A Week in the Life of a Headhunter (Part One)

Recently I met with a group of young scientists who asked me what the hiring process was like in industry. We spent quite a bit of time discussing topics like seminar preparation, the interview day lineup, and interpersonal dynamics. I seemed to be getting through on some points but having a difficult time with others. Afterward, I realized that my best moments with this crew had come when I used specific examples of scenarios that I had encountered--and told how the people involved had managed through them.

This "storytelling" idea is nothing new in the field of training. Many books have been written, including a couple of recent best-sellers, which disclose that people learn faster when they can directly identify with the process.

In that light, I thought you would enjoy reading about both a week in my life and the crazy, hectic world of industrial recruitment. Through this two-part series, you will get an exposure to the wild ups and downs that you will be exposed to in your quest to find a permanent position. Each of these two columns will also expose you to concepts that are used by recruiters to help prepare their candidates for this process and strengthen their candidacy with the employer. My Next Wave editors and I would greatly appreciate it if, at the end of the article, you could e-mail me your impressions about whether this approach was successful.


It was a warm Sunday evening in Arizona. I was in the office working on my schedule for the week when the phone rang. You don't realize how loud the phone is until you are sitting undisturbed, in a state of total concentration. I bolted upright and grabbed for it, and it was my wife, Linda.

"A fellow named Bill Frederickson called you again. He's that guy who left the earlier message for you on the home phone," she said. "And by the way, do you have any plans on coming home for dinner this evening?"

After acknowledging my tardiness with an apology, I rang off and immediately called Bill at his home in San Diego. He was a candidate for a research scientist search that my company had been working on for 3 weeks. Bill was scheduled to go bi-coastal the following morning, on a flight straight into the New Jersey pharmaceutical industry. After a brief hello, I asked him what he needed, because we had already been over all the details of the interview and position.

"I'm a bit nervous about my interview," he replied. He didn't sound like the same man I had spoken with on Friday afternoon, so I thought that "a bit nervous" was really quite an understatement. Bill was a highly regarded researcher from a biotech company in La Jolla, and up to this point he had always sounded confident and prepared.

"I've had a couple of interviews that haven't resulted in offers," he continued, his voice cracking. "It's gotten me to wondering if I'm really blowing it in some crucial area. This job with XYZ Pharmaceuticals really has me interested, and I thought you might give me some last minute pointers."

It sounded as if the guy could use some sleep more than any of my pointers. That thought, coupled with my wife's call a minute earlier, focused all my attention on making this a short, productive conversation.

"Bill, sit down and do a 10-minute interview preparation exercise, the one we spoke about earlier, and then get ready to repeat it right before you go into the meeting tomorrow," I suggested. "Sometimes it's better to just refresh on the basics as opposed to being over-prepared with a lot of canned pointers. You could worry about this all night, but in reality, XYZ is interviewing you because they saw something in your CV that appealed to their needs. It's now up to you to identify that critical need and focus on it."

The 10-Minute Interview Preparation Exercise

The point of any pre-interview exercise is to focus your energies on the single most important element of the day. (Hint: that element is not your thesis work.)

You must address the company's needs. Prior to the interview, ask what the requirements are for the job for which you are interviewing. There is always a list of "must have's" that a new hire needs for a particular job, and you'll need to get as close to that short list as possible. Most HR people will share this--as will external recruiters and even the occasional hiring manager during a telephone interview.

Here is a good question you can ask in a telephone interview to draw this out: "In any position, there are a half-dozen or so attributes of the person who will succeed in that role. Some of them are technical, and some of them are more 'personal chemistry' in nature. Can you tell me what those six or seven must-have's are for this job?"

Once you know the company's needs for the position, a good "10-minute exercise" is to ask yourself the following questions just before the interview. This is an important time to be focused on the fact that you are not going to simply talk up your thesis work. Instead, you are focusing what you have to offer on the specific needs of this employer:

  • - What can I take from my current work that fits the main technical requirements that this employer has? What about from my previous work?

  • - What "softer" skills have I picked up along the way that this company considers a strong need (for example, a creative approach, persistence, and people skills)?

  • - (Thinking about each person on the interview schedule) What is this individual's likely perspective on the company's needs, and is there anything special I bring to the table that might benefit this person?


The first thing that happened on Monday made me feel uneasy about the rest of the week. Without warning, one of my other client companies called to say that the firm had decided to postpone a hiring decision, due to a newly instituted hiring freeze. I was floored. There went 6 weeks of work out the window. Sure, hiring freezes are a fact of life, but they always seem to come at the wrong time. This particular one happened just as I had found the perfect candidate for the position.

It had been an agonizing search because it was right in the middle of a hot niche, which meant there was a very tight supply of candidates. We had been looking for a senior scientist with experience in high throughput screening (HTS) assay development for a large drug discovery research program. This particular type of cell-based HTS assay is used by many of the fast-track biotechs and pharmaceutical companies, and they take good care of their people. My calls were not turning up any information of value. No one knew anyone to recommend, and no one had any hot leads. It was weeks before I stumbled onto Dilip.

Dilip Bhuta had been working in just such a lab and with the right kind of assays. He and his wife were both with the same company, and he had been working there the last several years despite a general feeling of unhappiness. He was totally intrigued by the opportunity that my client company presented, and I knew that he would be very disappointed with the news that it wasn't going forward. I decided to put off that call until the evening, when I could contact him at home.


Tuesday was the usual: over 50 outgoing phone calls from my end and a great flurry of activity due to some new postings that I had placed on the Internet. Luckily, my office team handled most of the incoming calls and I was able to make some progress on a few of my searches. One incoming call at the end of the day was from the XYZ Pharmaceutical hiring manager, who was calling in to report on how the interview with Bill Frederickson had gone:

"Dave, we won't be taking the conversation any further with Bill. He was a very nice fellow, and we all enjoyed talking with him. But, he didn't seem to have the sparkle we were looking for. There was something missing," the director reported. He went on to describe Bill's interviewing style as "very cautious, nervous, and quiet." And even though it appeared that Bill fit the job description, they weren't prepared to add his particular personality to the team.

I remember wishing that "interviewing personalities" could be the same as "real personalities," because Bill Frederickson fit that team like a glove. He wasn't a quiet and nervous person--that just happened to be his interviewing style. I called his machine and left word to have him reach me at home when he got back in from the airport.


In my business, strange things happen all the time, particularly involving big firms. Sure, the smaller biotech companies can be squirrelly at times, but nothing beats the odd behavior of some Fortune 100 companies. Wednesday's first call, which caught me off-guard and without my coffee in hand at 7:45 a.m. Pacific Time, was from the same company that had cancelled Dilip's interview on Monday.

"We're back on," the HR woman said. "We were able to swing this one because the VP feels that it is a critical hire. We need to get Dilip in here right away, and I'm faxing you over the interview agenda." Great news, but by putting this thing back on track, there would certainly be some questions that Dilip could have about the decision-making prowess of this client.

Here's what I e-mailed to Dilip that night:

Dilip Bhuta, Interview Schedule

8:30 a.m. Meet with Human Resources, Ms. Cathy Schmidt. (Dilip, here you will be asked to fill out some paperwork. You'll have to state your current and past salary, your salary expectations--which you should leave blank--and reference names. Cathy is going to talk with you about the job category you will be in and interview you for a fit with their corporate culture.)

9:30 a.m. Seminar in Conference Room 117B. (Here you will meet most of the people you'll see throughout the day, and some others. I expect there will be an audience of about 15 to 20. They are trained to ask tough questions. Don't be flustered, be prepared.)

11:00 a.m. Meet with Dr. Darlene Johnson and Dr. William Fleming. (These are two other Research Scientists in the HTS team. They are prospective colleagues.)

Lunch at 11:45 a.m. with Johnson, Fleming, and Dr. Susan Hillyard. (Your two colleagues plus their boss--the hiring manager for this position)

1:30 p.m. Meet with Dick Kitzler and Robert Wentz. (Dilip, these are the two Robotics guys. Dick is a Mechanical Engineer, and Robert is the company's LIMS person, "laboratory information management systems.")

2:30 p.m. Meet with Dr. Jennings Smith. (This is the company's Sr. Director for Drug Discovery Research. You two have Harvard in common.)

3:30 p.m. Meet with Dr. Susan Hillyard. (Here's your chance to meet with the prospective new boss. Do you have a list of your questions ready to refer to?)

To Be Continued

Author's Note: As in all such dramatizations, the names of people and companies have been changed to protect the innocent. And while you are still at your desk with your e-mail open, how about letting me know that the concept behind this article was of interest to you for future columns? Send an e-mail to nextwave@aaas.org with DAVE'S COLUMN in the subject line.

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