Leadership DNA: What Is It and How Can I Find It?

May 20, 2016 – Identifying the best candidate for a senior level position is only half the battle when choosing professionals to lead an organization. Understanding their personal leadership DNA is now seen as a critical assessment step in separating out an average-to-good candidate from a star performer whose game changing talents can drive a company to new heights.

In the following interview, Matthew Vossler, a partner with Heritage Partners International, a life sciences recruiting specialist in Norwalk, Conn., discusses how his firm gauges talent and why he and his colleagues place such a high value on understanding a candidate’s vision and intellectual makeup – their soft skills – as they judge the more easy-to-see, traditional leadership skill sets.

Matt also takes us inside the life sciences sector and tries to discern whether there is ample talent available to meet the burgeoning needs of this expanding field. He is a former principal with Heidrick & Struggles, and a graduate of Boston College.


Your career in executive search started with Heidrick & Struggles in global life sciences. How did that experience prepare you as you migrated to the boutique culture of Heritage Partners? 

Working for a big search firm creates an advantage early in one’s career. There’s the credibility aspect but also it was my experience that you learn the process of search execution at a high level very quickly – and the marketing and business development components come into play too. Having the big firm brand behind you helps – but clients today are also looking for value. With a boutique, you have to be willing to get into the weeds. You become intimately involved with all aspects of recruiting, from research to negotiating to delivering the offer. All of this ultimately enhances your value and credibility with the client – perhaps more so I believe, than serving with a big firm.

Matt, one of your firm’s tag lines is ‘Leadership has its own DNA.’ How do you translate that into how you assess senior level candidates?

When we talk about leadership having its own DNA, essentially we’re talking about the difference between conventional check the box management skill and inspirational strategic vision – and its impact. Executives have to be able to manage – no question about that. But if senior level executive search has a solid value proposition that justifies the fees we charge, it can be found in the strategic impact that our candidates deliver to the hiring organization. We spend a great deal of time – face-to-face, with our clients as well as with all of the candidates we review. It’s our job to understand our client’s business problem or need, and to provide a slate of candidates with the right DNA. That means traditional management skills plus soft skills like strategic vision, cultural fit, pragmatic judgment, personal values, drive, commitment, and intuition.

Heritage has created a candidate development approach called ‘Proof of Candidate.’ Isn’t this something that search firms have always done but called something else? 

One of the benefits of our partnership formed last year with The RSA Group was to incorporate their due diligence model and quantitative methods into our candidate assessment methodology.  We’re now utilizing a series of metrics and comparative analysis in our reporting format which quantities and validates many of the judgments we make which heretofore had been purely subjective. We want to make sure the fit is right, and we are adopting appropriate assessment tools which have been common in executive search in Europe for quite some time but, for some reason, have not been widely employed here in the U.S. The cost of a bad hire is large and ever present, and it only makes sense that the level of due diligence in executive search should track accordingly. We see quantitative assessment tools as another very useful dimension to our other more traditional assessment approaches.

Life sciences has grown exponentially in recent years and is now one of the most active sectors for executive search. Is there enough talent supply within the sector itself, and more broadly in healthcare, or are you having to reach out to other fields to identify talent?

There are really two questions to address here: First, is there enough talent, and second, is it the right talent. The life sciences sector continues to grow and change. Discovery has been pushed down to entrepreneurial startups, development is being outsourced to contract research organizations, and the primary care sales force is on the endangered species list. That said, the underlying science is advancing at record pace, digital healthcare is touching literally every aspect of the life science sector, and a new era of people mandates has arrived. If there is unmet demand, it is for leaders who can deal with the pace of change, disruptive technology and the constantly increasing complexity – and ambiguity – of the healthcare and life sciences industry vertical.

Can you explain what connection The RSA Group has with Heritage Partners?

Actually, The RSA Group is a global partner of Heritage Partners, and together we believe that we are the largest global search organization serving the life sciences sector. We have invested in this relationship and are enjoying a good flow of business throughout our network of offices. For example, we have many clients now in late phase two here in the U.S. who have to build commercial teams very quickly throughout the E.U. – we can do that. We believe the major firms are good at filling roles in the C-suites at Pfizer and Novartis, but when it comes to rare disease, specialty pharma and high science cultures, that is our sweet spot and where we excel. When it comes to the business / science, business / medicine or healthcare / technology interface, or maintaining a presence in critical locations like San Francisco, Boston, London or Singapore, Heritage-RSA is there and we are enjoying great success.

Contributed by Christopher W. Hunt, Publisher, Hunt Scanlon Media and Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

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