Building Global Leadership Competence in Pharma in the Post Pandemic World

Sergey Gorbatov
Nov 12, 2021

The pharmaceutical industry is a highly sophisticated global industry, requiring specialist, and often scarce, skills. These factors made expatriation an important part of the industry’s approach to global expansion as well as talent development. Expatriation would get scarce, securing specialist skills “on the ground”, while building international leaders.

Then, 2020 happened. The world experienced the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and remote work and began to change the relationship between work and physical location. And it was quickly evident that this change would not be confined to the pandemic. As early as April 2020, the experience of remote work has significantly increased interest in “work from anywhere” as a permanent way of working, for employees and their organisations.

Out of necessity, we learnt that we could do international business remotely: international assignments were disrupted or cancelled, whether driven by employees, reluctant to take assignments in all the uncertainty, or due to borders being closed. Global assignments moved online.

The impact on the industry is paradoxical. On the one hand, in an industry where skills are scarce, accessing talent “from anywhere” offers the prospect of greater availability. Conversely, in a highly global industry, the potential loss of the developmental benefits of expatriation needs to be considered. With fewer expatriates, how will the industry develop the global skills needed for the future?

Nearly 18 months after the pandemic started, the situation remains in flux. But what is clear is that the approach to global mobility in the future will be impacted fundamentally by decisions being taken by the industry now about the return to the workplace.

Approaches To Return to Work

Like many industries, the pharmaceutical industry is grappling with a return to work, and a spectrum of approaches is emerging.

Across industries, the willingness of employees to return to the workplace is mixed. Depending on the data source, surveys indicate that a significant proportion wants to work remotely some or all of the time. Great Place To Work has reported just over 50% of employees as being “not eager to return”. Other research has shown similar results. Forbes reports only 9% of employees want to return to full-time in-office work. The reasons given vary, led by ongoing concerns over safety, along with concerns at losing flexibility and work-life balance, or returning to the dreaded commute.

And the situation is complicated by the broader, external environment, with the so-called “Great Resignation”. LinkedIn reports that 74% of members that spent the time at home during the pandemic are rethinking their current work situation.

Return to Work approaches need to contemplate the willingness of employees to leave their role. An April 2021 survey found that 60% of women and 52% of men would quit if they weren’t allowed to continue working remotely at least part of the time. Additionally, 80% of women report that remote work options are among their top considerations when looking for a new job.

With the pharmaceutical industry, approaches to return differ between firms, based on several considerations.

Those companies with decentralized or networked models, appear to adopt hybrid work models more quickly. Companies which had reduced hierarchy appeared to experience the shift to virtual as less disruptive.  Some companies showed reluctance to adopt a hybrid model, which may be consistent with broader findings that the larger the company the less likely it was to prefer hybrid approach.

Even within the direction being taken by each pharma company, there is intercompany variation. Reasons for this included variations in country cultures, with the importance of in person for team and relationship building, as well as variations between individual leaders. Demographic factors may explain the variation in leader adoption of a hybrid model, along with leader maturity.

For the most part, however, a form of hybrid is either in place or in development. The consensus is that “hybrid will be everywhere”.

If this is the case, and if the industry is moving quickly to adopt new models, what are the implications for global skills development?

Building Skills

Pharmaceutical companies typically invest in leadership development, and as noted, international assignments have been a major source of development of global competencies. Our recent cross-industry research identified the top three skills gaps likely to be developed, as a result of reduced expatriation experiences. These are:

  1. Global Business Knowledge: understanding global business, including differences between countries, and different approaches used in different places,
  2. Cross-Cultural Agility: balancing between understanding local culture/conditions and taking decisive action when needed and,
  3. Cross-Cultural Resourcefulness: getting things done across varied international conditions, including leveraging local skills and resources

While recognising the benefits of global mobility in developing these skills, pharmaceutical learning leaders have identified that the pandemic has caused them to understand other, different ways to develop these vital international skills.

Putting employees in global roles, even without relocation, had resulted in many successful assignments, done in challenging conditions with built resilience. A global pharma leader who was supposed to relocate to Japan from the UK could not do so because of travel restrictions. After doing the role remotely from Europe for a few months, she decided to move elsewhere in Asia – one with greater geographic proximity to Japan – and work from there. She could manage the time zone more readily. She attests that this experience has built both resilience and cultural sensitivity skills that she may not have developed from the “standard” expat move.

Using international travel and enabling “field work”, without requiring relocation, had also proven to be successful, from both a business performance and a development point of view. Executives from all around the world have learned to accompany sales representatives on virtual calls to doctors. Suddenly, the customers have become closer, too. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Normalcy disrupted, our resourcefulness was tested. And that proved to be the leadership potential litmus test for many.

We are a year and a half into the pandemic. We have pivoted and adjusted. We have learned. It suggests that short-term assignments may play a more important role in skills development in the future. Consistent with research on job hardiness, stretch experiences under challenging circumstances build talent faster.

However, there is a caveat. Pivoting and adjusting effectively is a sign of leadership potential. Those who have done so successfully in the pandemic emerged as true talents. But in many cases, those on the high-potential lists faltered. It revealed the importance of correct identification of leadership potential: Mistakes there are most costly when performance under duress is vital for business continuity. Going forward, accurate talent assessment is likely to become even more critical.

Interestingly, in the roundtable, it was other skills, unrelated to cross-cultural capability, that are the subject of interest to pharmaceutical learning leaders. They see other areas of vulnerability, arising from reduced in person work, that will need to be the subject of skills development.

There is a need to provide leaders with the skills needed to manage a virtual workplace. Research suggests that in the presence of strong processes, team effectiveness does not suffer even if its members are geographically dispersed. The implication is the need for leaders to have good managerial – in addition to leadership – skills. These managerial practices, such as setting expectations, giving quality feedback, establishing routines, etc., will come into greater relief with the move to hybrid.

Virtual may also risk creativity. Business processes, focused on topics at hand, may miss out on the benefits of spontaneous connection and the creativity and problem solving that stems from it. Again, recent studies find that virtual is not a barrier to collaboration and collective ideation. What matters is who is doing the work and how it’s done, not where. This evidence suggests that skills related to organizing and managing work, as well as assessing talent, will rise in importance for leaders who must ensure that ideation, participation, and inclusion don’t fall, as a result of shifting from face-to-face to contemporary work.



It seems that, in the future, international assignments in the industry may be less frequent.  This is a natural outcome of the hybrid model that the industry seems to be adopting. The implication is that international competence needs to be developed using different experiences.   Early indications are that the learning offered by the pandemic was hugely developmental for many. Thus, in the future, leadership programs should include simulated elements delivering these skills but in a safer environment. This must be balanced with keeping the development focus on building the capability of good virtual leaders, such as core managerial skills, as these have the potential to optimize the value stemming from the new work models.


* This article has been co-authored by Angela Lane and Sergey Gorbatov

Sergey Gorbatov

Professor of HR & Organisational Development IE Business School

Dr. Sergey Gorbatov is a teacher, speaker and researcher on the complex sciences of leadership, organizational behavior and human resources. He is also the director of Talent Management at AbbVie where he leads and supports a team of professionals who are responsible for the talent management portfolio across the world.