Key selection criteria for a successful executive search


If you don’t know what “key selection criteria” is, it’s simply the skills, attributes, knowledge and qualifications that you believe a job candidate needs to succeed in a role. In theory, you’d find someone who meets all of it, make an offer, and take off running.

Except when it’s an executive role you need to fill. Then your traditional key selection criteria isn’t enough. You need executive selection criteria instead.

What’s the difference? Quite a lot, although there are similarities. You’re still creating a wishlist of wants and dreams for the position, only when you’re hiring an executive, the criteria you specify isn’t found on a CV or resume. You’ve got to know more about the person before deciding if they have what it takes.

For example, my firm recently completed an executive search for a CDMO client. We weren’t looking as closely at years of experience and pay scale, although those did come into consideration. Instead we focused on the unique background, details and expertise that we had previously identified with the client -- all the stuff that would make the candidate a rockstar.

If we had stuck with just the straightforward criteria -- degree, experience, etc. -- we would have handed off a long, impressive list of perfect-sounding candidates.. Most of them, however, wouldn’t have been a good fit. Using executive selection criteria, we were able to narrow the list of candidates for our client, which is our goal: to help you eliminate candidates, not to add more candidates to your list. Our CDMO client now only had the right candidates on their radar.

How to develop executive and c-suite selection criteria

Determining your five executive selection criteria works like this: you start with that simple list of what you want your executive to possess, something like this:

  • 10+ years working with clinical trials
  • M.S. in biochemistry; Ph.D. preferred
  • 5+ years leading a team
  • Compensation range $175k-250k with annual 15% performance bonus
  • Willing to relocate to sunny Indiana

This is all great information. But it’s only going to take you so far. If I plug those details into a candidate database and hand you a list of results, you’ll need a year to look at every “perfectly qualified” candidate. You don’t have that kind of time.

Instead, I’m going to push you and start asking questions:

    1. What will this role be on day 1? In 5 years?
      Describe the team this candidate will be leading. What level are the workers? How long have they been working together? How much direction do they need? What roles do they serve? Why isn’t someone from the team being considered for this role? What would you like to see them achieve?
      What credentials do you really want the leader to have (i.e., infectious disease clinical trials, successfully worked on FDA approval)?
      Is compensation flexible for the right candidate? What about equity?
      Would you prefer someone who can grow into this role or someone who is a lateral move and can grow into their boss’s role?
      Can you introduce me to the hiring team?
      Should this candidate be a risk-taker?
      Between you and me, tell me what your culture is really like and where you’d like it to be. Then, let’s go for a walk so I can see it for myself.
      What’s a homerun placement one year after starting?
      What is your company’s ultimate goal, and where are you on the path to this goal?

Questions like these produce answers that point to criteria that do a better job of predicting success in the role. This is what’s at the heart of your executive search criteria. The candidates I find now will form a much smaller group, all of whom are closer to your dream candidate. For example:

  • Startup mentality. Candidate could probably be hired anywhere in the industry but wants the challenge of working for a small-cap company poised to make a big difference.
  • Doesn’t wait for things to happen -- anticipates C-suite within the next 3 years.
  • Has designed clinical trials that led to FDA approval and some that didn’t.
  • Is willing to take a few risks when the rewards are great.
  • Knows how to navigate the gray area.
  • In growth mode: climbing the corporate ladder to establish self as an industry leader; has shown rapid upward progress for 5+ years.
  • Motivator and driver of change. Can turn around a team that’s not achieving results and is capable of making difficult personnel decisions.

If all of this looks good, then we’re onto something. But there’s still a problem: not a single candidate database can search on criteria like this.

My team, however, approaches the challenge differently. We take the basic criteria that was previously identified and use it to help identify a really long list of prospective candidates. Then we get to know everyone on the list personally, and weed out the people who aren’t right.

Remember that’s the goal of your executive selection criteria: to help you eliminate candidates. Candidate A needs security but you’re at a small cap with no FDA approvals. Next! Candidate B hasn’t experienced failure and may not be willing to take the risks this role needs. Candidate C has a five-year plan that still sees them in the role you’re hiring, but maybe with a pay bump. While you appreciate the loyalty, you want someone more driven. Candidate D, however, fits your criteria perfectly.

BTW, if the executive selection criteria feels a lot like the questions you’d ask during an interview with a candidate, you’re right, it is. My team treats the initial screen of a candidate as the first, second, and sometimes third interview of a candidate because most hiring companies don’t have time to go into this level of detail and get all of the information they’ll need to make the final decision. Our goal is to ensure our shortlist of candidates is pre-screened for the executive selection criteria. That way our client’s  hiring committee can get straight to what they really want to know: how the candidate in front of them will fit culturally, and how she or he is going to help reach the company’s goals.

Category: CDMO | Life Sciences

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