There were almost 15,000 convention attendees at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) meeting in Toronto on the second week of June this year. The BIO meeting is one of the single most important biotech business meetings of the year. And if the success of their job fair is a guide, it seems that one important piece of business for many BIO attendees is networking and finding a new job.
At this job fair, as in many others, new graduates and those with limited experience compete for the attention of recruiters and employers. What I liked about this particular meeting, however, was the emphasis on job-seeker seminars and education. A variety of speakers brought many important points home to the audience.
Tom Kotsopoulos, manager of recruitment for Apotex Pharmaceuticals, Canada's largest homegrown pharmaceutical company, joined me as co-speaker for a session I organized. I was happy to get Tom out of his interviewing booth, and even more pleased that the "Seven Attributes of a Winning Hire" he provided seemed to have a broad interest to a variety of attendees. I've expanded on his ideas here for Next Wave readers.
Seven Attributes of a Winning Hire
Attribute #1: Communication Skills
Tom places this one first in his list of seven attributes. As a recruiter, I am constantly looking at client job descriptions that state that candidates must have "excellent communication skills." I have gotten so used to seeing it that I rarely mention this as a requirement when describing a position, and this is a mistake because it is a critical skill area. Excellent communication skills refers to one-on-one verbal language skills, writing skills, presentation skills, and in general the ability to "convey thoughts, opinions, suggestions, questions, and answers in an appropriate and professional manner," as Tom describes it.
Effective communication skills include "listening skills." Let's face it, listening is tough--particularly when you are sitting across from a prospective boss, nervous and feeling like you'd rather be in the dentist's chair. I learned long ago that you must focus on the person in front of you--you need to listen intently to every nuance of every question that the interviewer asks. Moreover, if you listen well, then you will ask questions that are much more perceptive.
Attribute #2: An Ability and Willingness to Learn
Years ago, I came across a hiring manager who told me that his number one determination for a hire came from an applicant's record of success in what he called "lifelong learning." Tom brought this back to mind as he described how important it is to have demonstrated a commitment to lifelong learning. Do continued learning and development inspire you? What is it that you have learned recently? What do you want to learn in the future? These are the kinds of questions that employers ask, and the answers are important enough to be among Apotex's top attributes for the winning hire.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that this refers only to those "hard" skill areas that impact your job, such as training in new lab techniques or leadership skills. Certainly these are important, but don't hesitate to mention that you've been taking up Tai Chi, or that you've gone back to school in the evenings to learn about French literature. Activities such as these demonstrate that you try to constantly improve and enrich your mind.
Attribute #3: Team Skills
Most corporate employers believe that the major difference between academia and industry is the culture of teamwork that pervades industry. These employers believe that the "ivory tower" has too large an emphasis on independence as opposed to interdependence. This doesn't have to be the case, however. Have you worked in a successful team-based environment? How have you contributed to the team's success? What have you learned about teams in the workplace? Prepare yourself for questions in this area, as it regularly comes up in job interviews. Like Apotex, many companies believe that being a team player is an essential determination in a hiring decision.
Attribute #4: Customer Service
When I first read Tom's slide that mentioned this particular attribute, I had a hard time understanding how this might be relevant for a job seeker who comes right out of academia. As I listened, I came to understand that this is indeed one of the most important differences for the person who is going to make it in industry. Who is it that benefits from the work that you do at the university? The principal investigator? The granting agency? These people are customers! A focus on customers and on customer service is essential in order to bridge the gap into your new job in industry.
Do you know who your customers are? Are you familiar with the needs and expectations of your customers? How have you supported your customer's success? These questions and more will be asked of you in order to determine your understanding of this critical attribute.
Attribute #5: Initiative
Many companies will investigate this attribute through reference checking. They will ask your references these kinds of questions: Have you ever gone above and beyond the call of duty? What have you done to exceed the expectations of those whom you support? What kind of work hours do you keep?
My recommendation is that you don't allow companies to get their sole determination of your initiative by talking to your references. Instead, come up with examples before your interview. Be prepared to talk about some of your most important accomplishments, paying special attention to those situations that show you have gone the "extra mile" in order to satisfy the needs of the project and those who are counting on your efforts.
Attribute #6: Adaptability
Our session at the BIO meeting began with an overview of the biotech industry by entrepreneur Mark Dibner, president and CEO of BioAbility LLC. This was followed by Tom's presentation, and then my own seminar on job-hunting strategies. I found it interesting that despite the fact that we hadn't compared notes in advance, there was a common thread in each of these presentations that tied them all together. That common thread was that people in industry are subjected to constant change, particularly in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. A key part of your interview preparation will be to find some examples of how you have adapted to unexpected circumstances.
In Tom's presentation, he tipped the audience off to two questions that he likes to ask in interviews: What are your thoughts about why organizations have a need for change? Tell me about your experience in maintaining or exceeding your usual performance in face of some kind of dramatic change?
Attribute #7: Promotability
I'm not certain that this is even a word, but I can tell you from personal experience that recruiters and employers use this expression all the time. Promotability refers to a gut-level instinct that an interviewer develops regarding an applicant's ability to grow in an organization. As interviewers, we ask ourselves, "Does this candidate demonstrate the overall behaviors, skills, knowledge, and desire to grow?" (Or, alternatively, is this person simply going to do this job adequately and otherwise be of no further use to the organization?)
Employers test your "promotability" when they ask about your short-term and long-term career expectations. It isn't so important that you pick just the right long-term career goal when asked, but that it be evident that you have a plan. Promotable people have career plans in place, and they know where they are on that plan at any point in time.
Every company has a set of winning attributes it considers when making the decision to hire. I think that the seven attributes that Tom Kotsopoulos described represent what industry employers are looking for all over the world. Study them and make certain that you are ready to demonstrate examples of these qualities in yourself throughout the interviewing process.