How much is an executive search really worth?


A few years ago, my firm was called in to reopen an executive search project for a CSO in gene therapy. We hadn’t done the initial search. That one was handled by a combination of an in-house recruiter and a big search firm, and the result was a CSO who lasted less than a year before the CEO handed him walking papers.

We dug in and found great candidates. Niche market searches like this always require divergent thinking, so our candidate slate was highly diverse.

One candidate in particular stood out; she had an MD from a school overseas and an incredible background that I could see fitting directly into a gene therapy CSO role. In truth, she was almost too perfect to be true. After talking for a bit, I learned she was 100% for real. And a perfect fit.

Then we started talking about the role and the company. She’d been in contact with them about a year earlier for the same role. Nothing had come from her efforts, and she honestly didn’t know what had happened, since the recruiter she’d been working with never got back to her with feedback or updates.

Whether we’re starting a search for a new role or replacing an executive, my firm reviews notes from earlIer searches, too. This role was no exception, and it seemed odd that I had missed this ideal candidate in our client’s notes from the previous CSO search, so I checked again. I found her name but very few details about her were included, so I set up a meeting with the head of talent acquisition to see if i could find out why she hadn’t advanced in the search process.

When we met, it was easy to figure out what happened: the problem hadn’t been the candidate. It was that neither the in-house recruiter nor the recruiter from the big search firm who was assisting knew gene therapy well enough to understand what this candidate would bring to the role. She was different than all of the other candidates the big-firm recruiter had found. And earning her degree from a school outside of the U.S. may have also made her seem risky to them, since that was the only note included before she was crossed from the list.

Ultimately, we recommended her. She went through the interview process and was hired as the CSO of gene therapy. Our client is thrilled with her contributions.

When CEO lose faith in the C-Suite

I don’t have to tell anyone what happens when the CEO (or the Board or anyone else) loses faith in another leader, like the CSO. Progress halts. Every team is affected. While this story has a happy ending, it came at a price: our client went a year without an effective CSO. Think about what that would do to an organization.

Herein lies the value of using a specialist in retained search when you need a top leader in a highly specialized industry, like life sciences, or an even more specialized industry segment, like gene therapy, biologics, CDMO or oncology. You can’t really blame the initial recruiters when they don’t find the perfect person asap. In-house and big-name recruiters are often up to their ears in open requisitions, but they don’t usually own the entire process, so everything becomes a paradoxically rushed waiting game. Ultimately, it affects the quality of their candidate shortlist. In other words, the best candidates may never even show up on the list.

I saw this happen frequently years ago when I was working at the largest brand name search firm in the world. Sometimes, other associates would call me for help on their projects because the partner who had assigned them the search was out of the office selling rather than in the office recruiting. Other times, the associates came at these roles with decades of experience but not in life sciences and would ask me questions about candidates and background that would seem very basic, but on par for a person without industry experience. Regardless, I always tried to help.

In this case, our client’s internal person in talent acquisition had 10 years’ recruiting experience. The outside search consultant working with him was a Principal, which is a step below Partner. These search professionals are good people; however they work in environments that don’t allow them to become true industry specialists. Ask them to find a solid mid-level manager and they’re gold. Need a specialist? You’re setting them up for failure.

I would never fault someone who put money into an external recruiter, but for a specialized role, you may be better off paying a little more to get a specialist or specialized firm on the job. That way, you know you’re putting the search project in the hands of someone who has the time, experience and know-how to find the right person the first time. Because you really can’t wait a year, can you?

Category: Life Sciences

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