Why every recruiter should know too much


I spend considerable time reading. Paper is my medium of choice, but I read plenty of digital publications and newsletters, too. I spend a portion of each day snapping photos of great print articles and sending them to my team or forwarding today’s newsletter.

I’m not alone — when you’re an executive recruiter, it’s almost guaranteed that the people you’ll be placing will be in the news. But the articles I forward aren’t just about the movers and shakers in life sciences (my recruiting specialty). They’re also about the new developments, the struggles to gain FDA approval, the treatments and their life saving potential.

Years ago, I would have told you that I did this because it made it easier for me to recognize the names I would eventually want to recruit, or quickly grab a list of great candidate targets to lead your pharmaceutical startup. That still matters. But today, my clippings are less about learning the names and more about understanding the challenges that life sciences companies are facing in the market.

Learning a job candidate’s credentials is important, but learning what they really did means more

If you’ve not recruited or been a recruit in a while, it’s probably time for a quick update on how it works: most of us use tech to create our long-list of candidates who have the right experience, the right education, all that. Some recruiters take that long list and start making calls (or sending emails and LinkedIn messages). Those of us who’ve been in the industry for a while hold off until we’ve added a few more folks to the list — people we know who might be a good fit. We’ll also go a few steps further, branch out on job titles, look for people in “near-the-box” industries when it seems appropriate (i.e., CDMO — in some manufacturing roles, life sciences experience maybe secondary to their production skills), and append our list some more. That’s where the fun starts: whittling down. Talking to people, finding out who’s interested, who fits the requirements, how to motivate the very best of the best. The end result is your short list - the whole reason you hire an executive search firm.

Somewhere along the way, however, we recruiters should have a discussion with the candidates to show us who’s really right for the role and who isn’t. It starts with questions about experience, which shed light on so many other things, including cultural fit, long-term motivation, work style and how the candidate will excel.

Here’s the problem: that conversation frequently results in impressive but polished answers.

But you know what? I don’t want “polished.” I want raw information — I want to know what really happened, what someone is really capable of and what they went through to get there.

I want objective insight. I want a less sugar-coated truth. So I read.

Where journalists enter the recruiting game

Last week, I forwarded an article from the Wall Street Journal to my team. It was about Sarepta Therapeutics and data that they had recently released on a gene therapy for Duchenne disease. The therapy shows incredible promise, even if the study was/is awfully small.

For my team, however, the article was important for reasons beyond the research — it gave us a window into the company and the therapy, which helps us learn more about a segment of the market and encourages us to do our own digging to find out who helped create the therapy, who assisted with getting it approved, and what challenges existed for the people who’ve put so much energy into the therapy.

We’re not, by the way, staffing Sarepta. I’m just using this article to illustrate a point: when we’re talking to a leadership candidate for another firm, we may already have some background on what she or he went through. We may use this to develop better questions, add people to a future shortlist, and overall understand our industry more thoroughly.

Executive recruiters should never take someone’s word for it

When you talk to candidates for a living, you start noticing trends. There are people who talk about all — and only — the amazing stuff they’ve accomplished. There also are people who place such a high value on humility that they gloss over all of the amazing stuff they’ve accomplished. Everyone else falls somewhere in between.

I realized pretty early in my career that knowing all of the little details about the industry in which I was recruiting was the best way to get to know the candidates. Sure, they’d answer all of my questions, but I wanted an objective view, something that came from knowing other members of the industry personally and from reading every scrap of news that I could find on the industry, even if it had nothing to do with an active project I was working on. I’m not sure I slept enough.

That’s about the time I started specializing in the life sciences. Coming from a recruiting giant where I was frequently tasked with any number of unrelated projects in order to meet quotas, this was game changing. It made my job easier, better, and far more interesting. And it gave me insight into what it took to succeed in each executive role or board position I placed. It helped me decipher responses from candidates and ask the right questions when I was interviewing them, the kind that would elicit responses that could make the difference between a wildly successful candidate and one who could be classified as “good enough.”

Reading everything, learning, sharing -- it all takes time. My team knows this well. But if they learn more about the current state, and the history of the industry they’re immersed in, it’s worth the effort. If they spend a few minutes (probably more) each day reading everything I send them, they’ll be able to serve the industry better. Because knowing who you’re really recruiting and why will never take as long as working through the process and recommending someone who’s not quite right for the role.

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