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Dissecting a Life Science Executive Search

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DeeDee DeMan, Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

A Time Like No Other

We have no historical frame of reference for where the industry is. As a company in our fifth generation, I’ve never seen a market as fearful as the life sciences are now. So, we must make novel decisions to preserve the businesses that deserve to make it because they’ve got great science or a great platform technology. It’s up to the C-suite and Board to ensure the businesses have sufficient financing and they are executing on their strategic plans. There is money out there, and a lot of it; it’s just that investors have parked it on the sidelines for now, resulting in a freeze frame in company development. Because so many emerging companies have been frozen in time without funding to advance their pipelines into the financial scale up of clinical development, a big question has surfaced – what impact will this have on patients in the future?

Personal Networks Are Often Insufficient to Identify the Best Candidates

Many life science companies believe they can best fill open leadership positions and board seats through their own networks. For example, we find a lot of the same suspects on multiple boards, because they’re friends of either the CEO or someone on the board. The problem is these companies are not creating an objective search for best-in-class domain experts. This evokes the same question, what impact, if not going for best-in-class leaders, will this have on patients?

Components of a Successful Search

Having the right team

We see a lot of companies hiring one of the Big Four recruitment firms because it’s a ‘safe choice’. Yet a year or so later, the search firm has not been successful in filling the company position. So, in the pharma world, we become the emergency second line therapy. Of course, it would make a lot more sense to have started with a firm that possesses deep life science expertise, access, and reach.

So that’s one of the first secret sauces that we bring to the table – a truly integrated team with multiple skill sets in recruitment, research, project management and operations, all coming together on a global scale to look at our client’s problem and then solve for that problem. Typically, within three weeks from launch, we are able to deliver vetted candidates, who are ready for formal interview, with a 90- day completion target. We want our clients to understand that we’re not a transactional firm, we earn the right to be known as a partner.

For example, we recently completed a CEO search for Critical Path Institute (C-Path) and here’s what Board Chair, Kay Holcombe, had to say. “Your organization provided us access to a highly talented group of professionals who worked on our behalf, responded effectively and promptly to our questions, were available to us on a virtually 24/7 basis (especially important when operating across three time zones), organized and executed timely and detailed updates as the search progressed, scheduled and facilitated on-line meetings with candidates, and generally exhibited client services that were above and beyond any of our expectations.”

The magic behind the curtain: Secrets of what defines great recruiting

When we initiate a new search, the executive recruiter, who has already developed a relationship with the client and understands the need, becomes the team chair. Our teams comprise 4 -6 members including research, operations, and project management who all hear the same requirements at the same time. Following launch calls, we create a project plan with activities, time lines and responsibilities, and our milestones, outlining how we are going to meet the client need. Our research team is responsible for engaging the global network and building the candidate pool. We vet the candidates for domain, functional, and fit and work with operations to deliver the final package to the client.

At the conclusion of a recent CEO search, Lili Xie, Co-founder of Cellics Therapeutics said, “Thank you all for your diligent and professional work helping us recruit our CEO. We are satisfied with the high-quality work the Bench team has done, and look forward to collaborating with you in the future on other executive/board recruitment opportunities.”

It starts with research

We have an extraordinary research team that knows how to solve for client needs and requirements. They are able to identify candidates where internal networks and other recruitment firms have previously failed. A member of our research team is on every client call to pick-up on subtle plan changes and understand the client’s threshold of pain. They use their expertise to go out and look three dimensionally at all potential candidates focusing on the broad end of the funnel first.

Building the candidate pool

Next, the recruiters start refining the search toward the narrow end of the funnel. That includes the hardscape skills – experience, competencies, and accomplishments – plus the soft skills including, communication and leadership style, beliefs, values, adaptability and integrity; all elements that determine if the candidate fits the company culture. Importantly and appropriately, we are also asked to create balanced, diverse slates. The message as to the value of diversity is sinking in.

The soft skills cannot be overemphasized. We want to understand the candidate’s personal agenda, business vision and mission to validate their focus on how they expect to impact patients. Does their ethos fit hand in glove with our client? For me, ensuring that a Bench identified leader not only fits into the culture, but will guide the culture, or in some cases, improve it, is critical. We are acutely aware that a wrong fit can devastate a culture…and the business. These are our drivers and we meet them with passion, examining all motives closely as we vet candidates.

Our secret weapon

We invest heavily in each team supporting our clients. After the team has agreed that we’ve found and vetted the best-in-class, we then use third-party assessments to review the candidates for their communication and work style, serving as an independent third eye for our team’s work product. This is a critical quality assurance check that most recruiters forego, but our clients love. We have NO ownership interest in any third-party assessments, nor will we ever have. By definition, they would not be independent.

Kay Holcomb had this to say about the quality slate of candidates, “Bench provided us with a group of potential candidates that were highly and often uniquely qualified to lead our complex and sophisticated scientific organization. Our ability to connect with a group of such skilled and knowledgeable individuals provided us with opportunities well beyond anything we have seen before, working with other executive search firms. You also spent time interviewing each potential candidate in advance, to assure that each individual was genuinely as promising as the written resume suggested and that each one had a strong enough interest in the position to merit further consideration. In short, we remain in awe of your impressive Rolodex and your almost mystical understanding of whether a potential candidate seemed like a ‘good fit’ for us.”

Operations are critical

The operations team is our air traffic controllers of the business. They’re the ones who coordinate our client meetings and interviews. They put together the data on each of the candidates that we have fully vetted to ensure that an entire data package of primary research is produced for each candidate. We do not recycle the same candidates over and over again and just change the name of our client in the presentation. Rather, every recruiting project requires primary research on behalf of the client. Operations is also responsible for our weekly or biweekly report card, which is our status report, so our clients have full transparency of current and targeted candidates along with time lines.

Our oversight doesn’t end with the successful placement of a candidate. Our team remains engaged with the client to ensure success. “You are also providing follow-up service, keeping in contact with us and the successful candidate – now CEO – to ensure a smooth transition is occurring, to alert us to any matters of concern or possible difficulty,” Kay Holcomb continued.

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