• Estimated read time: 7 mins
  • Date posted:13/05/2019
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One of the best ways to ensure success in the life sciences is to cultivate a strong executive management team. Whether you’re hiring for a VP, Director or Senior Manager, you need candidates who possess the vision and insight needed to take your division – and organisation – to new heights.

Hiring for senior management and executive-level positions is a headache for many life sciences organisations.  First and foremost, the majority of the best candidates are already full-time employed working for your competitors. And then there is the inherent risks.  While the right executive can further the organisation, a bad hire can hold it back. Tough executive referencing techniques can help you make an informed hiring decision.

Why is executive referencing important?

Without reference checks, you risk basing important hiring decisions on information gleamed from a candidates cover letter, CV and interview performance. Any candidate worth consideration would have invested many hours honing these important touch-points and practicing responses to common competency-based interview questions. These assets, together with their interview performance, effectively become sales pitches.

The more experience you gain interviewing, the better your chances of identifying pretenders and eliminating them from the hiring process. However, the more senior the position, the harder it becomes to spot the winners from the also rans. You can no longer rely on intuition alone.

This is where tough executive referencing techniques come to your aid. They help you:

  • Clarify roles and responsibilities in previous occupations.
  • Eliminate inaccurate information on CV’s.
  • Mitigate against a bad hire.

You need to ensure you know the good, the bad and the ugly to make an informed hiring decision.

Executive reference checks are typically conducted by a member of Talent Acquisition, HR or even an administrator once final stage interviews are completed. This is not an ideal scenario.

As the hiring manager, know one understands the roles’s remit and the qualities sought better then. It should be you who is calling the shots, not a third party. 

Gearing up for executive referencing

It is important that you approach you executive referencing with the right expectations and mindset.  Here are a few things to bear in mind.

1. Be prepared to eliminate candidates

You should expect to reject 33-50% of your candidates based on references alone. Tough executive referencing, done right, will uncover information that could make you question a candidates suitability for the role. Although it can be hard to eliminate a candidate when they excelled at interview, if you don’t adopt this mindset, you risk making a bad executive hire.

2. Set aside time

This includes time to prepare your plan of attack, interview referees and reaching out to name-dropped individuals who could be good referee material. Expect to spend 30 minutes per call for around 5-10 calls. When it comes to executive hires, if you are spending less than 10 hours referencing, you aren’t doing your due diligence. Find more referees and ask tougher questions. 

3. Seek out negative information  

Take positive feedback with a grain of salt. People have a tendency to paint people in a positive light over giving neutral or negative feedback. Where neutral or negative feedback is unearthed, be sure to tease out the circumstances, then ask questions of your other referees to see whether others acknowledge this trait and if so, under what circumstances.

4. Notice what is not being said

Look between the lines to see what is not being said about the candidate. Narrowly defined praise can conceal weakness. i.e, if a candidate is smart, it could possibly mean that they lack drive.

5. Seek a consistent story

A consistent story is a good sign of due diligence on your behalf. If you are not hearing a consistent story, contact more referees or consider ejecting a candidate from the hiring process.

RELATED: Increase quality-of-hire by partnering with a reputable boutique talent consultancy

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How to manage executive referencing checks

When it comes to referencing, avoid these three common pitfalls:

  • Not talking to the right people
  • Not asking the right questions
  • Not interpreting the answers

To this end, follow these steps to help ensure you conduct your executive referencing with due diligence and make an informed decision as to who to hire, and who to eject from the hiring process.

1. Make a list of the referees you wish to interview

This step should be taken ahead of final interview so that you can inform candidates as to your intentions (See step 2 below).

Start with the referees on the candidates’ CV. Ideally, there will be a combination of direct supervisors, peers and, where possible, direct reports, from the past five years of their employment.

Next, find the LinkedIn profile for each listed referee. This will allow you to:

i. View their connections for possible referees you might wish to interview.
ii. View their recommendations and endorsements from their peers (if any).
iii. Find evidence of achievements and training not listed on their CV.

2. Inform the candidate you’ll be conducting reference checks.

Ideally you should divulge this information near the end of the interview when advising candidates on next steps. Remember to ask:

i. If there is anyone else you should contact? The interview may have jogged their memory as to other potential referees.
ii. If there is anyone who should be excluded? Ensure you examine the reasons why this individual(s) should not be contacted.

If you’ve not got contact information for some of the referees you’d like to interview, be sure to clarify this information before proceeding

3. Contact and interview each referee 

To ensure you contact the most important referees and save time, consider prioritising your list, first by who they worked with most recently and then by relevance.

Work down your list until you start hearing a consistent story. However, if you have the time, we recommend contacting all referees on your list. 

4. Reaching out to name dropped referees

From time to time your referees will divulge the name of peers who could provide valuable insight into your candidates achievements and experience. Add them to your list.

Be sure to obtain as much contact information as you can from the referee you are interviewing. Ideally they’ll provide a name, email address or contact telephone number.  Then:

i. If they provided direct contact information, reach out to the individual, referencing the referee in your introduction and that you would like to have a conversation about your candidate.
ii. If they don’t provide direct contact information, locate the individual on LinkedIn and send a Connection Request, mentioning the referee in your introduction. 

9 questions to ask executive references

Seeking an unbiased view of the candidate can be achieved by skilled questioning, listening intently and reading between the lines. 

When it comes to interviewing referees, supplement standard referencing questions with some of the questions listed below:

1) Did [NAME] report directly to you and if so, for how long? 

2) To the best of your knowledge, did [NAME] resign or was he/she asked to leave?

3) What was the biggest mistake [NAME] made during their employment at [ORGANISATION]?

4) Is there anything you and [NAME] did not agree on?

5) Can you give an example of where [NAME] went above and beyond to achieve results?

6) [NAME] mentioned [ACTIVITY] was one of their greatest achievements. How big a part did they play?

7. If [NAME] is successful, what tips would you give to help me manage their performance? 

8. Why wasn’t [NAME] further promoted?

9. Would you hire [NAME] again?

When asking reference questions, its important to gain an understanding of the referee, their remit and in particular,  how they gauge greatness in their direct reports. You need to be aware that terms can have varying degrees of meaning. To avoid misinterpretations, cross-examine referees from the same organisation to see where their responses align and where they differ.

Evaluating responses

If you’ve never conducted reference checks before, and tough reference checks at that, it can take time to hone your judgment. Your ability to assess executive candidates based on reference alone will improve with experience, but until you’ve conducted multiple reference check, lean on someone with experience. This could be a member of HR or Talent Acquisition, a trusted colleague, or even someone from your network. At the very least, they can act as a sounding board, helping you piece through the information you receive and make a sound judgement.

When evaluating your executive hires, consider these three important points:

  • No candidate is perfect. Tough referencing can yield negative feedback, so take it with a pinch of salt. 
  • If your gut now calls the candidate ability and fit into questions, it’s probably correct. Go with your gut.
  • Look for evidence of how the candidate meets the job specification in terms of cultural and technical fit.

As a hiring manager in the life sciences, your job is to ensure you choose the best candidate for the role. A such, it’s essential you understand the ins and outs of executive referencing and devote maximum energy and resources to it. Doing so will help ensure your life science organisation remains at the forefront in the battle to secure top talent.

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.