Want a Career in Executive Recruiting? Here’s How to Make the Transition …

October 15, 2015 – Managing director Jeff Ashpitz has spent the last 17 years with Strawn Arnold & Associates, a leading life sciences recruiting specialist based in Austin. But it was his earlier corporate experience in life sciences, which lasted nearly 30 years, that set the groundwork for a storied career in executive search.

How Jeff made the transition sheds light on the high growth recruiting sector and offers some simple guidelines when considering a job switch from corporate life to talent leadership advisor.

Jeff told me recently that his early, but constant, global sector experience prepared him most for what has now become a near-two decade recruiting career. During that time, he’s built a search brand that is now synonymous with ‘best in class’ recruiting work in the life sciences and healthcare industries. So, how’d he do it?

Jeff has often said that his client’s successes depend on innovation — and that dynamic certainly rules nearly every search assignment he and his partners undertake today. As Jeff told me, “There’s nothing more ‘mission critical’ than identifying the right candidate for every job.” But that’s not getting any easier, he said, due to how technology advances are transforming the entire healthcare sector — and with it, the type of talent now being recruited.

First and foremost, Jeff and his partners run a boutique search firm – they are recruiting specialists in a small number of related industries. For anyone considering a career switch to executive recruiting, deciding to work for a specialist brand like Jeff’s or one of the large, multinational search platforms like Korn Ferry or Heidrick & Struggles, is the very first decision you need to make. Both have their particularities – but working for a specialist is likely the most demanding, and rewarding, choice.

Strawn Arnold, like many of its specialist kin, stands for results and personal service. Speed, agility and adaptability typically define the boutique search specialist. Maintaining strong, specific niche networks in a particular field of interest is critical – you will use these connections to open new doors for every new assignment you undertake. “It is our relentless focus on results and personal service as to why our clients beckon from deep within biopharma, medical devices, generics, diagnostics, healthcare services and life sciences organizations,” Jeff told me.

“We have stood in our clients’ shoes and bring a business mindset and partnership approach to every search assignment,” Jeff said me. “We understand the key elements of the search through the eyes of the hiring manager.” As a boutique firm, Jeff and his partners personally handle every aspect of the search — from developing the position profile; identifying a pool of qualified candidates; contacting, screening and interviewing potential candidates; preparing interview reports and recommendations; providing counsel to the client and mentoring to the candidate; completing reference checks; working with the hiring team to negotiate compensation and finalizing the job offer; and to sealing the deal and bringing the candidate on board. “We do not have a junior recruiting staff working on any of our assignments. The partners do 100 percent of the work on every assignment and provide their personal service to each and every client. This ’boutique’ approach has served our firm, our clients and our candidates very well for over 40 years.”

Jeff started his career in the life sciences industry as a pharmaceutical sales representative with Eli Lilly in Canada. He spent 13 years there and another 12 years with the Lederle Pharmaceutical Division of American Cyanamid in the U.S., the Philippines and the U.K. before returning to the U.S. He then spent two years with the Zimmer Division of Bristol-Myers Squibb as president of Zimmer Europe based in Brussels.

“The life sciences industry is truly a global business,” he said. “Research and development knows no borders. Life science executives move from one part of the world to another with ease and they do it all the time. My global experience has provided an understanding of different cultures as well as the knowledge that there is no monopoly of good ideas in any one country. Having lived and worked in all parts of the world, I have experienced firsthand economic, social, political, and cultural global forces and their impact on business and executive careers.” Jeff said this exposure has made him a better businessman and a better executive search professional.

“Having grown up in life sciences, I have worked in all areas of the business: including commercial operations, research & development, manufacturing, corporate administration and C-level general management.” That early, jack-of-all-trade sector experience has likely been the primary underpinning of the success that Jeff enjoys today. As a result, Jeff said he has a very solid understanding of his life science clients’ business issues as well as candidate requirements. “As I have held or supervised many of these positions, I am able to clearly and crisply define the search parameters to maximize effort, decrease time-to-fill and source high quality executives, scientists and physicians within the industry.” Interestingly, all of the Strawn Arnold partners have similarly impressive backgrounds and executive experiences, giving them credibility and a strong network of contacts in their respective healthcare sectors.

While working broadly in a specific industry, Jeff said that he learned first-hand that hiring the best people is critical to the success of any business. “Top talent truly makes a difference,” he said. “There is nothing more ‘mission critical’ than hiring the right person into the right position at the right time with the right company. That’s how I led as a general manager and that’s exactly how I think today as an executive recruiter.” The network of talented colleagues with whom he grew up in the industry have been invaluable contacts as Jeff transitioned into his second life in executive search. For the past 17 years he’s thrived in the recruiting business.

How Jeff made the career transition is not all that unusual. Following the hostile takeover of American Cyanamid by American Home Products in the mid-1990s, he found himself in outplacement. “What do you do when you are unemployed for the first time in 27 years and have only worked with two companies,” Jeff asked rhetorically. “First you update your resume. Then you network like crazy calling everyone in the world you know. Finally, you call every headhunter who you have ever hung up on! And I was one of those jerks who did not take calls from executive recruiters.”

Jeff rapidly expanded his network and had the pleasure of meeting Bill Strawn, the search firm founder, who interviewed Jeff for a biotech CEO position. “Bill asked if I had ever considered a career in executive search. After making a few snarky remarks about headhunters, I thanked him for his offer, but informed him that I was selling my home in New Jersey and moving to Brussels as president of Zimmer Europe.” Two years later, following a divesture, restructuring and downsizing, BMS closed the Zimmer European office and Jeff found himself in outplacement (albeit with another generous severance package) for the second time.

“But I was now unemployed and homeless,” said Jeff. But with the opportunity to move anywhere in the world and with the desire to never have to relocate my family again (my kids were eight and 11 at the time), Austin, Texas where Strawn Arnold was based, seemed suddenly like a perfect location. “I re-contacted Bill, told him that I was only joking about the nasty things I had said about headhunters and asked if the position was still available. I am so pleased that Bill said yes, as the past 17 years with Strawn Arnold have been fabulous. My move from industry to executive search has been one of the best decisions of my life.”

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief, Hunt Scanlon Media

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