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European Pharmaceutical Contractor

East Meets West

The need to build manufacturing and commercial infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region – with the associated regulatory, quality and compliance processes to satisfy Western authorities – is reaching new heights for life sciences companies of all shapes and sizes. Healthcare spending in traditional markets has all but flatlined, whereas Asia’s emerging middle class will double its spending in this sector by 2020. As the market’s eastward shift appears more permanent, the incentive for medical device, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, nutrition, generic and consumer healthcare companies to establish and grow their businesses in APAC could not be greater.

This sense of urgency translates into an exceptionally competitive environment to recruit suitably qualified individuals. A company’s ability to attract, develop and retain highly knowledgeable and skilled business leaders in Asia is critical to gaining, building and maintaining a strong foothold in this rapidly growing region. Although global corporations with Western headquarters have long operated in the Asian market, many have done so under the leadership of Western executives, temporarily transplanted to key Asian markets as expatriates. Today, however, the regulatory and commercial environments in APAC demand a shift toward more homegrown leadership.

From finding the right partners, to managing complex regulatory regimes and routes to market, local employees have knowledge, networks, gravitas and cultural sensitivity that can make the difference between the success and failure of a new product or therapy in Asia’s contemporary health market.

Building Skills


Like many growing markets, the skills gap is a major hurdle to overcome when identifying, attracting, retaining and developing the senior staff that will expand a life sciences business. Traditional Master’s of Business Administration programmes teach local and foreign talent the basics of running a commercial operation – but in specialist life sciences and medical device companies, industry knowledge and experience is essential.

“We provide international training opportunities to all of our key international hires”, explains Thomas Meininghaus, Vice President of Quality Management and Business Processes at Siemens Audiology Solutions. “We always choose the best trainer for the subject matter, of course. But when it comes to nurturing local Asian talent, those development programmes that take the best of the European training model are very attractive. By sitting in a classroom alongside their peers from across the world, our senior leaders and high potentials are exposed to other cultures’ norms, opening them up to consider different ways of addressing and, subsequently, solving common management challenges.”

Clients often remark that change management programmes are a particularly tough learning curve for a new Asian executive to lead and execute. Many Asian cultures are based on modesty, politeness and taking a tempered approach. It therefore goes against cultural norms to lay off teams quickly, and to tell people what they are doing wrong in the matter-of-fact way we take for granted in many Western societies.

Cultural Norms

This is by no means a barrier to local Asian executives’ ability to effectively lead a change programme – rather, it is a cultural reality that companies must take into account when putting homegrown talent in charge of a significant restructure or corporate change initiative.

If local leaders receive extensive support and training from headquarters to learn corporate values and norms, over time these will influence the cultural values and norms they act on in the workplace. If culture is a defining factor in how business leaders manage, every effort to immerse leaders in your company’s distinct corporate culture is a fail-safe way to ensure teams and projects are managed consistently across borders.

Siemens, for example, is considering investing in a global institute for training its high-potential staff. This approach would give Asian leaders early, first-hand exposure to its distinctly Western company culture, while exposing Western executives to the huge potential and fast-paced nature of the life sciences industry in APAC today.

Long-Term Gains

Many life sciences firms have put narrowing and resolving the skills gap at the centre of their APAC human resources and external affairs programmes. Today in Asia, we see more Western firms working with universities, government education departments and national professional bodies to develop world-class professional qualification programmes, or offering scholarships or internships to high-potential students.

These options are increasingly popular for global life sciences businesses with long-term APAC growth plans. By putting their business at the very heart of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subject education in the region, these companies can enjoy the benefits of building well-known employer brands, while ensuring that future generations of scientists and engineers have the right knowledge, skill sets and competencies to work comfortably with colleagues from around the world.

From Permanent to Interim

Although the average education level of the Asian labour market is quickly progressing, there are still not as many senior executives with the same qualifications or experiences as we find in Europe. Young Asians are an exception to this rule, as APAC countries rapidly outpace the US and Europe in the number of career-ready STEM graduates they produce per capita each year. However, the search for a senior leader with experience in a specific function of the global health industry can be problematic.

Siemens recently overcame such an obstacle while working on a challenging search for a new Head of Regulatory Affairs and Quality System in Singapore. When no perfect full-time candidate with the right experience was forthcoming, the company decided to examine other recruitment options, including the appointment of an interim. The candidate in question, like a number of other Singaporeans of his generation, was a semi-retired professional looking to keep busy and reassert himself in society through gainful employment. With decades of experience navigating the local regulatory regime, the interim candidate ended up offering Siemens much more than just a stand-in figure to keep the department going.

“I was not looking for an interim at the start of this process,” Meininghaus says. “But when it became clear that a permanent hire was not forthcoming, we did what we always do – got creative.”

The senior quality system expert Siemens hired in an interim capacity is proving to be even more valuable than a permanent hire in many ways. “He is helping us to define a permanent job specification much more sophisticated than anything we have developed internally. He is auditing our existing function to ensure we remain best-inclass, and has kept us up-to-date with the government’s recent regulatory demands. He is introducing process innovation to ensure efficiency and, most importantly, he is using his professional network and local connections to recruit his eventual replacement. I never set off looking for an interim solution but, in this case, it was undoubtedly the right choice.”

Partner Insight


Many global healthcare firms are not in the habit of recruiting external senior leaders – whether in Asia-Pacific or elsewhere. “We have leadership that tends to move up the ranks and is fiercely loyal”, Meininghaus reveals. “Because of this we are great at so many things, but executive search is not one of them.”

Siemens is not alone in its acknowledgement that when looking to fill a senior position, it is often more effective to run that search in partnership with an executive search firm. “A search firm will always have more contacts in the field than even the best-networked talent manager”, said Meininghaus. “But, besides that, top talent expects to be courted.”

This is particularly true in Asia, where the field of senior life sciences talent has been small for quite a long time. Although the tide is turning and younger generations are producing more highlyskilled scientists, among today’s senior business people, Asia’s life sciences industry is still a tight-knit community where everybody talks. Executive search firms make it their business to know who’s looking for a role, which roles are available, and what it will take to make the cultural fit between company and business leader. In-house talent managers and recruiters have an important role to play in working effectively with their executive search partners. A clear brief, country-specific job description and strong employer brand all help a search firm to secure the best candidate for its client.

Communication is Key

When recruiting local talent, Siemens values strong communication skills above all. “If we hire a brilliant engineer with decades of experience, he won’t be worth his first pay cheque if he alienates his team or can’t work well with colleagues from other cultures or nationalities,” Meininghaus stresses.

But to attract candidates with strong communication skills, a company must demonstrate that it is communication-savvy itself. Strong candidates want to understand their exact role requirements and benefits packages, as well as company’s expectations, before moving too far along in the interview process. Being clear about what type of leader you are looking for will also go a long way towards finding the right person for the job.

For life sciences companies planning to make senior-level hires in the APAC region this year, it is clear that engaging early – as well as being clear about what you want and what you offer as an employer brand – are all critical. Strong local candidates are growing in number year-on-year – but, for now, the talent pool remains somewhat shallow. As it grows and your business expands, remember that the strategy of networking, investing in education and being flexible will serve you just as well in an Asian executive search as in your home market.


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Susan Macdonald is the Director of Channels and Global Partners for RSA, a global life sciences executive search and interim management specialist. In 2009, she moved to Shanghai to set up RSA Foster Partners, a joint venture between RSA and Foster Partners in China. After establishing this joint venture, Susan served as UK General Management Practice Leader at RSA Europe. In 2010, she returned to Asia as Managing Director of RSA Singapore, and over the following three years successfully completed global and regional executive searches, filling ‘C’ level and APAC regional roles.
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