• Estimated read time: 7 mins
  • Date posted:18/03/2019
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“A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way” – John C Maxwell.

Anyone can be a leader, but not everyone can lead. That’s a problem.

The best outperform their peers at a ratio of thirteen-to-one. Weak leaders, on the other hand, are unremarkable at best and catastrophic at their worst.

Whether you’re hiring for a VP, Director or Manager, you need to ensure that candidates possess the vision and insight required to take your division – and organisation – to new heights. Individuals who can seize an opportunity and rally their team to achieve operational goals and objectives.

While CV’s and references offer insight into a candidates skills, experience and qualifications, they tell you little about a candidate’s leadership qualities.

When making senior-level hires, ensure you screen candidates for leadership qualities by asking some of the following questions during interview.


We might have steadfast, unwavering goals but our route to achieving them must be flexible enough to overcome hurdles and adapt with the times.

To remain competitive, life science organisation need resilient leaders who can embrace change and revel in the challenges it brings. They must believe in their chosen course of action, remain optimistic in the face of uncertainty and have the foresight to identify potential problems before they arise.

To identify adaptable individuals, ask these questions:

1) Tell me about a situation when you were tasked with undertaking a business-critical exercise you hadn’t conducted before?

How did you handle it?

Were you able to accomplish the task?

2) Can you recall a time when you embraced and implemented a new process or system which unlocked real benefit?

How did you go about winning over key stakeholders?

What benefits did it liberate?

3) When was the last time you were confronted with an unexpected delay which threatened to derail your project?

What was the situation?

How did you overcome it?

Signs of potential:
  • Candidates who face delays head on and work with the resources available to deliver a solution on time and within budget.
  • Individuals who demonstrate life-long-learning and a desire to become thought-leaders in their field.
  • Those who mentor their coworkers and are advocates of team learning and upskilling.
Hiring red flags:
  • Candidates who are not willing to take on extra responsibilities.
  • Individuals who are stuck in their ways and not willing to adapt.
  • Those whose predisposition is to panic when delays occur.
  • Candidates who pass the buck or blame others for their failures.

Culture Fit

Culture fit refers to hiring employees that exhibit similar attitudes, values and beliefs to that of your organisation. 

Don’t confuse this with the mentality of ‘hire like me’. Diversity of thoughts, experiences and knowledge are the lifeblood of innovation and have the ability to propel your life science organisation to new heights. Research reveals that employees who are a good culture fit have higher rates of retention, better job performance and derive greater job satisfaction as a result. 

You can spot leadership-level candidates who are a good cultural fit for your life science organisation by asking these questions:

1) In your opinion, what are the three most important aspects of a fulfilling role?

Why do they fulfil you?

How does this impact your on-the-job performance?

2) What would make you pick our organisation over one of our competitors?

Who do you consider to be our competitors?

Why do you want to work for us instead of them?

3) When are you most satisfied, energised and productive at work?

What activities are you performing?

Under what circumstances?

Signs of potential:
  • Individuals who possess similar beliefs and values to that of your organisation.
  • Those who have worked for organisations of a similar size and scope.
Hiring red flags:
  • Candidates whose beliefs and values differ from your organisation.
  • Candidates who aren’t enthused to work for your organisation.


Collaboration isn’t just about embracing efficiency. It’s about information flow and learning from peers.

Sound collaboration increases innovation, improves employee relations and provides shared vision and values all team members can champion. When team members collaborate, they can utilise the skills, knowledge and experience of the team, helping them overcome hurdles and deliver solutions that would overwhelm team members working in isolation.

Hiring senior managers and executives that can collaborate effectively and efficiently with others is vital to success. Here are three questions to help identify them:

1) Explain a situation when you have had to work alongside a difficult stakeholder?

What made it difficult to work with them?

How did you make the best of a difficult situation?

2) Tell me about a time when you had to communicate with a stakeholder who did not understand you?

How did you break down the task at hand?

What steps did you take to ensure the stakeholder(s) understood the situation?

3) Can you describe a situation where the goalposts shifted at the last minute?

What did you do?

What was the outcome?

Signs of potential:
  • Candidates who maintain a professional attitude towards their coworkers.
  • Individuals who can listen and communicate effectively
Hiring red flags:
  • Candidates with the inability to handle criticism.
  • Individuals who are unwilling to cooperate with others.
  • Those who are openly negative towards their colleagues.


Everyone has the potential to be creative, but only some know how to harness their creativity.

Creative leaders are innovative, inspiring and influential. They know how to cultivate an innovative culture; inspiring their employees to dream big while providing the necessary information, resources and environment to nurture their experiments. They can spot ideas others miss, prioritising and championing those activities with the greatest potential gain for the organisation.

To identify creative executive-level candidates, ask these questions:

1) Tell me about a situation where you took an innovative approach to solve a complex problem?

What was the problem?

How did you resolve it?

2) How do you go about ideation?

Do you have a process?

How do you ensure only the best ideas are prioritised?

3) Tell me about a time when a colleague brought a unique approach to your attention. What did you do?

How did you champion the idea?

What did you do to ensure your colleague was involved throughout?

Signs of potential:
  • Candidates who can demonstrate a clear decision-making and prioritisation process.
  • Individuals who demonstrate life-long-learning and a desire to become thought-leaders in their field.
  • Those who foster an innovation culture in their teams.
Hiring red flags:
    • Candidates who rush into ideas without a process of decision making.
    • Individuals who credit or squash ideas that are not their own.
    • Those who can’t describe any examples/situations of their creativity.

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Conflict Resolution

Despite our best intentions, things don’t always go as planned. This is especially true on complex projects where the stakes are high.

Leaders must have the ability to resolve conflicts in a timely and effective manner while ensuring the outcome is fair. Left unchecked, tensions among team members and between teams can quickly escalate, impacting team cohesion,  decreasing employee engagement, reducing productivity and creating a toxic working environment which can be difficult to rectify. 

You can spot a-players who are good at conflict resolution by asking these questions:

1) What was the most challenging team you have ever lead?

Why was it difficult?

How did you handle the situation?

2) Explain a time when you disagreed with something but had to do it anyway.

How did you express your disagreement?

How did you ensure your views did not impair your performance?

3) When was the last time you encountered conflict within your team?

What factors lead to the conflict?

How did you handle the situation?

Signs of potential:
      • Candidates who can provide several examples of when they have resolved a dispute.
Hiring red flags:
      • Candidates who badmouth colleagues, stakeholders or previous employers.
      • Individuals who are revealed to be the sause of conflict.
      • Candidates who lack the confidence to handle disputes.

People Management

It goes without saying that a leader should lead.

Leadership goes beyond supervising and managing employees. A good leader will inspire their employees to follow in their footsteps and put their best foot forward. While managers deal with planning, organising and delivering day-to-day activities, leaders make decisions and implement strategies which will keep management – and their coworkers – at capacity for months on end.

To identify top talent with excellent people management skills, ask these questions:

1) What is your management style?

How do you manage performance?

How do you motivate your coworkers?

2) Describe a time when you lead by example?

What was the situation?

What was the outcome?

3) How do you go about encouraging the development of your staff members?

How is success recognised?

How do you motivate your coworkers?

Signs of potential:
      • Candidates who have a hands-on management style.
      • Individuals who mentor their coworkers or provide them with training.
      • Those who have high retention rates among their teams.
Hiring red flags:
      • Candidates who do not believe in the importance of upskilling their team.
      • Individuals who shy away from the negative aspects of people management (e.g. disciplinaries).
      • Candidates who are quick to judge or drop struggling staff members.


Focusing on a candidate’s ability to grow within your organisation could give you better results than concentrating on skills and experience alone. It’s where they’re going that’s important.

Hire candidates who can excel in the role yet have the capacity – and appetite – for bigger things. If a key member of the team leaves, it can costs upwards of 4x their salary to find and onboard their replacement. Ensuring the people you hire have the potential for growth saves you money, time and the headache of finding their replacement.

Hiring leaders who can deliver in the role is vital to success. Here are three questions to help identify them:

1) How did you sell a new idea to a key stakeholder and what was the result? 

How did you present the information?

Whom did you talk to?

2) Tell me a time when you volunteered to broaden your knowledge instead of being guided to do so?

Why did you decide to expand your expertise?

How did you balance your learning with your workload?

3) What is the biggest career goal you have achieved?

How did you accomplish it?

Over what time frame?

Signs of potential:
      • Candidates who are eager to learn and take on advice.
      • Individuals who seek to advance their career.
      • Those whose career history shows consistent progression.
Hiring red flags:
      • Candidates who are happy to settle and not advance.
      • Individuals who are unable to take constructive criticism.
      • Those who are unable to use their initiative.

Decision making

The knowledge and ability to handle a variety of activities, even in the face of unforeseen circumstances, is vital in a leadership position.

Being able to differentiate between mission-critical and nice-to-have projects and activities can make the difference between a department, division or organisation meeting or missing its goals. Hiring a-players who can make sound, rational decisions under pressure and prioritise activities effectively can boost team morale and further your life science organisation.

To identify decision makers, ask these questions:

1) Explain a time when you had several tasks at the same time.

How did you manage your time?

Were you successful in your tasks?

2) When have you felt stressed or overwhelmed?

What was the situation?

How did you cope with it?

3) How do you delegate tasks amongst your team?

How do you decide which tasks to delegate and to whom?

How do you communicate with your team?

Signs of potential:
      • Candidates who meet deadlines consistently.
      • Individuals who demonstrate a  robust, structured decision-making process.
      • Those who communicate in advance of a key milestone not being met.
Hiring red flags:
      • Candidates who are incapable of describing a situation when they have prioritised effectively.
      • Individuals who are unable to identify crucial tasks.
      • Those who can not achieve deadlines.

How To Elicit The Best Responses

Asking the right questions doesn’t necessarily guarantee great answers. Questions can be misheard or misunderstood, resulting in the candidate going offtopic or providing a generic response.

As the hiring manager or member of the hiring team, it’s up to you to prompt candidates to give you more information or clarify their answers. Here’s how:

1) Use the STAR System

Make sure the candidate describes the Situation, Task, Action and Result for each answer.

2) Avoid hypothetical answers

When you ask for specific examples, ensure the individual doesn’t give you a situational (theoretical) answer.

3) Allow Time

Good answers tend to come after a period of reflection. Don’t rush a candidate or write them off if they don’t answer instantly.

4) Follow Up

Dig deeper into the responses, especially where there is specific missing information.

When interviewing for senior management and executive-level positions, it’s essential that you screen all candidates for leadership potential, sorting the wannabe leaders from those with true leadership qualities. While CV’s and references can give you clues as to their leadership potential, only through interviewing can your make an accurate judgement as to their ability.

The 24 questions posed in this article should provide a sound basis for making that judgement. We don’t recommend you ask them all but choose the ones that best fit your interview style. Doing so will help you improve the technical, cultural and DNA fit of your new hires, helping ensure you make the right hiring decision while reducing time to hire.

For more hiring advice tailored to hiring managers in the life science industry…

* Fraser Dove International is a talent consultancy operating exclusively across the life sciences industry. While our roots lie in executive search, we provide more than the traditional recruitment services. Uniquely placed within the market, we have been providing cutting-edge talent solutions and insight to organisations at all stages of their journey – from start-up to established leaders – since 2013.