The War over Government Affairs Life Sciences Talent

Here are seven tips on how to attract and secure government affairs talent successfully in the medical device industry.

Robert Hall

The value of business at stake from government and regulatory factors is huge. McKinsey estimates that around 30% of earnings for companies in most sectors is at stake, and in banking the figure is over 50%. Turning these figures into actual dollars, euros, or yuan might cause palpitations in the faint hearted, so I won’t dwell too much other than offer one example: One European life sciences company estimated that the ongoing value at stake from regulation was €1.5 billion, or about €30 million for every employee involved in government and regulatory affairs.

Since there is a lot of money on the table for companies, it's easy to understand why building and retaining a talented and highly effective government affairs (GA) team is crucial.

Across medical devices and diagnostics, the talent pool for experienced government affairs staff has been "overfished" for a while now. The best talent is fought over constantly and opportunities abound for experienced professionals.

Here are some of the steps that should be taken by companies that want to identify and attract the best in the war over government affairs talent.

Cast the Net Further and Consider the Best Talent from Other Sectors

When hiring government affairs managers, some country leaders have found success in hiring specialists from other industries outside of medical devices and diagnostics, such as food or telecoms. Succeeding in the government affairs role is driven much more by personality than any prior medical or biotech qualifications.

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A good example of a company that has been forward thinking in this respect is Siemens Healthineers. The company has hired its government affairs leaders from prior positions outside of the healthcare industry—the energy sector, for example—and from roles close to the world of politics.

Personality, communications, and political skills are ultimately more useful than any technical or industry knowledge, so broaden your mindset to identify the best available talent.

Make the Government Affairs Role a More Desirable Career Stepping Stone

There is a wide perception that government affairs is a silo profession—not an easy one to move into and equally hard to get out of once you are on the inside.

It is widely accepted that good government affairs talent are in high demand and hard to replace. The last thing a company wants is to lose someone in a key role and spend significant time and resources replacing them when it could be avoided.

Focusing too much on keeping government affairs talent in the same role is counterintuitive as you run the risk of losing them from the company altogether if they need to be challenged by a new role. Encourage internal mobility, as it is less painful than losing good talent externally and makes managing the transition for the new incumbent much easier if the previous role holder is within the firm and that knowledge is accessible.

Make clear that government affairs is a key, high-profile function within the organization and presents an opportunity to achieve important milestones. Show that it is also a very good stepping stone as part of a career path and that a two- or three-year rotation in this role will open a door to other opportunities.

Pipeline Talent Properly (Don't Just Rely on LinkedIn)

Recruitment is expensive, time consuming, and the real cost to the business can be much greater than the headline numbers. Most firms pipeline talent to some degree, some have a clear strategy across the company, others are more ad hoc in their approach.

Some companies place almost all the responsibility on the in-house talent acquisition/recruitment team. The positive with this is that it frees up the line manager, but you are removing the person who is closest to the action in terms of government affairs knowledge and access to intelligence on the competition.

The talent acquisition (TA) team will certainly use LinkedIn and other social media to identify experienced government affairs professionals, build a database, and may even do some networking. Although LinkedIn does work quite well for identifying commercial staff, such as sales and marketing, it is less successful for government affairs (and even less so for medical affairs and research and development).

Hall

In my view the best approach tends to be where the management work with TA, are fully engaged in the process, buy in to it, and are actively involved in unearthing the best talent. Management involved in government affairs can use their relationships (in a subtle way, naturally) with government/regulatory bodies to find out who has impressed them from other firms. This can be done in a casual manner and is really not that hard to do.

This approach garners much more valuable information and an off-the-record endorsement about a counterpart at a competitor from your contact at FDA says a lot more than a like on LinkedIn.

Hire Internally from Other Disciplines

This ties into a couple of points raised already. First, making the role more desirable and selling it as a stepping stone that will aid development, broaden skill-set, and lead to further opportunities. It is essential that government affairs not be seen as a silo profession.

Second, hire on personality. As stated previously, government affairs managers tend to thrive due to their personality, not due to their technical background. Look across commercial teams, medical affairs, supply chain, or product development for talent with the right personality and political skills with the potential to thrive.

Actively Promote and Raise the External Profile of Your Government Affairs Talent

While this is not a direct recruiting tactic, it is effective in selling your company brand as an employer of choice for government affairs talent. Encourage experienced talent to get involved in thought leadership activities such as round table discussions, presentations at seminars, talks at leading universities, interviews on podcasts and for relevant trade publications.

In effect, this is a marketing campaign and a branding exercise for the company’s government affairs department. While selling this approach internally to the GA management team might not be that easy as they will have enough on their plate already, if they see the benefit then you should get the buy-in.

Promoting the department talent as thought leaders is a long game but will help attract stronger talent. People naturally want to work with the best talent in their profession and promoting a key department's talent as well as the wider company brand should aid not only attraction but also retention.

Use the Right Search Firm

If you need to hire external talent and your own network isn’t ideal or the timeframe is tight, then use a good search firm that can cover the market fully and execute the process quickly.

When choosing a search firm make sure they have a track record of (and ideally specialize in) your sector, the country the role is based in, and have completed government affairs hires.

A key question you must always put to a search firm (and many don’t) is, “Which of my competitors do you hire for?” If they answer with a list of 5 out of 8 of your main competitors, then you need to follow up and ask if they are "hands off" with these companies. "Hands off" means a search firm is unable to approach staff from that company due to the terms of agreement and also basic business ethics.

If the search firm is "hands off" then you have to question how they are able to carry out the search that is right for you effectively with such restrictions in place across many of your competitors.

If the search firm is not "hands off" with these five competitors that they hire for, then you need to seriously question their business ethics. This means they are head-hunting from the same clients they are hiring for so they are literally biting the hand that feeds them and they will likely bite yours too.

Choose an ethical search firm that you can trust, knows your market, has good connections, a strong track record, and can demonstrate the right search strategy to meet your specific needs.

If You Want the Search Done Properly, Retained Is the Best Solution

If your search requires speed or is of a senior or critical nature, then opt for retained search as your appropriate solution.

If you are serious about evaluating the market properly, assessing all options fully, identifying and securing the best candidate fit for the role, organization, and culture so he or she will thrive, then retained search is the logical solution.

When you commit to a search firm through a retainer they will commit fully to you and solving your problem. You become their priority so they will allocate their time, resource, and expertise to running the process that will achieve your hiring goal and ease your pain.

Opting for a contingent recruitment solution is high risk if the hire is critical. Contingent by its very nature is a "no win, no fee" approach, so the recruiter doesn’t get paid unless you hire a candidate after they sent you the resume. It is an approach which involves throwing a lot of resumes and hoping something sticks. Now this can work from time to time, but it doesn’t instill confidence.

If you use five recruitment firms to spread your risk and hopefully cover the market, then each recruiter has a 20% chance of getting a fee. A recruiter in this situation needs to hedge their bets and work on at least 5 assignments at different companies to give themselves just an even chance of getting a fee from somewhere/anywhere. In this scenario, what sort of commitment can you expect?

Contingent is a good solution if the vacancy is team member level, but if the role is at the department head level, then it is not.

By choosing retained search you are engaging with an expert in your field who will devise and implement the right strategy for your needs.  Through committing to a search firm, you will find them much more flexible on fee structures and things like guarantees. You can put in place project deliverables for different stages and get a commitment on timeframe for each step. The level of insight you will receive will be far greater, enabling you to take decisions with more certainty and reduce your risk.

Robert Hall is the managing director of Ardent Search, an executive search firm specialized in hiring senior talent for medical devices, diagnostics, and biotechnology throughout Asia. Hall is based in Hong Kong and can be reached at rh@ardent-search.com

[Images courtesy of ARZTSAMUI/FREEDIGITALPHOTOS.NET and ROBERT HALL]

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