What Makes a Pharmaceutical Industry Leader?

Pharmaceutical CommercePharmaceutical Commerce - May/June 2011

Personality assessments identify the traits that enable some pharma researchers to ascend to leadership roles in industry

The pharmaceutical industry routinely recruits medical doctors (MDs) and researchers from academia, which serves as something of a farm system for the industry. Most of these scientists move into research or medical affairs roles when they join industry. Some of them remain researchers primarily, but some become research directors and team leaders. Some move into commercial-side management, and a precious few ascend into the upper-management ranks of pharma companies.

What distinguishes the leadership potential of these researchers and scientists? Answering this question provides insights into who can transition successfully from academia to industry, and which individuals companies should nurture as the source of future industry leaders. Individuals themselves can look in a mirror and decide if they have the skills and outlook necessary for successfully moving up the ranks.

Not surprisingly, human development research shows that there is a relationship between personality and effective leadership in organizations. [1-4]. In recent years, Caliper has conducted a number of studies that investigated the relationship between effective leadership and personality traits, across many industries. [5-6].

In conjunction with Caliper, Amrop Battalia Winston has conducted a study to understand the leadership profile of top physicians in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industry. The purpose of this research is to identify if there are particular personality traits in these physicians that lead to behaviors that are consistent across the industry that demonstrate success. These personality traits can also potentially link into competencies already developed by individual organizations regarding their unique leadership definitions.

Use of the Caliper Assessment

The Caliper Profile is a robust assessment tool that measures 23 different personality traits and motivational factors that have been found to be highly predictive of job performance. In working with over 30,000 companies over the past 40 years, Caliper has consistently found that the employees who perform at high levels are those who are in work environments and positions that are congruent with their personality and motivational strengths.

One’s personality and set of motivational dynamics provides the psychological mechanism that gives rise to the observable behaviors that will lead to success in a job. In short, Caliper assesses the congruence between an individual’s personality and the tasks, work environment, management style, culture, and expected outcomes the individual will experience on the job. The more congruency observed, the more likely the individual will prove to be a success.

Analysis of Pharmaceutical and Biotech Top Leadership Composite

A group of individuals, deemed by their respective companies or Amrop Battalia Winston as being successful or high-potential physician leaders, were identified as potential participants of this study. To help guide the identification and selection of potential study participants, we have defined high performance as a leader within the context of the following job-related behaviors listed by Caliper and Amrop Battalia Winston:

1. Confidently expressing ideas and opinions

2. Motivating others to perform at their best

3. Building alignment and influencing others from various functional areas

4. Recognizing problems, issues and opportunities

5. Thinking strategically to promote growth, process improvement or in the attempt of gaining competitive advantage

6. Implementing problem-solving strategies

7. Taking action that challenges status quo

8. Willing to make tough decisions

9. Being persistent.

The study participants come from a number of organizations within the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. The positions held by these individuals represent functional areas where physicians typically are employed, (i.e. Clinical Research, Medical Affairs, etc.) in the pharmaceutical and biotech industry, and included such titles as:

• Senior Director

• Executive Director

• Assistant/Associate Vice President

• Vice President

• Therapeutic Head

• Chief Medical Officer


Caliper has defined a set of personality traits, which are measured by answers to a variety of questions in an online questionnaire: the Caliper Profile. The bars on the graphs (see Figure) represent a half standard deviation from the mean of the group on each trait. Given that the 50% mark (50th percentile) is the average of the general population for each attribute, the mean scores that fell well above, or below, 50% are attributes that warrant consideration. Moreover, in looking at all the bars on the graph, wider bars indicate a greater degree of variance between the scores of the members of the group, whereas narrower bars indicate a lesser degree of variance between the individual scores. Therefore, Caliper scales with the narrowest bars are those for which the members of the group are similar. Traits with a relatively large amount of variance within the same group (indicated by wider bars) may not be as critical.

As can be seen in the graphs, industry respondents scored above average in:

• Assertiveness

• Aggressiveness

• Ego Drive

• Risk Taking

• Urgency

• Abstract Reasoning

• Idea Orientation (i.e., creativity).

This group scored below average in:

• Cautiousness

• Accommodation

• Skepticism

• Thoroughness

• Self-Structure (i.e., an individual’s ability to determine and direct his/her own priorities)

• External Structure (i.e., the degree to which a person is sensitive to the environment and the structure that exists).

Summary of Personality Dynamics

The dynamics exhibited by this group of successful physician leaders suggest that they are comfortable and effective in situations that call for a straightforward communication style. They are apt to be highly assertive in communicating their ideas and in championing their opinions.

They will tend to defend their decisions and opinions in circumstances when faced with resistance from staff, colleagues, etc. They should be effective in clearly conveying performance expectations to others and will generally be comfortable taking a leadership role in situations in which they need to be direct in addressing performance issues. While not welcoming of conflict, they will nevertheless be willing to engage in difficult or uncomfortable conversations.

They exhibit a moderate level of backup Aggressiveness, which suggests that they will usually be willing to bring a constructive emotional element to the interaction/discussion when faced with pushback or resistance. These dynamics also suggest that they are highly motivated to win buy-in from others. Members of this group, therefore, should be highly effective in communicating the company’s vision, direction, and goals clearly.

Their higher levels of Risk-Taking and Urgency suggest that they will be biased more toward action than deliberation, and that they are probably perceived as strong, decisive leaders. While this tendency toward action should make them rather results oriented, this need for action coupled with a lower level of Cautiousness suggests that they may miss some opportunities to think through and consider potential consequences and alternative courses before being moved to action.


On the whole, the members of this leadership group seem cordial, but not necessarily focused on taking the social initiative in every circumstance. They can establish a basic rapport and are apt to be fairly aware of others’ needs, concerns, and reactions. However, they may often use this information more for work-related and problem-solving purposes than as a means of really trying to get to know people on an individualized basis.

The members of this group are apt to be much more goal focused than relationship focused. This is highly consistent with research findings that suggest effective managers are less accommodating and are not afraid to anger a person or two in the interest of getting goals accomplished. Since these individuals may not be highly motivated by the “thank you” or necessarily be focused on winning others’ approval, they might be selectively accommodating or prone to waiting until their help is sought out.

Problem solving/decisionmaking

This group of successful physician leaders exhibits a very strong ability to see patterns in data/information, recognize cause-and-effect relationships, and to apply previous learning and experience to solve new problems in differing contexts. This should allow them to quickly see how new ideas can be integrated into the business model. They demonstrate strong potential to assimilate complex information quickly, to recognize key issues to be addressed, and to understand how one problem impacts another. That is, they should be adept at analyzing trends in the business environment and leverage that information to generate innovative solutions and target change initiatives. They are likely to tap into outside information sources to expand the scope and range of their analyses and should have a good “pulse” on core issues. Their strong conceptual thinking and abstract reasoning ability, coupled with a high degree of risk proclivity, suggests that they will often create opportunities for their companies by challenging conventional thinking and perceived wisdom. They will often champion innovative projects, and will be willing to defend initiatives in the face of resistance.

While this group has strong dynamics related to strategic planning, creative problem solving, and initiating positive change, they also exhibit a rather low level of detail orientation. That is, this group may not take personal ownership of project plans and the overall quality of work produced, especially for projects or tasks that they do not consider to be high priorities.

Personal organization/time management

The dynamics exhibited by this group of successful physician leaders suggest that they are able to juggle concurrent priorities. That is, they appear to be more comfortable multi-tasking and dealing with a wide range of issues, rather than focusing deeply on any single problem or issue.

While these leaders may tend to multi-task and push themselves to get a lot done, they may struggle in determining key or in what order they should complete various activities, and may often be distractible. Their high levels of Risk-Taking and Urgency, coupled with low levels of Cautiousness and Thoroughness, suggest that this group will be very results oriented, and biased toward quick action rather than excessive deliberation. This group is apt to have a higher than average comfort level in ambiguous situations. However, these same dynamics make them less likely to thrive in highly structured, closely managed work environments.


These data reflect a clear omnibus model of personal attributes that are most related to physician leadership success in the industry. A comparison of job candidates’ personality dynamics to this model of success, along with consideration of role-specific, company, and culture-fit factors, will result in more accurate assessment of job fit, professional development needs, and overall potential for success. This information provides the industry as a whole with data to improve selection, on-boarding, retention and development of their physician population. PC


1. Giberson, T., Resick, C.J., & Marcus, W.D. (2005). Embedding leader characteristics: An examination of homogeneity of personality and values in organizations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 1002-1010.

2. Hambrick, D.C. & Mason, P.A. (1984). Upper echelons: The organization as a reflection of its top managers. Academy of Management Review, 9, 193-206.

3. House, R.J., Spangler, W.D., & Woycke, J. (1991). Personality and charisma in the U.S. presidency: A psychological theory of leader effectiveness. Administrative Science Quarterly, 36, 364-396.

4. Judge, T.A., Bono, J.E., Ilies, R. & Gerhardt, M.W. (2002). Personality and leadership: A qualitative and quantitative review. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 765-780.

5. Caliper Corporation (2005). The qualities that distinguish women leaders.

6. Resick, C.J., Whitman, D.S., Weingarden, S.M., Hiller, N.J. (2009). The bright-side and the dark-side of CEO personality: Examining core self-evaluations, narcissism, transformational leadership, and strategic influence. Journal of Applied Psychology, 94, 1365-1381.


Adam Millinger (to whom inquiries should be directed) and Gilbert Carrara, MD, are Partners with Amrop Battalia Winston, a leading executive search firm (Edison, NJ; 732 549 8200; amropbw.com). Since 2000 Millinger has been working in life sciences recruiting for major pharmaceutical and biotech companies and specializes in recruiting for R&D positions.

Harry Kerr and Thomas Schoenfelder are executives with Caliper Corp. (Princeton, NJ; 732 524 1200; caliperonline.com), a personnel- and organizational-development firm.

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