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Executive Search in the New Normal


The RSA Group, established in 1981, is a leading executive search firm in global life sciences. It offers a Proof-of-Candidate approach, based on evidence and in-depth comparative analysis, to support clients to make better hiring decisions. Nick Stephens has been a Director of the business since 1986. He joined full-time in 1995 and took over in 2000. Now The RSA Group’s Executive Chairman, he also serves as Chairman of Neuro-Bio, an Oxford (UK)-based Alzheimer’s focused biotech and as an independent director of Utah-based Soft Cell Biological Research. He also holds a number of non-executive director roles.

Here, Nick talks to Pharm Exec about how the highs and lows of the executive search business in the last 12 months.

Pharm Exec: What have been the key issues you’ve seen in executive recruitment in the biopharma space in the last few years?

Nick Stephens: There are three main themes:

Nick Stephens

Nick Stephens

1. COVID-19. The biotech industry has, like the rest of the world, been responding to COVID for the past year. Initially, this involved crisis management and, for a lucky few, the management of massively increased orders, revenue and workload. This highlighted the senior executives who had (or lacked) the agility and execution ability required to navigate such turbulent times. This led to a surge in new and replacement hires in the C-suite and at the Board. Executives and directors with those skills were in high demand.

COVID also brought home working for most people. That relative privacy combined with a natural desire for something non-routine meant that people were easier to contact and engage than they have ever been. However, separating out the curious from the truly-interested became a much more important task for executive search firms than it had been before.

2. Geography. Location has become almost irrelevant – except for the purposes of tax/IP planning and for resilient supply chains. This will continue to be true.

3. Money, Money Money. The avalanche of money circulating through the space and the huge number of new companies being formed has driven demand and compensation to never-before seen levels. Great people are more in demand than ever before and the costs of making a mistake in hiring are bigger than ever before — diligence and expertise are more essential than ever.

What diversity & inclusion (D&I) advances have you seen in the last few years?

D&I has finally taken its rightful place at the forefront of peoples’ minds, of investors thinking, and it demonstrably drives better company performance. At RSA we’ve been campaigning for diversity on Boards and in leadership teams for over a decade and internally we live that in our culture. The key problem in the life sciences is one of supply — there are more open roles than there are candidates. We are not there yet; this is a journey we must accelerate, and urgent action is needed to promote, support, mentor and actively recruit “trainee” independent directors is a priority.

Just getting back to COVID, can you say more about how this affected your activities and the executive search landscape?

COVID forced a change of focus for the industries we serve. Healthcare delivery switched almost entirely to COVID; access to hospitals and healthcare professionals was impossible unless it had to do with the COVID response. This meant that commercial and clinical trials activities were curtailed worldwide, and this was especially damaging to biotech companies with “cash runways” and even more so for those running clinical trials with hard endpoints (like death) in, for example, oncology.

The search landscape changed accordingly. Big pharma decision making was paralyzed, and many companies were overwhelmed with their own COVID response. This caused a hiatus in hiring but that was short-lived as companies transitioned to remote working and understood that hiring could continue without face-to-face meetings.

We saw huge turbulence and opportunity in senior level diagnostics roles, supply chain roles, CFO’s and, of course, in COVID related companies. Digital health saw 10 years’ growth in 10 weeks and expanded accordingly.

As the pandemic became the new normal, investors the capital markets better understood the importance of and opportunity in the life sciences space. A tsunami of money poured into the space and we saw huge demand for Board and senior executives, especially from our Asian and European clients seeking to build-out teams or raise money in the US. The US markets powered-on and were even more buoyant than pre-COVID.

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