on their overall digital strategy, their data, technology, and digital functional capabilities are becoming increasingly intertwined.

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While the Chief Digital Officer, Chief Digital and Information Officer, or whoever sits at the digital C-suite desk defines and leads the digital strategy, enterprise-wide transformation requires the commitment of many other leaders. In particular, the heads of the technology, data, and digital functions must also be visionary. The ability of these leaders to also successfully interface with their counterparts is key to driving a coordinated change effort in the organization. Based on our conversations, elevating these positions to the ExCo level is how successful pharma companies are facilitating that process.

Digital’s “hiring hotspots”

So where is this talent coming from? The answers speak to both geography and industry. While the emergence of disruptive technologies is prevalent globally, there are clear, region-specific pockets of expertise emerging. The U.S. appears to be a geographical hotspot when it comes to digital leadership talent development. This is due, at least in part, to a regulatory environment that allows broad use of customer data.

Global companies are re-orienting their location strategies toward building digital hubs in regions where top talent already resides, and this means a shift toward the U.S. We spoke with an executive at a leading big pharma company who said that their company is shifting its regional balance in technology and digital leadership. Until recently, 70% of the technology and digital workforce was located in Europe. The new strategy will transition 60% of the digital workforce to the U.S.

The question of “where” also pertains to the world of industrial sectors. Specifically, pharma is looking outside the sector to hire talent skilled in building, implementing and leveraging disruptive technologies. Only 25% of CDOs have an exclusively life sciences background. In this respect, pharma is in line with the strategic hiring practices of other sectors. For example, the transportation, retail, and hospitality sectors have each, over time, looked beyond their industries for talent as their commitment to digital innovation has grown.

Pharma companies have clearly begun their digital journeys. They need digital and technology leaders with the organizational, technological, and commercial acumen to light the way. Companies leading the digital charge are building organizational structures that nurture digital innovation and cultivating cultures that attract dynamic digital leaders.


Wolfgang Bauriedel is a consultant in leadership advisory and executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates’ Technology Practice; Maneesh Dube is a consultant in Russell Reynolds Associates’ Technology Practice.

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