Hire Stakes: Executive Search in Today’s Life Science Industry

Over the past decade-plus, technology has rapidly changed how executive search is done. In the “good old days,” it was all about who you knew – the quantity and quality of your relationships coupled with your ability to connect individuals and organizations. 

But with new, internet-driven methods of quickly finding talent, this traditional approach has become less common. 

The problem? The process is increasingly impersonal and, with a low barrier to entry, top talent has begun to treat recruiters like banner ads – ignore, click away, move along. If it seems too good to be true, then it probably is. There’s simply not enough time in the day to take these notifications seriously. 

That said, technology is by no means inherently useless or bad in executive search. It can make the process better by helping you identify, attract, and assess executives. But it isn’t the process. 

At Mix Talent, we believe the right approach to executive search is, well, a mix of old school and new school: old-fashioned, trustworthy relationship building enhanced by efficient tech utilization.

Why are we so invested in the right approach to executive hiring? Because the stakes are too high to make the wrong decision, especially in life science organizations. The individual you hire may be in a position to make or break your company or, at the very least, cost you a lot of money if they aren’t the right fit. Having to re-hire for a role can be extremely expensive, especially with senior or specialized positions.

And yet, despite how crucial these hires are, Gallup has shown that companies get it wrong an astounding 82% of the time. So, how do you get into that 18% of successful hires? After 30 years in the industry, we have some thoughts and best practices to help. 

The Job Description: Separate the Sizzle from the Steak

When writing job descriptions, there is a tendency to write about how you imagine your needs and culture as opposed to what your needs and culture actually are. 

Keep this in mind: your goal is not just to hire the best person – that is, the person with the most experience or best leadership track record. Your goal should be to hire the best person who will stay at your organization and be an integral part of its growth. 

That means providing a clear description upfront and being transparent about your expectations for the role. One of our guiding principles is that in executive search, nobody likes surprises. 

Trust is everything, so misrepresenting the job or promising things that “could happen” in the future – even if it’s done innocently – can ruin your chance of landing that great candidate who would have been a perfect fit, or missing a better-fit candidate who wasn’t attracted to an inaccurate depiction of your company or the role. 

If, for example, you claim that your culture is casual and easy-going, but it becomes clear early on that this isn’t the case, it’s going to hurt your credibility with a candidate or new hire. 

The same is true of how you present a job. If you tell a candidate you want them to come on to be a change agent but then flippantly shoot their change-oriented ideas down once they come on board, it could quickly sour the relationship.

The Search: Move Fast and Break Assumptions

When we start an executive search project, we get moving as quickly as possible with the goal of presenting some initial candidates within the first few weeks of our engagement. There are a couple of reasons for this. 

One, it helps level-set expectations. The industry is constantly changing and evolving, so it’s critical for organizations to have a current understanding of the market, candidate expectations, competition, etc. 

Second, it allows us to challenge assumptions. While you might work hard to develop an accurate job description based on perceived needs, once you start interviewing candidates, you may realize your needs are different than you thought in some areas. Moving quickly allows you to realize these discrepancies sooner rather than later and readjust with speed and efficiency. 

Another important part about the search: first impressions are everything. If you find a promising candidate but you don’t talk about the role or company in the right way, you could fail in attracting them to your organization. Executives will expect their point of contact to be able to discuss the role with a good deal of competency and understanding, meaning your recruiters need to have subject matter expertise and truly understand the role to build credibility. 

The Interview: It Should Just *Click*

When it comes to interviewing your top candidates, you shouldn’t have to get into anything that can be figured out on paper. Interviews should be about cultural fit and how their experience translates into your environment, not engaging candidates in a rehearsed review of their career.

Recruiters should already have passed along all of the things you need to know about whether or not a candidate is theoretically a good fit: their personality, their compensation requirements, etc. 

Then, the interview should focus on strategic, big-picture discussions and personal fit – e.g. how do you approach work on a daily basis? How would you help accomplish X?

In other words, the recruiter should give you the answer to if they can and will do the job. The interview, then, is about if they are the right person for the role. It should be an organic, loose conversation that makes the candidate want the job more than they did when they walked in the building (or the Zoom meeting). 

Since every company is unique, there are no hard-and-fast rules or best practices for what this conversation should look like. Instead, if it’s the right fit, it should just feel right. Trust your gut. 

The Assessment: Bring Some Data Into The Equation

We also believe in the importance of objective assessment in the search process. No matter how good you think you are at interviewing, these tools can provide additional information to help you better understand the behavioral tendencies, leadership style, work approach, and key motivators. 

Similar to the dynamic present with recruiting firms, it can be hard to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to assessments. At Mix Talent, we leverage our internal team of PhD-level industrial/organizational psychologists to identify and build tools that measure what they say they measure and ensure the results are being used effectively.  

An experienced assessor has likely interviewed a few hundred executives – far more than a typical hiring manager. Executive assessors combine an understanding of the role and your culture, their own experiences, and objective data to generate insights regarding how behavioral tendencies are likely to manifest and implications for your organization.

Bonus: Work with a Focused Recruiter Who Gives a Bleep

We’re recruiters, so it should come as no surprise we have a lot of thoughts on how recruiters should partner with life science organizations in executive searches.

Our primary piece of advice about working with and evaluating a recruiter or recruiting firm is to make sure they are invested in helping you find the right candidate. While this can be tricky to evaluate, involving everything from timeline to incentive structures (which, by the way, you should definitely ask about), there are a couple of ways to help you judge how invested they are. 

First, you want a recruiter that is not just an order taker but a partner that will respectfully challenge you if they feel you are headed in the wrong direction. When you go to dinner with a great waiter that has a history of working at the restaurant they should have the confidence to suggest some things on the menu and steer you clear of others.

You want a partner, not a yes-person who’s just looking to collect a commission. While that engagement might be easier on the front-end, it’s certainly not going to help you find the right person for the job. 

Second, you need to get a sense that the recruiter understands the candidate market better than you. That’s why you’re hiring them, after all. The great thing about working with an experienced life science recruiter is that they work with multiple pharma and biotech companies on a daily basis. They know how to tease out what really makes a particular culture unique within the marketplace, how to separate the steak from the sizzle, and what great candidates are really looking for. In the long run, these are invaluable skills that you should be able to lean on. 

In short, a good recruiter brings objectivity to the process, giving you the insight, data, and mindset you need to find the right executive. 

If you need someone who fits that bill… we know a few people

About Mix Talent

Mix Talent is a talent acquisition and consulting firm that specializes in pharmaceutical and biotech. We partner with companies to plan for, identify, assess, and recruit the talent they need to make their business successful. At Mix, we believe culture is the key to securing top talent and top talent is the key to building and growing a truly magnetic culture. We will help bring your company’s mission and story to life, and then find the right candidates who will make your story stronger. Our experience, knowledge, and network help our clients go beyond hiring just headcount to truly creating dynamic organizations.  

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