Looking for Answers

How to uncover a person's potential value when conducting a job interview

Mar 1, 2006
Ruedi Sandmeier

When looking to hire someone, after combing through resumes and culling the most promising, your next step is often a short phone conversation and then an in-person interview. The typical interview lasts 1 to 1.5 hours, and should generally be conducted one-on-one. You should strive to get at information not covered in the resume or a cover letter. This may include asking for a description of the last three positions held by the candidate (the nature of the organization, job duties, and reporting relationships), or other points to clarify, such as, "Why did you work only nine months at XYZ Biotech?"

You should also ask about key achievements, which are often predictors of success in a new job. Here, it is important to prompt candidates to tell you what they do, how they do it, and what results they have achieved. This is important because titles tell you very little. A director at one biotech or pharmaceutical company may be called a vice president at another company. One vice president at a company may manage ten people, while someone else with the same job title at a different place may be responsible for 800 people.

It is important to distinguish the type of career track someone is on: Is it management or scientific? Some companies expressly designate dual ladders separating science and management, while others may do so more informally. In one company, a principal scientist may have a similar rank and compensation as a vice president but without having any business-oriented functions, while somewhere else with that same title just means the person has been around a while.

With a dual ladder, a person can stay on a scientific track while advancing, becoming a principal scientist or a "distinguished scientist." It is a way to allow people who don't have management skills to be rewarded for their scientific talents. Sometimes a chief scientific officer (CSO) will have no one reporting to him; he is on board for his intellectual contribution. Another CSO may have management responsibilities for her large department. So it is important to keep in mind that titles are not meaningful without eliciting a clear description of the size of the company, the size of a department, and an explanation of the person's role, responsibilities, and overall contribution to the company.

When responding to the question of contribution, many scientists will say, "I am a brilliant scientist, that's what I'm contributing." This response works more or less for academic positions but it is not helpful when considering somebody for a company job, as for-profits will demand a greater connection with the bottom line. So, ask the candidate for examples of a successful project where she had a major role. What were the challenges? Often scientists, short of having the claim to fame of bringing a drug to market (which is rare), cannot at first articulate what achievements they can claim or what value they brought. These are the questions that seldom get a rehearsed answer, so they tend to be revealing about a person. If he has difficulty answering, do your best to prompt him.

Successful candidates must also be able to communicate what they do to an educated layperson or a scientist not in their specialty. If they are not able, I believe that they themselves don't understand completely what they are doing; this is a major obstacle to moving forward in a career. To be an executive, you need to understand how your role fits into the business goals of the company. If somebody is brilliant but can't communicate, I would keep them on a scientific track and reward them as such with a special title and financial incentives, but they need to be kept out of management. During the interview you need to figure out the type of person you are interviewing. I also make sure to ask "where do you see yourself in five and 10 years?" This will tell you whether the candidate has thought about the longer-term future.

I suggest that the candidate be interviewed by four to six coworkers who should then share their views with each other. Often, a presentation may be part of an interview. By the end of an interview you should know whether you want to continue the discussion and go to a referencing stage.

Ruedi Sandmeier is managing director of the healthcare/life sciences executive search firm BioQuest in San Francisco.
rsandmeier@the-scientist.com