Multinational pharma companies have been setting up shop in China ever since Novartis launched its Chinese affiliate in 1987, with other pharma giants following in its footsteps soon after, eager to penetrate the Chinese market. Affiliates in China are typically large organizations with several thousand employees. Leadership and communication skills are vital, as well as agility in dealing with political systems. Being a country manager of a multinational pharma company in China requires specialized knowledge of local issues as well as a big-picture mindset to liaise between local operations and international headquarters. It is common to see this role filled by European or American managers with a high level of international experience; however, this demographic is beginning to shift.
Executive search firm Egon Zehnder has identified four key trends at the country manager level in China.
Trend 1: Bringing in local expertise
Localization is a continuous effort among multinational companies at the GM level. The two most recent examples are Christine Zhou, taking over from Camilla Sylvest as SVP, President China at Novo Nordisk and Shirley Zhao, taking over from Karl Lintel as GM & President China Mainland & HK of Bristol Myers Squibb. Both happened in 2018 and both contributed to Trend #3.
Trend 2: Responsibility beyond borders
More Chinese leaders are taking on responsibility beyond China – either regional or international – as a result of increasing recognition of leadership quality and capability in China. To name a few: AstraZeneca has appointed Leon Wang to manage International Markets and Jo Feng to manage Asia – both have managed China before their current roles; Bayer has Wei Jiang managing APAC which includes China; and Xudong Yin at Novartis is in charge of region APMA which includes Asia, Pacific, Middle East and Africa.
Trend 3: Women on the rise
Rising female power in China. Egon Zehnder’s 2018 Global Board Diversity Tracker shows that women make up just 3.7 percent of CEOs. Among the Top 20 global pharma companies (according to SCRIP 100 the World’s Top Pharma Companies), there are only two female CEOs – Emma Walmsley at GSK and Jennifer Taubert at J&J Pharmaceutical. China is much more advanced in terms of gender diversity – there are four outstanding female China GMs among these top 20 pharma companies (see below) and they are promoting more female executives to unleash their potential. All of them have extensive experience working at headquarters in their earlier careers which serves as a critical part of their credibility and success today.
Trend 4: From multinational to local
The net flow of senior leaders leaving multinational companies to join start-ups or local Chinese companies. Xiaobin Wu, previously chairman at Pfizer, joined Beigene as China President in 2018, which was a flagship move. This trend does not only cover commercial leaders but also R&D leaders who become CEOs of biotech companies driving innovative drug development. Top investment bankers are also grasping this opportunity by joining high growth biotech companies as CFOs.
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