Attracting (and Keeping) Talent in a Sizzling Market: Four BioPharma HR Leaders Weigh In

Posted by Emily Leinbach on February 18th, 2019


The Bowdoin Group, in partnership with Marsh & McLennan Agency, hosted an evening panel discussion on attracting, recruiting, and retaining the best talent in BioPharma and Tech at the beginning of February.  The event was the sixth installation of the invite-only HR leadership panel series, Building Cultures of Innovation and Accountability.  With the spotlight on BioPharma and BioTech, the event’s location at Blueprint Medicines in the heart of Kendall Square in Cambridge was no coincidence.  It was a fitting location to discuss topics ranging from wowing candidates with your interview process to handling disengaged managers.

The panel brought together some of Boston’s top leaders in BioPharma and BioTech: Andrea Armstrong, Board of Directors, Mana Therapeutics, Wendy Arnold, SVP, Human Resources, Kaleido Biosciences, Wendy Durkin, Senior Director, Recruiting, Third Rock Ventures, and Debbie Durso-Bumpus, SVP, Human Resources, Blueprint MedicinesKaren Walker Beecher, COO of The Bowdoin Group, moderated the insightful and engaging panel discussion.

The group talked about challenges, trends, and best practices, generating a number of key insights. Here are the top four:

  1. Treat candidates like visiting dignitaries – One panelist commented that her company designated someone to ‘own the experience’ when the candidate arrived for their interview.  They wanted to ensure that candidates knew how much they were valued and got an early feel for their supportive, positive company culture.  The designated person essentially held the candidate’s hand throughout the entire experience—greeting them, shepherding them from one interview to the next, and collecting any candidate feedback after the experience.  Since it was a big resource commitment, they decided to run an experiment to see if the “shepherd’s” role truly mattered in the candidate experience.  For several weeks, they used the “shepherd” approach for Director-level candidates and above only.  For everyone else, the candidate experience began breaking down—meetings ran long, candidates weren’t feeling valued, and the feedback (and hiring success) reflected it.  Takeaway: The candidate experience is important; in fact, it can make or break your next hire.
  2. Hire smart early on – All panelists recognized that early stage hires impact who you attract from there on out.  Great people know great people.  The caliber of people they know and who want to work with them can make recruiting easier, but pulling in referrals early is not always the right answer.  Some people will want to bring in three or four employees from their previous company which can either recreate that company’s culture or create a microculture in yours.  And if you’ve made the wrong hire early, it will permeate the rest of the company culturally, so take action on it quickly—while you drag your feet, the rest of the company is wondering why it hasn’t happened already.  Takeaway: It’s up to you in HR to get your executive team on board with the concept of hiring smart early on and push back when your culture is at risk.
  3. Lay out expectations with the hiring team (in person and on their calendars) – The candidate experience was a hot topic during the panel.  One panelist said that the importance of scheduling internal pre- and post-meetings cannot be overstated.  Pre-meetings lay out the expectations for the interview as well as the varied topics each person will explore with the candidate.  It also gives HR the opportunity to describe what questions are illegal to ask during interviews, like the candidate’s current salary.  Post-meetings are just as important as they allow the team to formally debrief on a candidate.  If these meetings aren’t in people’s calendars, it’s hard to find the time to reconnect (especially with executive hires) and the process loses steam.  Takeaway: Be a scheduling fanatic—your team will thank you later when the process moves forward seamlessly.
  4. Let time kill some deals (as frustrating as it will be) – Panelists commented that many managers want or need to hire, but simply don’t have the time to see it through.  Part of HR’s responsibility in hiring is to make sure the manager actually has the time to be engaged in the process.  One panelist commented that if the manager has been unresponsive, she lets them know she’ll be “deprioritizing” the position, which typically either gets them re-engaged or allows the manager to acknowledge that it’s probably not the right time.  Some managers also require far too many people to be on the interview team–one recently had 15 people.  The poor candidate was “put through the ringer” and because there were so many decision makers, it slowed down the process, and the candidate accepted an offer elsewhere in the meantime.  The panelist commented that sometimes that’s just what the manager needs for an aha moment.  Takeaway: Ensure managers understand the time required to find a great hire and if they’re disengaged, they may need to learn the lesson the hard way.

Read highlights from the prior event in this series and learn more here about attending future events and receiving best practices and insights from the Bowdoin team.  Request to join the HR Leadership Online Forum to exchange ideas around important topics like this one and ask questions of your peers.

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