Spotlight: Recruiting Top Talent for Life Sciences Organizations
April 17, 2023 – Rusty Rueff is the co-founder and board director of Alioth, a national technology-enabled executive search firm for life sciences companies of all stages. He is a corporate board director and co-founder of numerous past and present companies, most notable being on the founding boards of Glassdoor (acquired 2018) and HireVue (acquired 2019). Mr. Rueff was CEO of SNOCAP, Inc. through the sale of the company in 2008. Prior, his work history includes seven years at Electronic Arts (EA), departing as an executive vice president of HR and 10 years of ascending positions for the PepsiCo companies.
Mr. Rueff recently sat down with Hunt Scanlon Media to discuss his approach to executive search and the current state of recruiting for life sciences companies
Rusty, as a successful former senior HR executive in Silicon Valley and an active angel investor, board director, and advisor, what led you down the unusual path to start an executive recruiting firm?
The whole idea was driven by my co-founders Amir Nashat, Ken DiPietro, and Janet Stafford, who were frustrated that the executive search process for them was yielding success rates on par with the American marriage divorce rates. When I was approached by them with the problem they were trying to solve, I got enthused about tackling success rates because over the history of my own career I’d seen too many examples of an executive being placed in a new company only to hear six months or a year later that they were “out” and the best excuse to be given was it was a bad fit. Too often we only think that the impact of a bad hire is on the company (which they almost always bounce back) and forget the detrimental implications to the human being who gave up a great job to take the new one, might have physically relocated themselves, their partner/spouse may have given up their job, their children left their school they loved and their friends, all for the new job of mom or dad. An unsuccessful hiring process hurts a lot more people than just the company that didn’t get it right. And we wonder why we have a couple of generations now of workers who are skeptical of committing themselves to a company or a job. So, I saw an opportunity to bend the arc a bit in a better direction and pull from patterns I’d learned from my own recruiting experience and what emerging technologies could provide. I wanted see if we couldn’t assemble a team of executive search professionals and pair them with a technology product team rich with experience using AI/ machine learning to create recommendation engines and see if we couldn’t be way more scientific and sophisticated to bring together executives and companies in a way that sticks and meets the dreams and aspirations of the company and the person. If we do that right, which so far we are, we are doing our part to eliminate the ugly thing called a “bad hire.”
Why did you choose to focus and specialize in serving the life sciences sector?
It’s the old writers adage, “write what you know.” Amir, Ken, and Janet are in the life sciences sector so it made sense to start there. It’s been a great learning ground as life sciences always needs complex sets of skills and unique experiences that are hard to find. The human dynamics needed in life sciences are also fascinating to search for; curiosity, ingenuity, teamwork, confidence, commitment, and very specific education and experiences.
Can you speak to the current state of the life sciences recruiting market and your company’s place within it?
After nearly five years now, we feel like we are one of the search firms that make the list of trusted and respected firms to do good work. We are always honored and humbled when we get a chance to pitch to a new client because we know that the opportunity came because someone else, whether it was another client or candidate we placed has recommended us. Of course, we’d like to win more business, but each new placement we get assigned, we commit to it like it’s the first and it must result in a successful hire. The life sciences recruiting volume as a whole has seen the repercussions of economic slowdown, but there are plenty of still hard-to-fill, essential roles that we are being asked to take on.
How do you see the executive recruiting industry evolving in the future and how is Alioth positioning itself to stay ahead of the curve?
There was a time when the executive search industry was driven almost purely by personality and in some cases, cult of personality. The industry had their titans at the top of the largest firms and those relationships influenced many of the searches within a company. It was not unusual for a company to have all of their search work done by one primary firm and then a specialist firm here and there to fill in. This would last as long as the top-to-top relationship was solid, but as soon the company would have a CEO or CHRO change, the business would need to be re-won. That type of relationship engagement still exists but we see much more openness to new firms and new approaches. A long-term dismal success rate will do that to an industry. At Alioth we think that our technology enabled approach utilized by our best-of-class search executives is pushing the curve, a curve that we want to stay in front of.
How does Alioth’s Hiring Success Platform enhance the services you provide and increase value for your clients?
I’m glad you called what we do a platform, because that is the way we think of our firm and our services. Our platform is built to bring together efficiency, speed, knowledge, data, and human touch to deliver an amazing hire to a company and for the candidate to feel their dream job has come true. It’s interesting you ask about value. Value is either cost over quality or quality over cost, whichever you prefer. We think about our platform delivering to our clients and candidates the highest quality experience at a cost that works for the client and us. We will never be the “bargain” search firm. We can’t afford to be that because we support a technology product team that is a substantial proportion of the company so we have to have our clients recognize the “extra” that they are receiving so that we can keep building our technology and getting smarter and smarter in how we fulfill the perfect hire.
Can you explain the firm’s two-year hiring guarantee?
Most top executive search firms provide a one-year guarantee to come back and redo a search with no extra charge, contingent on the company not terminating the person because of a restructure or reorganization or the new hire not being fired for cause (although I never understood that exclusion because if someone committed something like that in their first year, then the search firm missed something in their background and reference checking – seldom is it the “first time” by the time someone becomes an executive). I said “top” firms provide a year but a whole lot of firms provide less, like 180 days or so. So, we debated and said to ourselves, if we are investing all this technology and money on eliminating unsuccessful hiring outcomes, then shouldn’t we put our money where our mouth is? Since we haven’t had to redo any searches, I guess we could have been bolder and given a three-year guarantee (our CEO and search team are probably yelling at me right now) but two years seemed like a good market differentiator and internal standard to be sure we are delivering on.
Can you share any lessons you’ve learned as an entrepreneur and investor and how they have impacted your approach to building Alioth?
What I know from my experience is that starting a company, whatever it is, is really, really, really hard so you have to go into it doing all you can to make it easier (that’s easier, as it will never be easy), otherwise it may never become successful. You make it easier by being aligned on the problem you are trying to solve, aligning everything against that problem, hiring people who are passionate about solving the problem, having assuring and patient capital (thank you Amir and his partners at Polaris Partners), starting with a market vertical that already recognizes the problem you want to solve, and then being laser-focused on execution. And even then, you get thrown curve-balls like global pandemics, economic slowdowns, life changes of people, etc., and you do your best to tunnel through. Starting companies is not for the faint-hearted, but when you see one like Alioth get lift-off and solving the problem you set out to conquer, its hard to find anything more gratifying.