• Sustainability
  • DE&I
  • Pandemic
  • Finance
  • Legal
  • Technology
  • Regulatory
  • Global
  • Pricing
  • Strategy
  • R&D/Clinical Trials
  • Opinion
  • Executive Roundtable
  • Sales & Marketing
  • Executive Profiles
  • Leadership
  • Market Access
  • Patient Engagement
  • Supply Chain
  • Industry Trends

Succession Attack Plan: Get Strategic with Your Critical Roles

Pharmaceutical ExecutivePharmaceutical Executive: June 2024
Volume 44
Issue 6

Outlining four considerations for biopharma companies in ensuring that their approach to replacing and filling key leadership positions is more truly aligned with future goals in business delivery and risk management.

Lynn Collins, PhD, Chief Scientist and Co-Head, Assessment, North America, BTS

Lynn Collins, PhD, Chief Scientist and Co-Head, Assessment, North America, BTS

Lance Wilke, Senior VP and Partner and Head of Talent, Learning, and Leadership, Americas, BTS

Lance Wilke, Senior VP and Partner and Head of Talent, Learning, and Leadership, Americas, BTS

In the rapidly evolving biopharmaceutical industry, the stakes for sustaining leadership continuity cannot be overstated. The inherent challenges of navigating big-bet product launches and high-stakes strategies, along with navigating regulatory requirements and insurance reimbursements, underscore the complexity. This environment not only amplifies the need for strategic foresight in filling critical roles, but also highlights the pivotal importance of succession planning. As biopharma leaders grapple with balancing groundbreaking patient-focused solutions against a backdrop of financial and regulatory hurdles, it becomes clear that succession and making pointed talent investments are critical.

The complex nature of the industry necessitates a high number of critical roles that are difficult to replace and fill, as they require unique, cross-disciplinary capabilities and exert disproportionate leverage in the achievement of strategic initiatives. Attracting, developing, and retaining a workforce with robust and industry-leading technical, scientific, and regulatory capabilities, combined with leadership and business acumen, makes it challenging to build a pool of future leaders capable of driving the business forward.

Add to the mix the increasing need for cross-functional collaboration and innovation, which demands leaders who can partner across company and industry lines to get to the next big discovery or organizational breakthrough. This interconnected approach is essential for advancing patient care and driving the industry forward. Given the complexities, it is understandable that many companies face difficulties replacing departing leaders, often seeking external candidates and, regrettably, seeing potential future leaders leave prematurely—all challenges that stem from a lack of clear succession planning.

To break this cycle, biopharma organizations must be more intentional with those critical roles. Here are four elements to ensure your approach is more strategic and aligned with what you need to deliver and manage the risk for the business.


One of the biggest mistakes companies make when it comes to selection, succession planning, and future-readiness is focusing exclusively on what the organization needs now to be successful. However, your organization is not going to be the same two, three, or five years from now. What it will take to lead, innovate, and deliver better patient outcomes and sustainable growth will be dramatically different.

So, when it comes to succession planning and developing talent for critical roles, it is important to ask:

  • What does the business need to drive its strategy forward?
  • What are the capabilities future talent must possess?
  • What types of expertise will be needed in the next few years?
  • Which positions are pivotal to achieving strategic objectives?
  • Which positions, if vacant, would significantly disrupt your operational continuity and business success?

Include stakeholders in the process of answering these questions to share their expertise on departmental strategies, organizational culture, and the specifics of essential roles, such as lessons learned, knowledge gained, current and future demands, and decision-making principles. This will help you take a forward-looking, context-specific approach.

Waiting too long to begin succession planning can put your organization in a position in which it is forced to do replacement hiring under pressure rather than thoughtfully selecting, developing, and growing leaders who will be successful in the role years from now.


Before buying talent for your critical roles, consider the talent you have. Investing in internal talent cultivation at a company is likely to yield more successful outcomes than acquiring talent externally, as it leverages existing organizational knowledge and cultural alignment.

The question then becomes, where does the potential for growth lie? All too often, talent leaders in biopharma organizations look to quick or low-cost methods, such as talent reviews, manager recommendations, 9-box evaluations, or off-the-shelf assessments, as the magic bullet for selecting future talent for critical roles.

Unfortunately, relying on these methodologies can introduce bias into the hiring process and cause you to miss the opportunity to evaluate the highly nuanced and sophisticated set of skills, qualities, and capabilities required to succeed in these challenging roles. Instead, prioritize the use of multiple methods to evaluate who people are, what they can do, and how they perform at work. This yields deeper, whole-person insights through multiple data points, including observable examples of behavior.

Incorporating simulations into the assessment process significantly enhances evaluations by offering realistic and practical scenarios that closely mimic the challenges and situations candidates could face in their roles. Unlike traditional methods, simulations focus on actual performance and problem-solving skills in context. This reduces the influence of subjective assessments and provides a more objective basis for decision-making.

Ultimately, deploying multiple evaluation tactics allows you to match behavioral, observational, and simulation assessments with insights from personality assessments and other tools, which provides a full, data-driven picture of the leader. This holistic understanding not only aids in pinpointing the most suitable candidates for succession, but also lays the groundwork for designing tailored development plans to ensure future preparedness and success.


Each leader in a critical role brings distinctive strengths and development needs to your organization. It is essential to ensure they thrive by addressing the unique skill requirements for the role and the individual. Consider these elements when shaping your critical role development plan:

  • Start with data. Objective data from nuanced assessments provides a more standardized, unbiased baseline for evaluating potential and performance in the target role and creating a blueprint for development.
  • Bring in stakeholders. Key stakeholders provide deep understandings of the organization’s strategy, culture, and specific roles, which are invaluable for identifying and cultivating the abilities and attributes required for success in critical roles.
  • Focus on future-oriented growth. To prepare individuals for critical roles, it is essential to provide opportunities for them to practice these roles, immerse themselves in future-oriented challenges, and develop the skills and perspectives they will need to navigate the organization’s future landscape. Reflecting on past roles can provide valuable lessons, but the primary focus should be on looking ahead and preparing for the challenges and opportunities on the horizon.


Unexpected departures are disruptive for any company, but in critical roles, they can derail your organization’s progress, market position, and ability to operate. A formal and proactive strategy can engage employees and ensure job satisfaction for your identified critical roles so you can get ahead of problems before they arise.

Regular check-ins, recognition programs, competitive compensation, and opportunities for growth and development all contribute to enhanced job satisfaction and, ultimately, retention.

Critical roles are often specialized. As such, someone in a critical role might be the only individual (or one of few) in that position in a region or division. It can be isolating and challenging for them to engage with peers. As part of your strategy, bring people in similar roles across the enterprise together to enable them to learn from, mentor, and support each other.

To bolster engagement and retention, it is imperative to recognize the manager’s pivotal role in fostering a supportive and motivating environment for employees, ensuring their needs and aspirations are addressed and valued. Internal mobility is also a top strategy to improve retention, which adds succession opportunities for those currently in critical roles and high-potential future candidates. By allowing those in critical roles and high-potential individuals to advance and take on new responsibilities, you can create a continuous flow of experienced and capable leaders ready to step into key positions as they become available.


The speed of change is accelerating, and the biopharma industry is evolving with unprecedented complexity and competitiveness as patents expire and new entrants and innovators enter the arena to discover and develop drugs with advanced methodologies. Some areas you can control are managing, developing, retaining, and inspiring your leaders to ensure you get to where you are going faster and with the right team on board for today and tomorrow.

Lynn Collins, PhD, Chief Scientist and Co-Head, Assessment, North America; and Lance Wilke, Senior VP and Partner and Head of Talent, Learning, and Leadership, Americas; both with BTS

Recent Videos
Related Content