Overqualified candidates: the gifts that keep giving


Too frequently, companies, whether in the life sciences or elsewhere, pass over the candidate who’s over qualified, and for what seems like good reason. Either the candidate will want too much money, will be bored, or will want to shake things up or change directions, when that’s not what the company is looking to do.

I’m going to say it: if you’re the one making the initial pass and looking at candidates, that’s the wrong approach.

Here’s an example of what I mean. A few years back, I was working on an executive search project for a big-name pharmaceutical company. I was working with the company’s Chief Marketing Officer (who himself would eventually become CEO of other life sciences companies), and he was looking for someone at the VP level who could lead and improve managed care and how the company was working with corporate customers. That’s what he wanted reflected in the job description, but like every company, he wanted someone with a lot more. After discussions with the CMO, I realized he also wanted a future P&L leader who could also be promoted to a GM type role within a year or two.

In my line of business, when a candidate tells you “no interest,” it may not mean they don’t want to talk to you. Frequently it means you just haven’t found the right mix of motivation to get through to them.

Unexpressed wish-lists like this make finding the right candidate incredibly challenging, by the way, but that’s why companies work with executive recruiters like us. We’re used to this approach and work through it by ensuring each search project we work on starts with a target of key selection factors, so we’re not solely focused on candidates whose resumes sound right or who get picked as easy targets by recruiting software.

For this search, that meant the candidates we targeted would have all seemed too advanced for a VP role. And truthfully, nearly everyone we contacted said “no interest” when we first called. We don’t let that deter us -- my team keeps plugging away.

In my line of business, when a candidate tells you “no interest,” it may not mean they don’t want to talk to you. Frequently it means you just haven’t found the right mix of motivation to get through to them. If you approach the conversation as simply the job title and compensation package, you’re doing everyone an injustice. Remember, these candidates were willing to take your call, so there’s something there -- it’s the recruiter’s job to figure out what it is, what made the candidate willing to talk in the first place, and how that can be translated into motivation to learn more about this role.

You owe it to your company to look at all candidates, even the overqualified ones, right?

We had already developed a strong slate of candidates when I came across our final candidate -- a proven industry leader who I knew wouldn’t be interested initially. He had already attained the level of CEO, so this would be a big step backwards. And if I somehow convinced this candidate to be interested, our client would wonder what in the world would make this guy want this lower-level job. Really, this was a no-win situation.

I’m always up for a challenge, so I got in touch. The candidate responded exactly as expected -- not interested. I convinced him to meet me for lunch anyway, which he probably did simply due to the credibility and extent of our network. Our short lunch turned into hours. I explained that this role was a true springboard to another GM/P&L leadership role. By the end, this candidate was at the top of my list and the role was on his radar as something he would definitely consider.

Now I had to get him in front of the CMO. I remember leaving the restaurant and walking to my car. I got the CMO on the phone. He was already interviewing other candidates we had presented when I hit him with the new one. The CMO’s reaction was predictable: why would this candidate who was obviously overqualified for the role be interested? What does he really want? And would it really be worth it to add another candidate this late in the game?

The conversation ended with a compromise: meet with this one last candidate, see what you think. Then, after all interviewing is completed, take the two finalist candidates to dinner. Get to know more than just their interview responses. Get to know them as people. Get to know them away from a workplace environment. That’s how you’re really going to find out why they’d want the role, what they would do with this, and how they’d fit into your company’s culture.

I already knew this candidate would be one of the top two candidates, but I didn’t say it at the time. I was right.

Ultimately this candidate, who said “not interested” when we first talked, who would be taking a step back, who required convincing just to listen to the details of the job, and whose candidacy was questioned by the client, became the placement. He stuck with the company for years, before eventually moving on to a different organization in the role of President and CEO. Before leaving, he had achieved the level of Division President. He’s one of our 18 non-CEO placements who eventually advanced to CEO. He’s repeated the feat a few times in fact.

Getting the ideal executive candidate may be more about motivation and less about the role

The lesson learned is less about motivating the overqualified candidate and more about getting the client to consider that candidate. There are dozens of reasons why an overqualified candidate might be interested in the job you’re offering, even if it is a step (or two or three) backwards. Maybe the candidate is motivated by the work your company is doing or by your company’s culture. Maybe they’ve achieved what they wanted to at other roles and are simply looking to give back or return to the kind of position they found most fulfilling. Maybe they love the idea of building something great and being part of your journey from the ground up. Maybe they’ve been on hiatus or want to learn something new. I’ve heard all of these and countless more over the years. Every time, the reasons are heartfelt and honest.

As an employer, when a candidate comes to you with too-good-to-be-true experience and skill, both you and your recruiter need to find out why. If you don’t, you could be missing out on something huge. Learn to explore beyond the obvious reasons you expect to hear and typically consider as go/no-go qualifiers. Invest the necessary time (something that should be done with all candidates in order to get past practiced and rehearsed answers). Get to know them. See the experienced candidate as a gift.

Plus, as I have learned and truly appreciate, you might even have a chance to develop a true friendship that lasts for the rest of your life, too.

Happy holidays!

Category: Life Sciences

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