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The Changing Face of Pharma and Biotech Interim Management


Geoff Newman looks at how pharma and biotech interim management has evolved in the last 20 years.

Geoff Newman looks at how pharma and biotech interim management has changed in the last 20 years.

Geoff Newman

The late 1990s saw the emergence of interim management onto the life sciences stage - then a novel approach to help solve a wide-ranging set of scenarios where not having the right people, when and where you needed them, was no longer an acceptable excuse for failure. Almost 20 years on, what we see today is a genuine success story - a concept that has grown into a widespread and well-accepted way of doing business. The explanation is simple: the product delivers at a cost and an ease of acquisition that is acceptable to the marketplace.

The life sciences sector has continued to change at an exhilarating pace. Not surprisingly, interim management has similarly had to evolve. The biotech community-with its greater focus on milestones, investor pressures and shorter decision-making processes-was the early adopter of the interim solution. It wasn’t too long, however, before pharma caught up. Competitor pressure was the driving force, with speed of drug development and timely regulatory submissions increasing in importance if companies were to retain or achieve marketplace advantage. Time was money. On the commercial side, you had only one chance to deliver a successful product launch and any subsequent interruptions to product supply due to problems in manufacturing or quality were definitely things to avoid.

In the early days, interim management was essentially positioned as a solution for unexpected situations. The sudden departure of a key member of staff, slower-than-anticipated recruitment of a permanent employee, maternity leave, a surprise problem or opportunity that needed addressing urgently. Today, those situations remain as valid as ever, but what we also see is the use of interim management as a genuine strategic option. As business plans are developed, smart management asks itself how best to resource the competencies that will be necessary to deliver. Planning ahead with the intention to appoint top-quality interims when you actually need them is now commonplace - the further ahead such planning is done, the more likely companies are to be able to secure the services of the very best.

The question of whether there have been changes in the functions or roles that Interims are asked to perform is an interesting one. Situations across a wide range of functions have always emerged where an interim solution is perhaps the optimum way to proceed, be they in finance, clinical development, regulatory affairs, marketing, medical affairs, human resources, manufacturing, etc. What has changed however is the seniority of the role (i.e. the nature of the need). In the early 2000s the need was always for an Interim FD/CFO, today the needs extend to FCs. What was always an Interim Director of Marketing, now extends to Product Managers, what was an Interim Chief Medical Officer now extends to Heads of Clinical Affairs.

What about interim managers themselves? Quite simply, there are significantly more of them, and they get better and younger every year. 20 years ago, very few individuals called themselves an interim manager. What you had were experienced executives, most of whom had retired from big pharma and who weren’t happy doing nothing. Most of them didn’t see themselves as interim managers aiming to have portfolio careers. Over the years, as the use of interim management grew, so did its appeal as a career to quality professionals, who saw an opportunity to put to good use the skills and experience they already possessed. Being an interim manager in a life sciences company allowed them to make a visible contribution to its growth and development. Variety kept them fresh for the next challenge and an overall feeling of being more in charge of their own lives felt good. A decision to become an interim manager is now without doubt a genuine career choice.

Has there been much change in the duration of interim assignments is a frequently asked question, to which my answer is “no”. How long an interim assignment lasts is largely down to the nature of the specific deliverables that the Interim Manager is there to deliver. Our experience is that assignments typically range from 3 to 18 months (this often incudes one or more extensions), with an average of 8.6 months. 50% of our assignments demand 5 days/week, the other 50% range in intensity from 1 to 4 days per week.  Little change there, just a situation that reflects what effort and time is needed to efficiently do what has to be done.   

There are two features of interim assignments where there has been significant change:

  • There is now a much greater willingness amongst clients to accept that a proportion of the work to be performed by an interim manager can be done from a home base. Of course it depends to some degree on the nature of the work to be done and the extent of line management included in the role, but the default thinking now seems to be that one should be on site only when it is necessary to be so. Unnecessary travelling is wasted time, with an impact on costs and the environment.

  • The past 4–5 years, 20% of the assignments handled by Interea have seen the interim manager being offered and accepting a position of permanent employment with the client. In stark contrast to their predecessors of 10 years ago, many clients now ask whether interims might be interested in subsequently converting to permanent. Permanent recruitment has always had an element of risk associated, so we shouldn’t be too surprised at the growing attraction of the interim-to-permanent route.

The use of interim management has grown into a well-proven and highly successful approach to a wide range of scenarios that life science companies of all sizes will occasionally find themselves facing. Ongoing change within the sector is inevitable, but one can be sure that there are highly qualified interim managers out there who will have helped other companies face similar situations. When called upon, specialist interim management providers are able to respond quickly to provide a shortlist of such experienced candidates.

Geoff Newman (gn@interea.co.uk) is the founder and managing director of Interea International, a leading provider of middle- to senior-level interim management to the UK and international life sciences sector.


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