As more global life sciences firms see their Asian businesses skyrocket, the search for strong, internationally savvy talent in Asia-Pacific has never been more competitive.

The need to build manufacturing and commercial infrastructure in Asia-Pacific 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. Health-care spending in traditional markets has all but flat-lined, and Asia’s emerging middle class will double its spending on health care by 2020. As the market’s eastward shift appears more permanent, the incentive for medical device, pharma, biotech, nutrition, generic and consumer health-care companies to establish and grow their businesses in Asia-Pacific has never been more urgent.

This sense of urgency translates into a highly competitive environment to recruit suitably qualified individuals. The ability of companies to attract, develop and retain highly knowledgeable and skilled business leaders in Asia is critical to many companies’ ability to gain, build and maintain a strong foothold in this rapidly growing region.

Although global corporations with Western HQ 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. The regulatory and commercial environments in Asia-Pacific today demand a shift toward more home-grown 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 be the difference between the success and failure of a new product or therapy in Asia’s contemporary health market.

Building the requisite skills inside a country and a company

Like many growing markets, the skills gap is a major hurdle to overcome when identifying, attracting, retaining and developing the senior talent that will grow a life sciences business. Traditional MBA programs 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 critical.

“We provide international training opportunities to all our key international hires,” explained Thomas Meininghaus, VP 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 programs 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.” For instance, clients often remark that change management programs 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 cultures.

This is by no means a barrier to local Asian executives’ ability to effectively lead a change program. Rather, it is a cultural reality that companies must take into account when putting home-grown talent in charge of a significant restructure or corporate change initiative. At Siemens, Meininghaus said, local leaders receive extensive support and training from corporate HQ to learn corporate values and norms, which, over time, 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 instance, is considering investing in a global institute for training its high-potential staff. This approach gives 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 Asia-Pacific today.

Many life sciences firms have put narrowing and resolving the skills gap at the center of their Asia-Pacific 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 to offer scholarships or internships to high-potential students. These options are increasingly popular for global life sciences businesses with long-term Asia-Pacific growth plans. By putting their business at the very heart of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subject education in the region, these companies 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 progressing rapidly, there are still not as many senior executives with the same qualifications or experiences as we find in Europe. (Young Asians are a separate story, as Asia-Pacific countries rapidly outpace the US and Europe in the number of career-ready STEM graduates it produces per capita each year). However, the search for a senior leader with experience in a specific function of the global health industry can be challenging.

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, Siemens decided to examine other recruitment options, and this included the appointment of an interim. The gentleman 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 a warm body to keep the plates spinning.

“I was not looking for an interim at the start of this process,” Meininghaus said. “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 spec much more sophisticated than anything we’ve developed internally. He is auditing our existing function to ensure we remain best in class, 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.”

Partners: two pairs of eyes are better than one

Many global healthcare firms are not in the habit of recruiting external senior leaders – not in Asia-Pacific, and not anywhere. “We have leadership that tends to move up the ranks, and is fiercely loyal,” Meininghaus explained. “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 highly skilled scientists, among today’s senior businesspeople, Asia’s life sciences industry is still a tightly knit community where everybody talks. Executive search firms make it their business to know who’s looking for a role, what 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, a country-specific job description, and a strong employer brand all help a search firm secure the best candidate for its client.

Communication is the key to successful international recruitment

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 said.

But to attract candidates with strong communication skills, the company must demonstrate its own communication savvy. Strong candidates want to understand their exact role requirements and benefits packages and a 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 toward finding the right man or woman for the job.

For life sciences companies planning to make senior-level hires in the Asia-Pacific region this year, it is clear that engaging early and 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 they do in your home market. Happy hunting!

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