Why executive candidates aren’t taking your job

case study - senior director ops for life sciences

Read the case study: How The Hennessy Group filled a long-vacant role in the life sciences … quickly.

Your company has a great opportunity with great advancement potential for the right candidate. The compensation package is very competitive. But the role is sitting vacant and has been for a while. Your question: why?

Honestly it’s not you — or not only you. As an executive search professional, I’ve seen hundreds of situations just like this. The internal recruiting team has been working for months to find and motivate the right candidates. A contingency search firm has been called in with no luck. The executive team is getting antsy for the hire. Often, that’s when we’re called in*.

My question: what took you so long?

Why strategy is essential to life sciences hiring

Getting the right candidate for an executive role takes strategy, industry connections and finesse (something retained search professionals must possess if they’re going to survive in the industry). It also takes dedication and time. Frequently when internal HR teams are tasked with the job, they’re lacking a few of those must-haves, for example, time or an understanding of the strategy required to motivate candidates who are indeed special.

Hand the project off to a junior recruiter and they may not even know where to start. Task the head of HR with the job and every other responsibility she has is going to suffer because filling this role can be all consuming.

Either way, you get the following end result:

  • The wrong candidates are short-listed.
  • The right candidates aren’t motivated to listen.

Uncovering the real reasons the role isn’t filled: a case study

Not long ago, I worked on search for a highly specialized role in the life sciences (pharmaceutical manufacturing operations director with deep solid-dose experience) where exactly this was happening. The internal team was striking out, so they brought in a contingent search agency. The contingent agency produced a steady stream of candidates but none of them were right. After six months of trying, they asked my firm to step in.

The first thing we did was uncover the real reason why the role was still vacant. Here’s what we learned:

  • A quick scan of the candidate pool presented by the contingent search firm showed obvious no-fits (after 30 years in life sciences recruiting, you know what’s right and wrong at the management and executive level) and a handful of disinterested candidates, too. To me it looked like they simply posted the opening and prayed.There was no evidence that top candidates were being motivated, or even reached.
  • Meetings with the hiring team gave us insight into the role, the organization’s culture, and the type of person who would be a good fit. It also uncovered a problem: the HR team wasn’t sold on why a great candidate would take the position or join the company. There’s no way you can motivate a top-notch candidate if you can’t appreciate the impact and the potential this role holds for the right person.
  • Other issues included a need for any candidate selected to relocate, which would mean a successful search may require selling the role to a spouse and family, too. Bandwidth, however, made this impossible for an internal search team to take on. They were simply too busy to check every box when it came to practicing good Candidate Care.
  • The COO, who held the final decision as to who would take the role, was apprehensive about making a selection for the person who would be his ultimate successor. At times, he was unavailable to the hiring process for several weeks. Candidates had also noticed that the culture of the company was one of “deferral” — decision making wasn’t getting done.

Ultimately, we developed a search strategy that got past each of these problems and resulted in a successful candidate receiving an offer, but it definitely wasn’t a search I’d call easy (for example, after developing the perfect candidate, the candidate’s family balked at the idea of relocating across the country — we stayed close with the family and helped “illuminate” the positive aspects of the area and of course the career development opportunities in a growing, global company).

The lesson to be learned here is simple: recruiting for the top positions in any company, particularly in a specialized field like life sciences, requires industry know-how and an intensive dedication to the search. This particular search required my team to research every solid-dose manufacturing operation in the U.S., develop their org charts and identify the stars who could fill the role. We contacted every connection in the industry who could help us and frequently connected with top candidates outside of the traditional 9-5 day, because we needed their undivided attention in order to motivate them to listen to our client’s story.

You can read the whole story here (and, yes, it does end well).

*Next time you have a critical opening, consider the opportunity costs incurred when you wait too long to call a retained executive search professional. We’re happy to step in anytime, including at the start of a search. And when I say we invest a full-time approach, now you know this is well beyond banker’s hours.