Thirty years ago, we’d have a handful of great prospects for any life sciences role that needed to be filled -- fewer when recruiting executive positions. At the time, the industry wasn’t very big or diverse, and everyone knew the top names.
Today, we still have a limited number of great prospects for any life sciences role, but for different reasons:
- Candidate skills are frequently applicable to other industries (i.e., manufacturing or tech), making external competition fiercer for the same top talent.
- Specialized therapies require skills that are only held by a small number of in-demand individuals
- M&A activity and regulatory changes can make an ideal role seem risky to a candidate
- As Baby Boomers age, they also retire -- a lot of great leaders are leaving the field right now
- Employee retention is fierce: when hiring gets tough, companies work harder to keep their leaders in place
These reasons are why every recruiter needs a strategy before they hire, something that goes beyond the job description, compensation, and nice-to-have skills. Here’s some of what’s on our executive recruiting strategy. By the way, our strategy is mutable; we modify it whenever necessary to keep up with the factors affecting life sciences’ demand for talent.
Life sciences recruiting strategy:
1. Handle with care.
The single most important aspect of recruiting today is candidate care -- what are you doing that shows you respect candidates, their time, and their talent? Whether a candidate takes the role or not, their opinion of your organization can impact dozens of other prospective candidates. And even if a candidate isn’t your top pick for this role, they may be your top pick for another role. You can read more about candidate care here or ask me questions anytime.
2. Source from within.
Never overlook the talent you have within your own company -- these people know your company and business and vice versa, and it may only require a little training or guidance to create a perfect fit. If no one seems right for the job, look at referrals and other connections that you already have. I’m obsessive about tracking connections between all of our candidates as well as their connections to companies, whether or not those companies are our current clients. It may seem tedious, but on more than one occasion, these connections helped my firm find (and motivate) the perfect candidate quickly. Connections are the number one recruiting tool in our toolbox. You can see how these work in #6 below.
3. Think outside the box.
Answer this honestly: When was the last time you updated your skills on LinkedIn? What about your email address? If you’re heading up a company, the answer may be “LinkedIn? Oh yeah, I forgot about that.” Even an executive who appears active on LinkedIn may have someone else posting for them and maintaining their profile. Be prepared to find other ways to learn about prospective candidates and contact the candidate, too. Passive candidates are exactly why I started tracking connections. Sometimes the best way to get to know a candidate is by asking around.
4. Spend time with passive candidates.
I don’t have any stats on this, just anecdotal information: top candidates are hit up by recruiters constantly. So what are you doing that’s different from anyone else? For me, that means explaining the difference between us -- a boutique search firm that focuses on just one industry (life sciences) -- and the big search firm, and show the candidate how this difference is reflected in our track record. I share my background, my interest in the field and anything else the candidate wasn't to know so they're comfortable opening up to me. It's easy to research someone online today (be sure you check in with your connections to them, too). But taking time to get to know your prospective candidates takes talent. So when you get a candidate to take your call (this, BTW, is an art in itself), ensure you’re making every second count. If you’re lucky, you’ll have one chance to make the perfect pitch, so stand out. It takes time and effort but it’s always worth it.
5. Put expert recruiters on your most essential searches.
I can’t stress this enough: junior recruiters are fantastic but they’re not the right people to recruit executive candidates (just give them a little more time and they will be). Your most experienced professional recruiters will know your industry and be well-versed in its jargon and lingo. Plus they’ll know names, reputations, what it takes to succeed at the candidate’s current role and how that will translate into success in the new role. If you don’t have a highly experienced industry recruiter on your team, bring in an outside firm that specializes in your industry.
6. Take a risk.
My firm conducted a search a few months ago that was tough right out of the gate (this, however, is common today). Our top recruiter put in countless hours going through prospective candidates with a fine-toothed comb even before she made her first inquiry. She found a few people who looked great, including one who was in academia but who had been in the private sector previously. We considered him a long-shot for the job. While his skills were a pretty good match, he didn’t have the exact industry experience the client wanted.
Regardless, my recruiter made her pitch to the long-shot candidate and it was spot-on -- enough to get him to take her call. That’s when she learned the candidate’s LinkedIn profile was missing a few things, including a time when this long-shot candidate worked with our client’s CEO.
She talked to the candidate for a few hours before deciding to add him to the shortlist. The CEO didn’t remember him, but mentioning the personal connection made a difference. The long-shot candidate was invited for an interview and, BINGO, he beat out a few shoe-ins and landed the job. I received an email from the CEO this week that said: “We’re really enjoying having him on our executive staff. He’s a breath of fresh air and all of our clients really respect him.”
Had my recruiter not taken a chance and contacted a candidate whose experience didn’t line up exactly, she never would have gotten his full background story including the CEO connection, nor put him on the shortlist and the client would have missed out on this hire.
BTW, those relationships? They simplify future searches for you, too, but more importantly, they make you love your job. I’m entering my fourth decade in retained search -- a highly competitive field -- and I wouldn’t still be here if I didn’t love the relationships I’ve developed. Sure, when I need advice, I can draw from some of the highest performing CEOs and executives in the world, but it’s their stories that get me. I once asked a candidate about character builders from his youth, and he told me he was the sole survivor of a plane crash at the age of 16. Later, he co-founded BioMarin. His success was great but his personal story is still what gets me.