The lowdown on what it takes to be a country manager of a multinational pharma company in some of the world’s most challenging markets. Robert Hall of Ardent Search outlines what he looks for in potential candidates for country manager positions in China.


What are the qualities you look for in a China Country Manager?

Ultimately this is driven by the needs of the hiring company but there are some common themes.


The obvious requirements are that the candidate has the right language ability and cultural experience, a successful track record in a relevant therapy area, experience of the regulatory challenges faced in China, understanding of market access and so on….these are normally a “given” on any job description for a China General Manager.


Where companies often struggle is identifying decisive generalist leaders. China historically produces a lot of outstanding experts with particular subject or functional expertise. Hiring leaders for a certain function whether it’s clinical, supply chain, government affairs or commercial isn’t usually that difficult.


Hiring a leader with a broader generalist skill set, with an ability to be decisive is another matter. When coupled with the need to understand the diversity of China’s marketplace, how to achieve access, build a culture that empowers a workforce to innovate and thrive, the challenge becomes far greater.


The leaders required today need to be able to handle multiplicity, diverse cultures and markets. They must be able to deal with extreme complexity and uncertainty. They need to be highly influential across different situations, build high-value networks, cultivate innovation, manage change, think strategically and globally. Above all, they must be able to take ownership and be decisive.


Given the size of China, the talent pool of high calibre, generalist leadership is relatively shallow at the very top level.


The problem stems from the fact that larger Chinese companies are traditionally more hierarchical, power is held centrally, and delegation is restricted. This creates an environment where decisions are slow to be made. Management teams are not as empowered as they could be. Innovation and a company’s ability to operate at full-speed is not fully realised. This environment makes it more challenging for leaders to achieve their full potential.


This situation is changing, and the talent pool will become a deeper over time. We are seeing the emergence of innovative, high growth companies in the sector such as WuXi AppTech, Cstone Pharma and BeiGene. These companies are driving the growth in a different type of management talent. They typically have less hierarchy, are more innovative and work faster. These empower the less senior management which in enables those individuals to grow and develop into the modern senior managers required today.


Is there an ideal profile/professional pathway?

There are a number of ways to get to the same destination. Some may be more direct than others but there is certainly no ideal pathway to the China GM role. Candidates have usually held important commercial roles but it’s very helpful to have worked in other functions to demonstrate a broad understanding and adaptability.


For candidates taking the internal route to the top job I would advise taking themselves out of their comfort zone. Try to take on different challenges within the company to broaden your skillset and knowledge. A one trick pony is unlikely to win the top job, show your adaptability and become more visible. Demonstrate that you can make effective decisions in different situations. This way you will build support across more key stakeholders who will decide on succession.


With external candidates the requirement is similar in that broader experience will put an individual in a stronger position. Leadership style and cultural fit become the big questions in this situation.


Which are the main challenges they’ll need to be ready to address?


What works in Boston or Basel may not work in Beijing.

Like any part of the world the challenges can vary greatly. Challenges specific to China are regulation, market access issues, and the sheer size and complexity of the market. Talent retention is another challenge across every function and level.


One of the biggest challenges is getting the culture right. Aligning the culture of a global organisation with a local culture can be a challenge. There will be differences, and that is often healthy, but they need to work together.


A good culture and positivity will enable a team to innovate, work at full speed and efficiency. Rooting out problems that get in the way of building the right culture, taking ownership and being decisive are early steps that need to be taken.


Quickly understanding what works and what you need to adapt is important. The China Manager will need to be able to manage upwards as much as in-country. The scale of the role is now equal to a regional role and a number of companies have China reporting directly to global HQ rather than regional HQ.


Being a China Country Manager is a huge challenge and can be immensely rewarding. Just remember that what works in Boston or Basel may not work in Beijing.