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HBSHAA Career Insights for 2020: Planning Ahead


Pharmaceutical Executive

A discussion of why healthcare is still an attractive career industry choice and the top career recommendations for the next decade.

With 2020 right around the corner, have healthcare firms bounced back to reclaim their employer of choice eminence from 30 years ago? Consider Merck in 1990. During that period, Merck earned Fortune's “Most Admired Company” honor for seven consecutive years and secured an application to acceptance ratio for its sales rep positions of 70:1, compared to Harvard Business School’s (HBS) 13:1 for its class in 1990. With an apparent bounce back for some firms, this Q&A series (with Michael Wong, Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association (HBSHAA) Co-President, as interviewer) provides executive insights for readers to shape their own career paths in 2020 and beyond. 

Q. Why is healthcare still an attractive career industry choice? 

A. I fundamentally believe that many people choose a career in healthcare today for the same reason they did in the past-they seek a meaningful career with purpose and the potential to help others. This is a common thread among pharma leaders. From a business perspective I think healthcare is more poised for massive innovation today than in the past 25 years. Fundamental, long unchanged aspects of the business such as commercialization, clinical development, research, and service delivery are starting to be challenged by evolving technology, novel business models, and more savvy customers (patients). Leaders are, more than ever, seeking to invest in AI and other technical levers like the cloud and advanced analytics to help accelerate the rate of scientific innovation, operational efficiency, and patient engagement. Accompanying this transformation has been a meaningful uptake in demand for healthcare leaders who can drive business outcomes in the ever-complex ecosystem. As a result, our healthcare sector at Russell Reynolds has grown at approximately 20% per annum for the past six years. So, in healthcare, the demand for talent has been high and the competition to get the best people has been fierce. It is definitely an industry that is attracting the best and the brightest.  


Q. With Fortune's top three most admired firms (2019's report identified Apple, Amazon, and Berkshire Hathaway) placing big bets in healthcare and emerging technologies (Machine Learning and Robotic Process Automation to name a few) gaining traction in the sector's C-Suites, what are the top three career recommendations that you have for readers as they prepare for the upcoming new decade? 

A. While Russell Reynolds focuses primarily on C-Suite searches, my recommendations hopefully provide ideas for not only current C-Suite officers but also aspiring ones. First, no matter which segment (biotech, pharmaceuticals, HCIT, and med devices to name a few) you are considering, invest the time to learn about your target employer’s mission, vision, and culture. While there has been a lot of press around how employees switch firms more than in the past, why not choose an employer which has core values that align with your own and perhaps provide a potential longer runway for your next role?

Second, if you are a seasoned veteran within a larger company and are interested in pursuing a start-up, be prepared for adopting a new mindset for not only during your first 100 days but also during your job search. Candidates who can demonstrate that they are quick, nimble, and responsive during the interview process are more successful in overcoming the concern of a biotech investor about their ability to transition to a small company environment. What that means is that if a potential introductory meeting can take place within the next 10 days, avoid coming back with a response that factors in your busy schedule. Just as a start-up C-Suite officer, whose firm has nominal brand reputation, will jump to meet with a prospective client, you too need to figure out how to make this meeting within the time window that has been provided.

Finally, as start-ups do value C-Suite leaders who have an entrepreneurial DNA, be proactive to secure a variety of experiences that demonstrate your ability to quickly adopt to new business situations. This doesn’t mean you need to switch companies every three years, but it does mean you need to seek out opportunities within your company that demonstrate your intrapreneurial spirit (starting a new business unit, taking on a country management role in an unfamiliar culture, spearheading a novel strategy, etc.). I have placed many pharmaceutical executives into start-ups and the ones that have taken “more risk” within their pharma careers have transitioned much more smoothly.



Gabrielle Lajoie co-leads Russell Reynolds Associates' Global Healthcare Sector. She is a member of the Healthcare Businesswomen's Association and the Harvard Business School Health Industry Alumni Association

Michael Wong is Co-President of HBSHAA.



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