The Other Side of the Table

I have been through a grueling experience recently: trying to find suitable members for my department in a major, global pharmaceutical company. It is tough picking the right candidate from a pool of equally exceptional applicants. Small nuances can tip the scales. In follow-up conversations with the interviewees, I was often asked for feedback on performance and on ways of improving it. In this article I will list a few pointers I shared with them. I hope to provide a view from the other side of the table that some may find useful.

The positions I was trying to fill were broadly in the managerial/business track in drug development and were to be part of the Worldwide Project Management and Medical Operations Group. The job focus was on business process and medical operations. The ideal candidate needed good business acumen, a background in medicine/science, and some knowledge of drug development. In addition, candidates had to demonstrate leadership, maturity, and a sense that they could work well in teams. Every candidate selected for the interviews held promise in all these areas.

It is almost axiomatic that if you reach the interviewing stage, you are most likely well qualified for the position. The task then is to validate that you are, in fact, a good fit for the position in question. In addition, there is always the elusive "chemistry" question. How would the interviewing manager and others feel about having you as a member of the department? How would you fit in with the rest of the team? This is akin to what consulting firms refer to as the "airport" test: Could I tolerate being stuck with you in an airport for several hours? Among the candidates I interviewed, several stood out for the energy, excitement, and enthusiasm they exuded as they walked through the door. Straightaway, they earned high marks on the chemistry question.

Here are some specific pointers I shared with the candidates.

- Craft a simple résumé: Although there is a huge diversity of opinion, the myth of the "perfect" résumé endures, fanning unnecessary anxiety. Fear not! The principles of good résumé writing are straightforward: Keep it simple and logical, avoid too much text and complex constructions, and minimize irrelevant and redundant material. As a hiring manager, I was looking for three key pieces of information: an up-front summary of strengths and aspirations, a section on education, and a section on experience (the last two being listed in reverse chronological order). Surprisingly, this information was hard to find in many résumés. My suggestion is to craft your résumé with everything dropped into one of the three buckets described above. Drop all other items into a bucket called "Other." For what it is worth, I have consistently used this approach in the past and gotten a fair response.

- Don't apply for all positions advertised: Hiring is a coordinated and aligned process within a company. People in the organization talk with one another. They can easily spot if someone has applied to multiple open, unrelated positions. This tends to put hiring managers off. Can you really be a good candidate if you are not even sure what kind of job you want? Occasionally, applicants do find more than one compelling position. In such cases, should they be called to interview, they should be candid about having applied for other positions and be frank about their levels of interest in the positions. One could even indicate that they have applied for more than one position in the same company and mention how it is in keeping with their overall area of interest. For instance, candidates had applied to both the U.S. and Worldwide (WW) side of the Project Management (PM) organization. U.S. and WW PM had independently posted their openings. In their cover letter, candidates mentioned that they had sent in separate applications to the two organizations. This was a wise move, as the two organizations were closely coordinating their hiring.

- Indicate a broad range of interests: Although most résumés came via HR, a fair number came from my colleagues as well. Usually, the ones that came from colleagues were those of candidates who had applied to other departments and were found not to be good fits there, but were considered potential candidates in my area by my colleagues. In your cover letter, be as specific as you can as to why you are applying for a position, but end with a statement such as "my broader interests include the following." This way, if you are not a good fit for the position, the résumé may be sent to another appropriate area within the company. Keep in mind that, rather than applying for multiple positions at the same institution, it's better to indicate your broader interests in your cover letter in the one position you apply for and encourage the reader(s) to distribute your résumé to other potentially interested parties. Apply to the position that seems the best fit in terms of your background and interests.

- Network widely and effectively: This cannot be repeated often enough. Some of the applicants in my recent search were folks my colleagues met in informal settings and found to be bright, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic. They impressed my colleagues enough so that they sent on their résumés to me with a note: "Take a look--could be a good fit." Most professionals are always on the lookout for talent. So make a deliberate attempt to network and meet as many people as you can. A friendly word of caution, however. It's OK to mention that you're in the job market, but never directly ask someone for a job. The purpose of networking is to get to know people and exchange information; leave it to the company rep to talk about positions in the company. That is a much better situation all around.

- Have good answers for the following questions:

  • Can you tell me about yourself? Prepare a succinct answer. In my interviews, most of the applicants just took this as a license to ramble on and on and gave a fuzzy, obscure response. Don't.

  • Why are you applying for this position? A basic question. Be clear as to why you are applying. How does this tie in to your previous education, experience, and interests? Future plans and aspirations? Give a sense that this is the profession you were always interested in and have always been serious about. Again, be succinct.

  • Can you tell me about fundamental issues in the industry? Develop some sense of major problems confronting the industry. A sense of seriousness is not conveyed if you have no idea about the industry profile, major challenges, or current events. A hiring manager cannot picture you working with diverse functions and individuals in the company if you display no sense of the larger context of the industry.

  • What are your strengths? Again, most applicants gave canned, superficial answers. I was hoping to hear something that was a result of serious self-reflection or a candid assessment by others.

  • What are your weaknesses? No doubt a tricky question, but fairly common. Applicants tend to look uncomfortable, give hedging and somewhat hesitant responses. I would have appreciated a candid answer. One cannot be good at everything, so being frank about your weaknesses is fine. This is one question to which it helps to have an answer--a good answer--ready before you walk into the room.

  • Where do you see yourself in 5 to 10 years? Most candidates respond with generalities: I see myself performing well and getting promoted. The true intent of the question is to determine whether you would still be excited about the work after 10 years. Do you have a specific, long-term professional goal that you are working toward? Even with guidance like this, many candidates still failed to give a coherent answer.

  • Do you foresee any problems coming on board or taking up this position? If you lack certain experience, such as fluency in technology, admit it. Be prepared to talk about how you would work around it. One candidate was highly experienced in other areas but had little drug-development experience. I asked him whether he perceived this as an issue. He responded yes, but that in a few weeks he should be fine. This answer left me with the impression that he lacked insight into the product-development process. A better answer would have been to admit that he recognized the issue and mention some of the first steps he would take to address it, being realistic about how long it's likely to take to get up to speed. Hiring managers are looking for maturity, not perfection. They understand that people cannot be adept at everything, but they expect promising candidates who are willing and able to learn.

  • How have you performed in previous positions? In addition to sharing your previous work and achievement, please show any letters or awards you have received. I was pleased to see letters that the candidates got from previous supervisors.

- Other Advice:

  • Do not talk too much: The absolute number-one problem with all candidates is their inability to give a concise answer. While speaking, pick up cues; validate that you are going in the right direction; and check the level of engagement of the listener. I actually managed to read and send some e-mail without candidates' noticing--well, almost! Practice, practice, practice being brief.

  • Be careful about language: Do not say anything that can be misconstrued--even in jest. Given the large number of excellent candidates and time constraints, I just don't have the time to analyze motives. I'm more likely to move on to the next candidate.

  • Be careful when sending material not requested: The chances of an otherwise good candidate were ruined by sending an incoherent "Assay" as part of the application package: a business plan full of errors and baseless assumptions. This of course minimized the candidate's chances of being interviewed. The candidate may have fared better if something that was not that critical had not been added.

  • Dress: I had someone come in wearing a colorful bowtie and matching suspenders--just a tad different from the attire of the stream of other candidates who walked into my office, to say the least. Was he a good candidate? Absolutely. But I could not help being a little distracted from the content of our discussion. My advice: Don't let simple things that you can control (e.g., the way you dress, mannerisms) interrupt the flow of an interview. Regarding dress, a conservative look is the best. What you want to convey is understated maturity and sophistication--not flash and the unusual.

  • Don't be pushy: Patience, patience, patience. Do not be pushy before, during, or after the interview. Hiring, in many instances, is a long, drawn-out process and may take months. During this time, don't inundate the company with phone calls and messages. If people are not giving any information, it is probably because they don't have information of value to share. If there is important information, you will be the first to know. Among the candidates I interviewed, I was not pleased with some, who kept annoying my administrative assistant for answers she did not have.

In closing, I must reiterate that from the other side of the table, the characteristics I most look for are a clear vision, enthusiasm, brevity, patience, and good humor. Pay close attention to these details, and you will stand out among the crowd and shine.

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