ASCENSION DEFICIT- The Challenge of Finding Leaders for the Life Sciences


Subscribe to receive industry-focused thought leadership and insights, delivered right to your inbox Subscribe

Wherever you look, demand is high, supply is constrained. Nowhere is this more true than in the hyper-competitive arena of executive and board search. And in no other sector has competition reached a higher pitch than in Healthcare and the Life Sciences.

Howard Pezim and Darren Raycroft have weathered the same uncertain times we all have. As partners and managing directors of the Bedford Group TRANSEARCH, and co-leads of the executive search firm’s Healthcare and Life Sciences practice, their time has also been spent in the eye of a hiring storm. Finding tomorrow’s Life Science leaders has never been so challenging, nor the competition more fevered.

Except for a brief spell, in early 2020, Bedford’s Healthcare and Life Sciences practice hasn’t slowed. Quite the opposite. Just as the world was looking for leaders to guide it through the uncertainty of the moment, Life Sciences was having its own moment in the spotlight.

The 2021 Life Sciences Workforce Trends Report, a biennial publication by the Coalition of State Bioscience Institutes (CSBI), drew a line under the sector’s remarkable performance through this difficult time. “Despite the challenges of a global pandemic and the resulting economic shutdowns that led to recession, and facing a corresponding seismic shift to remote operations, the industry has continued to hire and grow its employment base. In 2020, the industry managed to grow its employment base by 1.4% while the overall private sector saw a 5.1% decline.”

That hiring bump is indicative of how well the industry has fared overall. High-profile IPOs, bullish VC interest, government incentives, accelerated digitization, codevelopment deals and partnerships drove unmatched growth in 2020 and 2021, with McKinsey reporting that biotech alone saw double-digit fundraising increases between 2019 and 2020.

For Pezim and Raycroft, this meant rising to the challenge of finding the right leaders to fuel the flourishing industry. The urgency of this demand, and the scarcity of candidates to meet it, has been unprecedented. So, with 2021 drawing to a close and no slowing of the field in sight, the two executive talent experts take stock, share insights, and cast their appraising eyes on the year to come.

What are the most significant talent trends for the biotech and medtech spaces heading into 2022?

“As it relates to biotech — in many ways — it is a story of continuation,” says Raycroft. “The Biotech market, and the corresponding need for executive and board talent, were robust prior to 2020. In the early days of the pandemic, there was a natural tendency — as with any crisis — to ‘stop all the trains.’ But this situation was short lived. Clients quickly moved forward with their pre-existing hiring plans, albeit with a virtual approach.”

“We certainly see no signs of this energetic market segment changing through the remainder of 2021, or into 2022,” he adds. “The robust funding situation and IPO activity in biotech will drive increased competition for top talent in the foreseeable future. Demand for proven CEO and CFO talent exceeds the supply in North America.”

“The predictable outcome has been, and will continue to be, increased compensation,” Raycroft notes. “But with the evolving remote or hybrid work situation, it will be interesting to see how other markets such as   Philadelphia, Research Triangle Park, Houston, and Denver change the equation. The lower cost of living in those centres could shift emphasis onto different reward structures.”

Pezim sees similar optimism in the medtech field. “There’s been renewed vigor and attention in the space over the last eight months,” he says. “Some of this is due, unquestionably, to the ways the pandemic has incentivized us to ‘consume’ healthcare services and to think proactively about health management. We’ve also seen more cross pollination between Pharma and medical devices, which is being driven by the rapid advancement of diagnostic products.”

“Our focus has been on the type of small and mid market companies where there’s a strong demand for leaders who have experience with  large, Tier One enterprises but who also have proven entrepreneurial instincts,” he adds. “This is on trend. We continue to see an outflow of senior medical-device executives looking to move beyond the large enterprise and apply their talent and skills to more nimble entrepreneurial ventures.”

“Of course, this is likely to prove challenging for larger organizations, as the number of early-stage companies proliferate and syphon off their most talented executives,” Pezim observes. “They’ll need to adapt to remain competitive.”

What is the most profound effect that the pandemic has had on Life Sciences talent?

“It’s not a direct result of the pandemic but this time has opened up a more robust discussion around ESG and, in particular for us, promoting diversity at the Board and Executive level,” Raycroft says. “I have challenged my clients to get creative with some of the solutions we’ve developed in the talent acquisition arena. Too often, ESG and diversity efforts are little more than lip service — the same old approach that’s failed to get us to where we need to be in the Life Sciences community.”

“As a firm, the Bedford Group TRANSEARCH dedicates time to probing how effective executive candidates are at connecting across disparate employee groups,” he adds. “Are these leaders doing the work to understand the shifting perspectives of the ascendant generations — and the respective minority groups — in their workforce?  Can they connect in that critical way that lends itself to the long-term sustainability of the organization? Can they speak to a workforce that increasingly cares less about dollars and cents than they do about what their job means in the greater scheme of things?”

READ ‘Can Biotech be a Diversity Leader?’

Are you seeing pandemic “burnout” in any specific functions?

“The executive leadership functions have certainly been in the “eye of the storm” from the beginning of this crisis,” Pezim admits. “The good news is that it gave many tremendous leaders the platform to step up and show the immense value they’re able to contribute to their businesses.”

“But it’s also been a heavy burden leading through this multi-phased journey,” he adds. “Only in the last three months have established leaders been more receptive to considering a departure from their current organizations for new opportunities. Having led through the brunt of the pandemic, they now seem to feel they can leave their current organizations on good terms, with a path forward. That might not have been the case in Q2 2021.”

READ ‘What Grit Looks Like in the Post-Pandemic Leader’

Does the “Great Resignation” apply to Life Sciences?

“We have certainly seen many of our clients deal with an above-average turnover during the last six months,” Pezim says. “In particular, it seems to be more pronounced in their commercial businesses — specifically sales.”

“On the surface, it’s understandable, given that these roles have been forcibly transformed by the limiting of direct interaction with healthcare professionals,” he adds. “But it could also be a result of their dissatisfaction with how the pandemic has been handled by the organization and/or a repudiation of the back-to-work requirements.”

“Personally, I think it is too early to call this a trend.”

There’s a lot of discussion about hybrid and remote work as the Future of Work? Does this apply to the Life Sciences space?

“I don’t think any industry is immune from this,” Raycroft says. “And I think anyone who thinks their organization is unique will be in for a very difficult couple of years. We’re coming from a period of high virtual interaction. Inevitably we’ll go through some transition period until we find an equilibrium for the new normal. Whatever that is, it’s not going back to the way it was. Every company will need to find the balance that works for the nature of the organization.”

“Coming from the perspective of our work at the executive level, I think there’s something to be said about having face time as a member of a senior leadership team,” Pezim notes. “But does that mean you must live in the city where your company is based? This used to be a non-negotiable point for many of our clients. Those lines aren’t as stark as they once were. When you have large, successful organizations commit to becoming virtual-first companies, it becomes almost a fait accompli. If you want to be attracting the best talent, hybrid-remote is part of the equation now — in more ways than one.”

READ ‘REMOTE WORK IS BAD FOR BUSINESS — OR IS IT? How to Transcend the Remote-Hybrid Workplace and Futureproof Your Organization’

Has the ideal profile for a CEO changed as a result of the pandemic?

“I think we’re at the beginning of a fundamental shift in leadership practice and philosophy — the most significant change that we’ve seen in the last 50 years — and it’s here to stay,” says Raycroft. 

“Part of that is digital-forward transformation, not just as lip service but as a fundamental restructuring of every organizational aspect, from operations to communications and beyond. Necessarily, digital leaders will have different ways of leading, some of which we’ve already discussed.”

“The most interesting acid test for leaders is going to be how they build and nurture culture for the workforce of the future,” he adds. “How do you do this within what will inextricably be a mixed virtual and physical workplace? If your safe space as a leader — your sense of control — was tied to being able to look into the eyes of your employees, you may no longer get that luxury. For the leaders of tomorrow, the pillars of trust and delegation are going to be sacrosanct.”

“2021 Global Life Sciences Sector Outlook” Deloitte, 2015,

“2021 Life Sciences Workforce Trends Report,” CSBI, 2021,

Laura Cancherini et al., “What’s Ahead for Biotech: Another Wave or Low Tide?,” McKinsey & Company, 2021,