Recruiting Life Science

The Science of Life Sciences Recruiting

By Patricia “Patti” Hall

Recruiting Life ScienceAs an experienced recruitment partner in the life sciences industry, I have learned that it is particularly important for a search firm’s practices and priorities to mirror those of its clients in this sector.  Life Sciences is a unique industry, with business practices that have been specifically designed to maximize the potential for developing innovative products while mitigating risk.

Every company in the industry – from startup to global leader – shares at least three important operating priorities that drive business success, and recruitment strategies in life sciences must be fully aligned with these in order to be effective.

1. Promising pipeline.  Biotech, pharmaceuticals, medical device and technologies, and other life sciences companies are valued for the progress and potential of their product pipelines, in the same way recruitment firms are valued for the level of talent and fit they can readily bring to an engagement.

Some recruiting firms still pitch the “five companies and five people” strategy to fill key positions, potentially setting themselves – and their clients – up for getting caught flat-footed.  Our research shows that about 20 percent of a candidate slate will move into the final stages of the search process; the other 80 percent will either have been rejected through the client’s interview process or will drop out on their own based on their level of interest.  If a recruiter brings five candidates, four will most likely be gainfully employed and very well compensated and/or fully engaged with the innovative new product or strategy they are developing.  Providing a more robust pipeline of highly qualified, talented candidates will help ensure a more successful and timely closure to the search process.

Life sciences recruiting must be rigorous and relentless in order to build and sustain a robust talent pipeline.  This requires a large network of professional, relevant contacts – not simply a database of codified skills.  The individuals in the network are known to the recruiter because he or she has followed their careers, or they are trusted sources who know the top talent and are willing to provide a “quality” referral or recommendation.  Often, by the time a client has retained a search firm to fill a role, it has been open for a while, making a rapid and efficient search execution all the more critical.  Sustaining long-term relationships is fundamental to fast-tracking talent in this highly competitive industry.

2. Innovative development programs.  It takes time – a lot of time – and resources for a medical device or biopharmaceutical company to bring a new drug, device, or diagnostic tool to market, and having the right talent has a direct impact on time and cost to market.  This means recruiting an inspirational leader – the kind of person who is not only driven and attracted to the life-changing work they will do, but who is also committed to seeing this work through to discovery and delivery.

Relative to search, it takes more than a cookie-cutter approach to identify that unique combination of inspiration and perspiration.  Cookie cutters produce more of the same, which does not suffice in an industry that is dependent on major breakthroughs; more effective is a multi-layered approach, akin to the scientific method clients use.  This involves developing proprietary processes and methods to get a true sense of candidates’ character and whether they have the capabilities, values, vision, cultural fit, and confidence for the challenges and opportunities inherent in a life sciences and healthcare leadership role.  It requires courage to take the innovative, creative approach of considering talent that may have followed a non-traditional path to career success.

3. Cross-functional “interdependence.”  Product development in life sciences is complex, with many companies today operating with a matrixed organizational style that allows all responsible parties, from R&D to regulatory, to have input throughout the entire process.  Cross-functional roles, responsibilities, and priorities continue to be the business model, and recruiters must use a parallel, integrative approach in presenting and placing candidates.

What does an integrative approach involve in recruiting?  The dynamic of soliciting formal and informal participation from all stakeholders to the position, including cross-functional peers with whom the candidate will work on a regular basis.  This benefits the client, as real-time insight is gained about how the candidate fits with the other personalities on the team and how he or she would be able to navigate cross-functional relationships.  Allowing team members to have meaningful input regarding candidates before they are on board helps limit any potential sabotaging of the incumbent senior leader, and candidates get a better sense of the people and culture, and whether the internal environment feels like a good fit for what they would like to achieve.

Each of these recruitment practices – having a promising pipeline to fast-track hires, a multi-layered process for candidate evaluation, and an integrative approach to filling cross-functional roles – mirrors business strategies that are essential to the success of life sciences and healthcare organizations.  They are designed to match the right talent, quickly and efficiently, while mitigating risk – a fact of life in life sciences.


Patti Hall is a managing partner with Quick Leonard Kieffer and heads the life sciences practice.  QLK is one of the leading healthcare-focused executive search firms in the country, partnering with large, mid-market, and startup organizations.  Patti brings over two decades of experience specializing in general management, senior commercial, and operations leadership in the healthcare/life sciences, medical device, pharmaceutical, and consumer health and wellness industries.  She has conducted over 200 executive searches across the healthcare continuum, placing senior executives who continue to add sustainable leadership to their management teams.