Talking Head Interview with Torbjörn Hallberg, General Counsel and Chief HR Officer at Sobi

28 Jan 08:00 by Angela Floydd


Torbjörn Hallberg is General Counsel and Chief HR Officer at Sobi (Swedish Orphan Biovitrum) a Swedish headquartered, fast growing international biopharmaceutical company focused on rare diseases. In parallel with Sobi’s extraordinary growth, Torbjörn has built out his legal and compliance teams over the last three years and been involved in key hires for the company. 

Before joining Sobi, Torbjörn was leading an international team for a major pharmaceutical company, based in Japan. He’s a firm believer in stepping outside comfort zones and has a dynamic, refreshing approach to attracting and retaining talent. Given the fierce competition for the best of the best, Angela Floydd, Managing Director at Laurence Simons Search, asks him to share his tips and insights for building high performing teams. Torbjörn also has a passion for music and reveals which band he would most love to perform with!

Angela Floydd (AF): Thanks so much for participating in our Talking Head series, Torbjörn. Can you please tell us a bit about yourself?

Torbjörn Hallberg (TH): I’m a Swedish qualified lawyer. I live in Stockholm with my family. I’ve been working in the pharma sector for over 20 years. I started in private practice in Sweden and Germany but for the last 20 years have been an in-house lawyer. I’ve worked in a private equity setting, big pharma and now am with a listed biotech company. I’ve worked internationally in Europe and been based out of both Switzerland and Singapore. I joined Sobi in 2018 as General Counsel for legal, IP and compliance. Originally my team consisted of two legal counsels, two paralegals and two in compliance, with two additional colleagues in the US. Now I oversee a team of 25+ professionals in total across Europe and US.

My team has grown organically and inorganically.  When I started, I saw that some building blocks were missing, for example we didn’t have a head of IP, any regional legal support or a complete compliance department. I created these new positions. I have team members in Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark and in the US. As a business we’re expanding in growth markets in Asia and internationally.  Since Nov 2019 I’ve also been the company’s Chief HR Officer.

AF: The HR path is an interesting but not a very common one for a General Counsel to take.  How did that come about?

TH: I am surprised that we do not see more leaders today who are not necessarily experts in a certain field.  For me, it comes down to if you have the skills to be a true business enabler.  You of course need to fully understand the industry you are operating in, and the company you are leading, but you do not necessarily have to be a subject matter expert or specialise in every field.  In my book, leaders are the persons who move things from one stage to something different and better - with others.  Key for me are really the classical skills; to be able to priortise, to communicate well, to show a true interest in people, talent and people development and how to reskill and move competences.  This is something that we follow up on in our talent management process at Sobi. You also need to connect the dots between functions, something I believe General Counsels are often good at.  And I enjoy every minute of my new role, to help foster our leadership in relation to our strategic agenda, and not at least help peers and colleauges to grow in this direction. 

AF: What attracted you to Sobi?

TH: Rare diseases is an area which appeals very much to me. The patient is in the centre of everything we do. Secondly, the growth journey that Sobi was embarking on and the opportunity to build something. It’s been borne out by the growth we’ve experienced both through acquisitions and natural expansion. Thirdly, the people and the values.  Sobi is on a fantastic growth journey and we have hired so many talented colleagues during these three years I have been here.

AF: What’s your approach to hiring?

TH: As you and I have discussed, it doesn’t start with a job title. What’s key is the company vision and objectives. That’s always the starting point for me and then look at your team. The ultimate approach will depend on whether you’re starting from scratch. If you have existing resources, review them first and then determine how you best build for the company. The journey I’m on with Sobi is very different from previous companies. We’re on a transformational growth journey as a biotech company.  Resources are never unlimited; you need to think through what you can afford and make the best of your headcount. It might sound obvious but when under pressure or time constraints it might not be thought about explicitly. I keep in mind what the company is trying to achieve in the next three years and how my teams can best support that through the appropriate talent. I also want to ensure that new talent adds value. This is at the forefront of my thinking when I’m developing my teams.

My approach isn’t to start with where someone is going to be placed geographically or from a reporting line perspective. I focus on what this person needs to fulfil and where the best people for the role are likely to come from.  The pandemic has shown that location of role is not driven in the same way that it was 2-3 years ago. You can have people doing corporate or headquarter work who are not based at the headquarters or vice versa.

The location is more about where I can find the right talent. For example, I promoted and created a new role for my Chief Compliance Officer and then needed to appoint her successor. Traditionally the CCO would be based in our headquarters in Stockholm and we would relocate someone if needed. In this case, given the size of the Stockholm market, I knew we might not get the range of ideal candidates if we made headquarter location essential.  By keeping an open mind, we were able to make the right hire quickly and our new CCO will be based out of Copenhagen.

Similarly, for my lead counsel for Europe, the role would typically be based at our headquarters. We’ve positioned the role in Munich because that’s where we found our ideal candidate and we have a presence there too.  These types of hires require candidates with a certain skill set and ability to make it work; strong communication skills and proactive connecting with people. Traits we typically want in all our in-house legal and compliance professionals but for these key positions which are not at headquarters, those skills are even more important. Candidates also need to be willing to travel in normal circumstances. It’s important that managers are able to develop their team members and help them grow. 

The pandemic has shown us this last year that our approach has worked. It’s also shown us that some interactions cannot be replaced, we can’t go 100% digital, some things can get lost in translation or missed when not having face to face interactions.

Whilst we’ve successfully hired without meeting in person during the pandemic, I prefer to meet whenever possible.  I’ve found in some recruitment processes in the past that my “rankings” have changed after I’ve met candidates in person. To compensate now, I’ll have additional calls with candidates in virtual processes to make up for not being able to meet in person.

AF: Is there a specific quality you look for, across functions when hiring?

TH: Curiosity – the type of brain and interest in learning new skills. Our industry is complicated, it’s not selling commodities, it can be very difficult science. You don’t have to be a patent lawyer or scientist, but you need to have an interest in understanding complex things in addition to the professional requirements.

I’ve found that the people who are successful and grow in my teams are the ones that are curious and want to evolve and learn.  As a smaller company, I’ve also seen how important it is for us to have diversity and versatility. It’s natural to connect with people who have similar personalities, but we also need variety to get the benefit of different skills and approaches.  I’ve actively sought to add diversity in thinking and personality to my teams.

AF: How do you identify the ideal candidates in an interview process and secure their interest?

TH: I don’t start by asking the candidate to outline their CV. I spend 15-20 minutes explaining what the company is about, my vision of the department, why I’m here, what makes it tick for me and what I’m looking for - I set the scene at the start. That should make it clear whether it’s what they’re looking for as it’s a two-way process. I want to engage the candidate and secure their interest but also make my expectations clear.

Sometimes the strongest candidates aren’t looking to make a move, they want to understand the company vision and scope of the role before committing to the process. I’m happy to have initial informal calls with potential candidates. They need to have the right background as a starting point in which case I’ll be flexible and make myself available for a conversation. Even if we don’t go ahead, it’s a great way to develop contacts and for crossing paths in the future.

My interview style is conversational, I notice what kind of questions a candidate will ask. That’s usually an indicator of someone’s curiosity and motivation. If they don’t ask questions or convey interest, they’re not likely to be someone who will work well with us. I like to empower early on and need to have confidence that someone is engaged and motivated.

But if the connection is there and I think the candidate has potential, I’ll move rapidly to arrange for colleagues to follow up. Once we’re all aligned on a candidate, we’re quick to make an offer.

AF: I’ve seen you and your colleagues do this brilliantly. When you hear about a strong candidate, you all move at lightning speed to make it happen. This gives the candidate a great impression. Companies often describe themselves as dynamic but then the hiring process can become protracted and drawn out which isn’t consistent with a dynamic culture. It can be challenging to engage and attract agile candidates if the hiring manager isn’t engaged and the overall process isn’t agile.

TH: When I started to interview people years ago, I thought they should be grateful to be in the process! Now I realise that as much as a candidate must convince us of their interest and credentials, we need to demonstrate why they should join our journey and mission.

In the “war for talent”, it’s key to share the vision. I also challenge people in interviews and within my teams, “what do you want to do next, where or how do you want to develop?”.

I look at the talent within my teams and like to think creatively. You and I have had those discussions around team building. Sometimes I’ll assess external talent against internal options and think about where to move people into different roles. Sometimes it’s obvious and sometimes not so obvious but it’s essential to be thinking about it regularly.  I’m willing to take risks and have made mistakes in the past but there’s value in that learning process. I’ve also learned what might have worked in one place and environment doesn’t always translate in the same way.

The success of any business is dependent on having the right people in the right roles. No matter how stretched I am with my other day to day responsibilities, I always make time to plan my hires, to do my due diligence of the market before I need to make a hire. It helps to understand what kind of talent is available before I finalise new headcount or make any team changes. Once the hiring process starts, I’ll make myself available to speak to potential candidates and rally my colleagues so we can move quickly once we’ve identified the right people.  It helps that I have terrific colleagues who are quick and responsive too!

AF:  It’s certainly been a recipe for success so far. Many thanks for sharing your dynamic, agile and creative approach to team building Torbjörn. On a lighter note, if you had an extra hour every day, what would you do?

TH: I would take half an hour with my family and half an hour to play my electric guitars! That’s what I did in my past life, I love rock music and played in bands. I have quite a few different guitars!

AF:  I wouldn’t have guessed that! If there was one band or artist you would love to perform with, which band or artist?

(Pauses to think, this is the hardest question so far!)

TH: It’s difficult to narrow it down but I’d say Red Hot Chili Peppers!  I’ve missed the music festivals during the pandemic and am looking forward to them resuming!

AF: Thanks for taking the time to chat, it's been a pleasure and really insightful.