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The Quest for a Great Hire!


While working with the Executive Leadership Team of a newly formed Canadian/US bio-tech research firm it became apparent that their research and operations plans were going to coincide in 12 months as intended. I asked who was going to head-up the new Operations unit; and did we need to recruit a new scientist if there was to be an internal promotion? This subject had not been on anyone’s agenda. A meeting of the Team was called to sort out this problem.


At the afternoon meeting it was decided that every leader should write a job description for this new Director position: What previous experience was needed? What personality traits should he/she have to fit with the Team? Would their leadership style fit with the corporate Values and culture? And, if a candidate came to mind please submit that candidate’s name. These documents [9] were to be given to me the following week and I compiled them into one job description. The Leadership Team met to review the composite job description compared to their individual efforts. Lots of discussion ensued and a few changes were made. What stood out was that no one had listed a potential candidate. 

I had individual meetings with the President; V.P. Research; and the V.P. Governmental Affairs. The search for the V.P H.R. was on-going and I was filling that role at the time. These discussions refined the Director Operations job description a little further but only focused on the candidate’s required experience and education. The next afternoon the four of us went for lunch to summarize this segment of the search. The outcome was that there was no one working in any US or Canada facilities that had the required qualifications. 

Why? No company that the 3 Leaders knew of [or university researcher] was dealing with this product - synthetic human blood. There was a certain degree of secrecy about this product as all V.P.s and other managers required RCMP clearance. The potential clients were member countries in NATO - the ultimate client was NATO’s military staff. So, we began the first stages of the search believing there were no North American candidates and no university researchers who would have the for-profit experience. I was not as committed to this idea as the other 3 but retained my own counsel. 

As the search began I advised that a minimum of 3-6 months was needed before they would be interviewing my ‘short list’. I obtained permission to use a North American and a European search firm as sub-contractors, if needed. The advertising and travel budgets were established. All this was recorded in an email. 

The search began in 2003 [at about the same time that LinkedIn was getting noticed but its recruitment function, as we know it today, did not exist, so Social Media was not the first option to come to mind]. This left the traditional options open to us: 
  • Identify the names of key personnel in all bio-tech companies and Universities in North America and Europe. The objective was to determine if there might be a suitable candidate; or an individual who could be a source of referral. 
  • Identify the names of all professional associations and journals that might have a close connection to the ideal candidate’s education and/or experience. 
  • I contacted my two colleagues at the search firms in North America and Europe. That proved to be a dead end.  
  • Craft an advertisement for the professional journals and societies. We used 4 journals over a 2 month period - month 1 North America and Europe [different journals]; and month 2, two different journals. 
As anticipated we received many letters and CVs. The common thread was “we would like the opportunity to learn the job/prove ourselves, but have no manufacturing experience” [ the chosen individual would be going from test tube quantities to hundreds of units per day]. The next decision was going to be, I thought, a difficult sell to the President. 

EXPERIENCE with a unique approach: I had just finished a project with an advanced electronic technology firm [implementing Positive Employee Relations™ in 3 foreign countries] and was asked to resolve their recruitment problem at Head Office in Canada -- finding a number of technologists with very unique skills. A number of recommendations were made, including providing the employee who referred the most technologist/technicians to pass the company’s four month ‘probation period’, with a brand new motorcycle. The audience was mostly community college graduates. That company’s President was a salesman from the get-go. He bought the idea, but changed the award to a new yellow Corvette. The car was placed in the front lobby - also the employee entrance - with appropriate media advertising [local TV] coverage, etc. Within a month 70 technologists were hired and HR had a databank of over 100 resumes. About 50 candidates completed the probation period successfully and one employee was awarded the car. 

Having this experience in mind I went to the bio-tech President with a similar idea. Any candidate would who directly refer an individual we hired as Operations Director, was to receive an award. I didn’t have a specific reward in mind. My thinking was to go to the existing managerial and scientific employees and ask for their input. The President wanted the input from the Executive Leadership Team before moving on the proposal. The result: those with a scientific leaning thought it was too outrageous, while those with a business and marketing bent were in favor of the idea. So to break the tie I proposed not putting this idea in print but selecting 2-4 annual association conferences and renting a booth to market our recruiting need. Now we had full agreement. 

The next step was to go to the managerial and scientific community on-site [about 30 employees] and announce the position and invite any applications or referrals. Their suggestions for the ‘prize’ was a 2-week all paid hiking/trekking holiday somewhere in either the Alps of Himalayas or a 2-week period on one or two of the less touristy South Pacific islands. Spouses, significant others were to be included. The President supported the idea [after the CFO estimated the cost] and gave me a ‘green light’ to proceed. 

The next step: Letters were sent to every North American and European university that had educational streams to match the educational requirements of the position. We wrote to the university President, Faculty Deans and the Alumni Association. We then arranged for a booth at 3 upcoming professional conferences [US, UK and Italy]. Next, we confirmed a contract with a convention booth design and marketing company. Finally, we looked into the corporate intelligence of every bio-tech firm we could locate. We phoned each head of Manufacturing and of Research to explain the position; invite them to apply; or recommend a colleague. 

The original timeline was off by at least 3 months mainly driven by the conference schedules. We were now looking at 6 - 9 months to complete this project.


A colleague and I shared the responsibility at the conferences. One would be at the booth and one would be upstairs interviewing interested candidates. We clearly knew that if we stayed within the requirements of the job description, there would never be a ‘short list’ of candidates. In addition to the conference interviews, I talked with university professors in the US, UK and Europe. There were no candidates who matched the job description requirements. In total we interviewed just over 80 individuals. A decision was now needed. I phoned the President and asked for a decision: would it be a candidate with some limited bio-tech experience, where unlearning managerial behaviors was going to be a requirement; or someone with limited bio-tech experience where learning managerial behavior was going to be required? As hoped, he chose the latter option. 

With our assessment tools it was much easier [and hence more accurate] to determine ‘learning skills’ than to determine ‘unlearning skills’. In the end we presented 11 candidates - more than we expected at the outset. A sub-committee of the Leadership Team interviewed each candidate at least twice, and a few four times. The final candidates were then interviewed by a group of line managers. The client employed 4 of the candidates. Two we offered positions to replace existing managers who had been below standard on their last 3 Reviews. They accepted the offers. One candidate was hired for a new position that was brought forward by about 2 years - Director, Quality Assurance. And the final hire was for the original search, a new Director Operations. The Leadership Team knew they had a ‘learning and development’ challenge ahead of them. They all hoped the new V.P. HR would be on board within 2 months and they were going pass the challenge on to her. 

We did not need to offer the 2 week holiday option. However, the option was talked about in the scientific community in a most positive manner. Over the next 3 years the number of unsolicited CVs tripled. 

I have worked with this client on a number of occasions in the last few years. Succession planning has been one of the projects. When completed [for that particular year] the Plan included each of the 4 new hires. They were on the Succession Plan as logical candidates to move into next-level positions. Not a bad outcome! 

NOTE At various stages we used different assessment tools to clarify or verify information we had learned through the recruiting process. For example, once the job description was finalized we had the Executive Team complete a job profile that ‘translated’ the position’s responsibilities and accountabilities into behaviors. We also had the Team do the same for their own position and then we began discussing the inconsistencies. This step in the Recruiting process was almost a project onto itself. The Team learned how each other made decisions, who and why some were dominant personalities, and why some members ‘got along’ with some and not so well with other colleagues. The final assessment was to determine if the President’s candidate of choice was going to fit with the personality and leadership behaviors of the President and vice versa.

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