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Life sciences executive search firms specialize in recruiting and attracting highly skilled executive and senior-level talent within the pharmaceutical and biotech industry. They are typically used to fill critical positions within an organization and seek out passive talent, not talent that is actively pursuing new opportunities. They are searching for the absolute best and most qualified candidates, regardless of their employment status.

Potential candidates are contacted directly and the recruitment process is far more personal and in-depth than with lower-level positions. Executive search firms typically act as an extension of the client and will manage candidates through the entire process.

What is a Life Sciences Executive Search Firm?

A Life Sciences Executive Search Firm, sometimes referred to as an executive recruiting agency or headhunter, is a company that specializes in recruiting senior management and executive level candidates for pharmaceutical and biotech companies of all sizes. They are typically hired to fill critical senior – executive level positions. Position titles may include: CEO, CTO, CFO, Senior Director, Director, Vice President, etc. Typically any position that is considered critical or essential to an organization is filled by a life sciences executive search firm.

Because these types of positions have tremendous influence over the direction, health, and growth of an organization, the process of sourcing, interviewing, and hiring an executive candidate is more complex than the process of placing an entry-level employee. An executive search firm may spend months working alongside an organization in search of the ideal placement.

What Do Life Sciences Executive Search Firms Do?

Life sciences executive search firms focus solely on executive and other high level positions. Larger retained firms are the ones filling the highest level positions. Lower level roles are usually filled by contingency firms or internally. Regular search firms may offer these services, but lack specialization needed for a specific industry.

Senior level positions are business-critical in terms of leadership within the company as well as the unique abilities to execute long-term plans and daily operations.

Why Do Companies Work with Life Sciences Executive Search Firms?

Often companies have already tried to hire on their own and were unable to find the right person. Executive search firms have unique methods to find and attract a wide range of professionals and provide clients with a more consultative experience. Executive search firms act as consultants to their clients, meaning that they are separate entities from the company that is hiring. Executive search firms are typically retained and have an exclusive partnership with a client organization. They are committed to understanding the client’s organization and hiring needs, resulting in an extension of their company to help find their next senior level executive.

When working with an executive search firm, the hiring manager will only receive pre-screened candidates that meet the requirements of the position. Executive search firms proactively seek passive candidates, those that are not currently seeking a new role or those that may not have been aware of a new opportunity without direct engagement.

Advantages of Working With Executive Search Firms

Passive vs Active Candidates

  • Passive – Executive search firms typically have access to “passive candidates,” or individuals who are not looking for a new position. These candidates often represent the most qualified talent in their industry. Executive search firms have a personalized approach involving strategic conversations with each interested candidate to assess the fit for the role and the organization.
  • Active – Recruiting agencies are more focused on quantity of candidates meeting paper qualifications and source candidates who are typically in a database of people that have submitted their resumes and are actively searching for new roles.


This means that the company who engages in an executive search firm works with one firm to ensure that they understand their organization and hiring needs, resulting in a true partnership to help find their next senior level executive.

Guarantee – Retained vs Contingent

  • Retained – Executive search firms are typically retained and candidate guarantees are between 6-12 months, meaning if the candidate leaves or doesn’t work out for any reason the executive search firm will find a replacement at no additional cost to the client.
  • Contingent – Contingent recruiters typically have either no guarantee or a shorter guarantee on the placement, 0-3 months. In this situation, due to the focus on making the placement transaction as opposed to ensuring the success of the candidates the risk of failure can increase.


When executive search firms are engaging with senior candidates about a new role, keeping it under wraps is essential. These are likely “passive” candidates that are currently employed and don’t want to risk their position with their current employer. There is also confidentiality for the actual employer as well if needed, as they might be looking to replace someone who is currently still in the role.


Executive search firms also have extensive databases of previously screened, qualified candidates, as well as many contacts they have met in person through professional networking and events.

Further Reading: Advantages of Life Science Recruitment Agencies

Types of Life Sciences Executive Search Firms

Types of Search Firms

Retained Search Firms

Retained search firms typically specialize by industry and focus on higher level positions, senior level roles. Clients and retained recruiters generally develop stronger, more long-term business relationships.

The job of these consultants is to find the very best candidate for a role – be they an ‘active’ or a ‘passive candidate’ and to persuade them to take the job. This method results in a more consultative process, where recruiters provide assistance with every step of the process from creating a job description to crafting an offer letter.

A retained search firm requires a small portion of the fee to be paid upfront (retainer), typically equal to about ⅓ of the total fee and is non-refundable. The remaining balance of the total fee is usually broken down into two additional milestone payments. Once a candidate is placed, the remaining balance is due.

Retained Search Firm Highlights:

  • Provide insight and industry knowledge on the state of the market
  • Draft accurate and enticing job descriptions to draw in a pool of qualified candidates
  • Sell and present the position to a prospective candidate
  • Conduct detailed interviews and then selectively present candidates to their clients

Instead of posting a job description on the internet, experienced search firms will contact exceptionally well qualified “passive” candidates and present the opportunity to them highlighting why it might make sense for them to take a look.

They have substantial contacts in the industry and good ones have become experts at networking and building a giant network of exceptional candidates within their wheelhouse.

Contingent Search Firms

A contingency search is typically less formal and narrower in scope, as a recruiter may only be involved in candidate presentation and not in other aspects of the hiring process.

The risk involved with contingent is that the focus is on placement, and candidates may not be fully vetted to ensure a quality fit with an organization.

Contingent Search Firm Highlights:

  • Minimal risk and no financial obligation
  • Rely heavily on their contacts. Companies will often work with multiple contingent recruiters at once to maximize CV’s and candidates.
  • Client does not pay a fee unless a presented candidate is hired. If the position is not filled, the client is responsible for nothing.

Due to the nature of payment being on a placement, contingent firms represent both the interest of the hiring client and the candidate.

Staffing/Recruitment Agencies

Recruitment and staffing agencies will be better suited for non-executive positions where the focus is on filling a skill gap rather than ensuring an impactful hire. They are also better positioned to fill immediately required roles where you are looking to hire someone in a matter of days.

With recruitment agencies many times, they are sending out resumes of candidates to a number of employers and third parties trying to find placements. This can result in a lot of wasted time for both candidates and employers.

Staffing/Recruiting Agency Highlights:

  • Typically there is a large pool of qualified candidates that have the required skills to perform a given task
  • Typically hiring more generic positions at the entry or mid-level, where candidates can fit the job description without a specialized skill set that is hard to find.
  • Sourcing candidates who are typically in a database of people that have submitted their resume or are actively seeking a new role by submitting their resume through job advertisements

The focus is on posting the role to job boards and creating job advertisements with a broad marketing approach to reach the largest quantity of job seekers as possible and then matching skills to a job description.

When Your Team Might Need a Life Sciences Executive Search Firm

Executive search provides a solution for senior level roles that are critical to the success of the business. If it’s a situation where a deep specialization or rare skill set is needed, executive search firms can prove to be an invaluable resource to locate and persuade top quartile potential candidates to make a move. There is a focus on ensuring the right fit and success of the candidates placed with rigorous screening and post-placement support.

  • Lacking time or resources to conduct the search, which can be time consuming and labor intensive. Traditional methods of posting a job online can often produce hundreds of responses from unqualified candidates that the hiring manager must sort through.
  • Find candidates that may not be immediately identifiable in the market and, essentially avoid the cost of a bad hire
  • Don’t have the internal resources or network to recruit for critical or challenging positions
  • Positions that are typically hard to find or require a specialized skilled set
  • Type of candidate you wish to attract for the role – the passive or active job seeker
Life Sciences Executive Search Process

What an Executive Search Process Looks Like

An executive recruiter’s knowledge of the job market and industry will lend a different perspective to the talent pool and highlight a candidate’s skills accordingly. After providing qualified talent, a search firm may also facilitate the interview process and negotiate salary expectations for both parties. Once the process is complete, and a candidate is hired, the search firm then receives a fee in exchange for the service they have provided. Candidates, whether they are placed or not, do not owe a fee for being involved in the process.

  • Job Order Intake: Learn about client, company goals, needs and how the position fits into those needs when connecting with stakeholders. This helps an executive search firm analyze a candidate’s cultural and functional fit.
  • Salary: Understanding costs and salary range
  • Search Prep: Help clients draft accurate and enticing job descriptions to draw in a pool of qualified candidates.
  • Interviews & Candidate Assessment: They conduct detailed interviews and then selectively present candidates to their clients.
    • Will the candidate be able to support the company’s growth towards a specific goal?
    • Does the candidate’s personality align with the current company culture?
    • Can the candidate do the job at this company?
    • Do they have the industry background necessary and will they fit in well with the company’s culture, environment and management team?
    • Can the candidate start now?
    • Is the candidate available now and is there anything that would hinder them from taking the job?
    • Do the candidates’ compensation expectations line up?
    • Does the desired compensation package of the candidate align well with the compensation package offered by the company?
    • Is the candidate interested? No matter how perfect the candidate’s background aligns with the position description and/or the company’s desired qualifications, none of it matters if the candidate is not interested in the position!
  • Candidate Presentation: After these assessments are complete, candidates that are delivered to a client have been thoroughly vetted and are of the highest quality.
  • Managing Candidates: Once a client begins considering these candidates, Recruiter acts as an extension of your team in the decision-making process.

Specifically, its team helps you throughout the remainder of your hiring process. This includes candidate communication, interview processes, and ensuring a new hire is ready to make an impact on day one.

Further Reading: The Anatomy of Life Sciences Recruiting

How To Choose an Executive Search Firm

Executive search firms are talent acquisition specialists who focus on helping their clients identify, attract, and hire the most qualified candidates for their organizations needs. So how do you choose the right search firm for your organization?

Below you will find details to consider before signing an agreement with an executive search firm.

Extensive Industry Expertise

  • Do the consultants understand the real strategic, operational, and financial importance of the position and possess the skills and experience necessary to recruit for that opening?
  • Does the search firm have knowledge of the industry and type of position in question?

Credibility & Connections

  • Will the search firm be a “credible ambassador” for your organization?
  • Does the search firm offer qualified professionals who can objectively assess a candidate’s soft skills?
  • Can they provide client references?

Executive Search Strategy & Transparency

  • What is the search firm’s process?
  • Who will actually be handling your search?
  • Will they ensure confidentiality?
  • Will they be objective?
  • What is the “guarantee period” offered for new hires?
  • What are the fees and fee policies?
  • What “Off Limits” policies does the search firm have?
  • What kind of service can you expect after the completion of the search?

Further Reading: How To Evaluate a Life Sciences Search Firm

Tips & Reminders

  • Make sure you use a search firm that specializes in your industry
  • Know the difference between types of search firms and their quality of service
  • Understand the fee structure
  • Ask for references
  • The search firm should offer a “Guarantee Period” for placed candidates
  • Understand a search firms search strategy
  • Be prepared to offer a comprehensive overview of the position and it’s value to your organization

Benefits of Partnering with an Executive Search Firm

Executive search firms create a recruitment solution by first understanding a client’s overall company needs in relation to the role being filled. Additionally, this allows the client to have an active role in the search to provide beneficial candidate feedback and other information to the executive search firm’s team.

General search may draw candidates that meet paper requirements, but executive search goes through an extensive qualifying process to make sure a candidate has the impact a company is looking for.

Executive Search Firm Benefits Include:

  • Proven hiring knowledge and experience for quicker hires
  • Understand a position’s impact on a company
  • Luring passive prospects to your organization through comprehensive search practices
  • Save time that would typically be spent searching, screening, interviewing, and onboarding candidates.
  • Save money by getting a candidate hired into your organization faster than if you were to hire in-house.
  • Confidentiality, in case you are planning to replace a current employee with your new hire.
  • Customized solutions – combines experience w/ ongoing steps focused on learning more about the client.

Further Reading: 3 Benefits of Partnering with a Life Science Executive Search Firm