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What Crucial Skill Sets are Global Biopharmas Asking Premier Executive Recruitment Firms to Search for in Top Talent?


A Q&A with Egon Zehnder’s Sergio Della Zassa about what biopharma executives and search firms are looking for in terms of table stakes skill sets and “unicorn” experiences from top talent in the field.

Sergio Della Zassa is an executive within Egon Zehnder’s global Health Practice

Sergio Della Zassa is an executive within Egon Zehnder’s global Health Practice.

Sergio Della Zassa is an executive within Egon Zehnder’s global Health Practice and is helping to expand its practice within the Greater Philadelphia area. His corporate experience includes roles as Adare Biome’s VP for Strategic Innovation and New Market Development, and Zoetis’ (formerly Pfizer Animal Health) director of Strategic Planning.

Earlier in his career, Della Zassa was a consultant at McKinsey’s offices in Milan and Boston, where he led projects across multiple industries, functions, and geographies. He earned a BS and MS in mechanical engineering from the Polytechnic University of Milan, then completed an MBA at the Harvard Business School.

Q. As Egon Zehnder is one of the five largest executive search entities, known colloquially as the SHREK firms,1 the company engages with several global biopharmas, which are constantly looking for top talent. Given your engagement with various biopharma executives, what are these firms looking for in terms of table stakes skill sets and “unicorn” experiences?

Della Zassa: At the C-Suite level, table stakes skills are three-fold; proficiency in leading teams, achieving results, and committing to constant learning. For the latter, it is the constant curiosity about what is coming next. As for unicorn traits, it is one’s ability to help lead coworkers towards those upcoming unchartered opportunities where there are no roadmaps and past analogues.

One example was Pfizer’s CEO and C-suite, who were willing to go it alone for the development of their COVID-19 vaccine versus joining Operation Warp Speed. Unicorn leaders have the ability to build a culture where their employees have a different mindset to embrace the future.

As Pfizer’s Michael Ku mentioned in one of your past interviews, “Throughout our digital transformation journey, which began in 2014, we developed an awareness that we were creating not only best practices, but next practices.”2 Taking calculated big bets can support growth as one saw through Pfizer’s almost doubling in revenue during that time period.3

Q. As Egon Zehnder tends to engage with senior executives, what are your recommendations for readers who are striving to secure the competencies which will position them as candidates for the searches you are managing?

Della Zassa: First, make sure to master your table stakes as well as unicorn skills. At Egon Zehnder, our 600-plus consultants have walked in the shoes of for-profit and/or social enterprise firms as we don’t hire our employees straight out of colleges and universities. As such, make sure you secure the on-the-ground, aforementioned experiences that will be pressure tested by us, before you are considered to be added to the short-list slate for our clients’ review.

Second, be ready to analyze the current state of your target employer’s technology landscape in terms of “crawl, walk, or run” and your potential role to help create value via applying emerging technologies, like generative AI to daily operations.

Frankly, it’s rare to see a C-suite leader who is a deep expert in all facets of areas like machine learning. Still, your readers should understand the technical aspects of emerging technologies like generative AI and uncover new areas to automate existing operations, or better yet, create new revenue streams.

As some of your readers may not automatically think about going to an executive search firm for AI ideas, expand your horizons and tap into our insights. For instance, I’ve shared one recent article with my clients which pointed to how marketers can create an entirely artificial focus group.

This intellectual capital pointed out how, “…by uploading thousands of TikTok comments into AI to create brand personas, they can then establish an AI panel and ask questions from it. It's significantly more cost-effective, as it doesn't require hiring and paying a panel; instead, employees drive the process, saving time and delivering better results."4

Finally, be willing to let go of pieces to self-transform. As one of my colleagues pointed out recently, an Egon Zehnder global CEO survey revealed that there is near-unanimous agreement among a thousand top leaders that they need the capacity to transform themselves in order to transform their respective organizations.5 Even if you’re not part of a C-suite today, reflect on these questions and start a game plan to begin tackling them in the second half of 2024.

  • How ready are you to let go of pieces of yourself to empower you to develop beyond your current beliefs and self-transform?
  • How can coaching help you develop and see beyond your own horizon?
  • How easy or hard is it for you to let go of your narrative? Of your current truth?
  • What do you feel is your relationship with “being in control?”
  • What are you ready to let go of?

About the Author

Michael Wong is an emeritus board member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.


1. SHREK: Spencer Stuart; Heidrick & Struggles; Russell Reynolds Associates; Egon Zehnder; Korn Ferry

2. https://www.pharmexec.com/view/how-pfizer-delivered-the-covid-19-vaccine-in-record-time

3. https://www.pharmaceutical-technology.com/news/pfizer-full-year-2021-revenues/

4. McDonald, Leticia, How Artificial Intelligence Is Changing Marketing, Egon Zehnder, May 2024

5. Rodighiero, Elena, Letting Go of Pieces to Self-Transform, Egon Zehnder, April 2024

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