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Successful Leadership Recruitment: Truth and Lending

March 3, 2020

An interesting article recently appeared in HBR entitled, The Gap Between What Leaders Want and What Recruiters Deliver.  Although almost all CEO’s / HR Executives are definitely willing to look at solid research and data-driven outcomes, I would like to think that most Life Science CEO’s would quickly dismiss this one with the following comment, “seriously”?

To set the stage, the article was constructed around a “survey of global leaders” (business sector unknown) and authored by the Founder and CEO of a global Recruitment Process Outsourcing (RPO) firm. Feel free to draw your own inference. Although twelve (12) fairly straight forward recruitment tasks were outlined (Effectiveness of Recruiters compared to Importance to Leaders), it was interesting that the stand out metric was the following: delivering quality hires consistently. No kidding!

With a background of 30 years within the Life Science arena and significant C-Level management experience, I thought it might be insightful to hear the perspective of someone who has hired and fired some of the leading global executive search firms…in other words, a little “truth and lending”.

First of all, if an internal Life Science HR department had solicited this survey and delivered this key metric, the vast majority of CEO’s would probably be asking the following: “We spent how much for what”?

Second, consistently delivering quality hires is a key SALES element positioned by almost all executive search and RPO firms. So instead of “recreating the wheel”, I thought a few industry insights might prove beneficial. There are some very distinct reasons why most CEO’s utilize consulting / executive search firms. Let’s explore just a few of the obvious ones:

  1. The company’s current competitive market position

A significant amount of approved C-Level searches are due to the company’s current product pipeline, competitive position, level of revenue attainment and/or the potential impact of a new hire’s performance. As stated in the survey, CEO’s need firms to consistently deliver quality hires! Although it all seems intuitive, most firms never ask or may not even care about the new contributor’s role in the current / future success of the company. Stated differently, “Do you have the job description”?

  1. The lack of internal leadership development

This can be phrased differently, “we do NOT have the time”! C-Level Executives know all too well that corporate objectives, internal milestones, financial metrics etc. are usually linked to market, board and shareholder expectations. As with many Life Science companies, your definition around “sense of urgency” clearly may not align with mine. The ability to reach out to an established firm with a proven process and track record – can cure a lot of perceived “internal or historical evils”. Everyone would prefer to attract, develop and promote internal leadership talent. Unfortunately, in today’s competitive talent arena, internal leadership development AND retention is proving difficult.

  1. Clear Performance Expectations

Nothing will irritate a Life Science Executive quicker than an external firm equating a job description to expected performance. Most executives view a job/position description as what you tell your friends, family or neighbors when asked, “So what do you do for company X”?

Performance expectations may involve a significant amount of company specific elements:

  • Cultural fit
  • Team-Building
  • Management style
  • Change-Management skills
  • A personal “sense of urgency”
  • Mid and long-term company expectations
  • “HOW” will they be measured over the next six, twelve to eighteen months – specifics!

If your company consistently performs “exit interviews”, you will find that a significant amount of negative turnover is directly associated with incongruent performance expectations. What would the outcome be if the external consulting firm had clearly researched, identified and communicated all of these expectations to the candidate prior to the interviewing stage?

  1. The potentially non-vocalized expectations

The expectation is fairly simple – you bring us the person who will not only meet/exceed our performance expectations but whom we can promote or give significant additional responsibilities to, within the next 3-5 years!

So let me state the obvious – relative to the candidates you placed, what is your candidate retention level at 2 years? What is their actual performance at 6–12–18–24 months? Will your external consulting firm even care? In most cases, the fee is not the critical issue – it’s the incredible amount of time we invest in a new hire, the negative internal team and customer impact, the lack of anticipated financial performance etc.  – IF we end up with the wrong hire.

  1. Do you really understand our arena?

Unfortunately, the vast majority of consultants within the Life Science arena have never actually sold, marketed, worked for and/or managed a Life Science company. In general, the vast majority of negative experiences were driven by consultants who truly did not understand the key drivers and the idiosyncratic nature of the business. So let’s go back to the survey – delivering quality hires consistently – one could contend that a CEO would significantly raise their hiring success if you could consistently combine industry expertise with consulting expertise. Given that many executive search firms or RPO’s utilize career search experts and not Life Science experts – then how would you get the best of both worlds?

Instead, I propose you look at the firm that consistently demonstrates the following:

  • A strong team of Life Science professionals
  • A consulting / executive search firm with a proven process and a track record of results – check their candidate retention rates!
  • A well-defined sense of “Truth and Lending”

Just a couple of comments on the last criteria – truth and lending. Every CEO has a significant level of demands, stress and internal/external elements placed on them routinely. If the CEO does not view you as a partner – does not see you as capable of establishing a positive relationship – does not trust you…then you will revert back to the basic survey element: inability to consistently deliver quality hires!


Written by: Steve Leatherman, Partner in our Reno, Nevada office, who leads the firm’s global Life Sciences & Healthcare. Steve’s consulting practice focuses on all aspects of the Life Science and Healthcare industry as well as general management searches for medium and Fortune 500 class enterprises. On a global scale, Steve’s background has provided a broad base of relationships and experience with industry leaders such as: Pfizer, Novartis, Johnson & Johnson, Sanofi Pasteur, Eli Lilly, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Medtronic, St. Jude, Guidant / Boston Scientific, Cellular Dynamics, Life Technologies, Zoetis, BD Biosciences, Sigma Aldrich, Quintiles, Covance, ICON as well as FedEx, UPS, DHL and World Courier.

Allen Austin is a unique consulting firm with specialties in retained search and strategic transformation. Our core purpose is to improve the lives and effectiveness of our clients, associates and the leaders of the world. Our mission is to help leaders build high performance, purpose driven organizations that produce unprecedented results. We are trusted advisors to boards, CEO’s and senior leaders of companies small and large, public and private, family owned, domestic and international. Our brand stands for results, integrity, personal service and long-term relationships.