What do executive recruitment firms look for when hiring country managers for multinational pharma companies in some of the world’s most challenging markets? Eric Bouteiller and Simon Wan of  Cornerstone International Group outline what they look for in potential candidates for country manager positions in China.


The Ideal China Country Manager Needs to Have:

Commercial Excellence

It is vital that they are sharp professionals and master commercial excellence, as competition has intensified in recent years. It is about leading the design and implementation of effective strategy in all distribution channels throughout the country’s various regions and provinces. China affiliates are often very large organizations with a headcount of several thousand and recognized leadership by the team is of utmost importance to generating value to patients and shareholders.


Political Savvy

All of the major global pharma companies are now well-established in China and some local companies are developing very quickly. At the same time, growth is slowing and building market share has become more complex and difficult. Political savviness relates to the ability to interact with Chinese authorities and build good relationships. It is also the ability to leverage headquarters’ resources, explain the reasons for ambiguity, and emphasise the need for agility as China attempts to define its new rules of the game.


A Hands-On and A Strategic Mindset

Often, we look for candidates that are either strategic or hands-on. In China, we need candidates that are both! We need people that are able to interact with everybody in the organization, from top to bottom. Chinese affiliates get the most visitors of any global affiliate; from top management but also from a company’s investors. At the same time, country managers need to be able to connect with their frontline sales team.


Resilience and Good Communication

What matters in China is success over time. The traditional three-year country manager tenure is not long enough to really have an impact on the organization and the market. It is relatively easy to get short-term results by playing with stock, but long-term results are the only KPI that matters. Top achievers tend to be excellent communicators within the affiliate, with peers and authorities and especially with headquarters.


What are the Challenges They Will Need to Address?

Building a Talent Pool and Pipeline

In 2018 many Big Pharma companies were caught by surprise with the departure of key talents to local firms. There is therefore a clear need to mentor leaders and potential successors in-house. This is something that is feasible for large international companies; it is a matter of anticipation and professional support.


Learning the New Rules of the Game

Frontline teams are facing changes at all levels, both internally in terms of raised expectations and matrix working and externally with pilot schemes, new paradigms and often contradictory rules. Organizations in China need real leaders who have the capacity to envision what is coming and communicate well and learn from their teams. Motivating in a period of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity is key.


Shaping Policies

A good China country manager needs to join industry bodies in order to try to shape policies. Many companies see industry bodies and communication with authorities as a one-way channel. They miss the point. China is inventing a new system, the market needs country managers that are ready to commit. A good country manager needs to go beyond day-to-day business and embrace the full picture, which includes contributing to the wider environment.


Communicating Well with Headquarters

Many affiliates can manage challenges on the ground, but HQ does not always support this because they just do not understand what is happening in China. There is a strong trend towards the localization of country managers, which is positive as they are able to manage business better.

However, at the same time, teams often complain that HQ does not provide enough support and that “everything is slow” in a multinational company. This is a direct consequence of leadership often being perceived as “too local” and not always being trusted by HQ. From HQ’s perspective this is understandable as China is now a significant contributor to global results and one of the only growing markets worldwide.