Frequently, while initiating a search project, we get requests from the client like “We want to hire an ‘up and comer’ or  a ‘high potential’ candidate”. Generally, the motivations are along this thinking: The candidate will work harder for us, they will not have expectations or limitations and biases from their past similar roles, and the client can pay a lower salary and bonus to get the job done. Efficient thinking… right?
I find this true of many C-Suite hires, or that VP role, where the client thinks a senior director who is ready to step up would work great, especially in a smaller company. While I agree with the logic of this, many times this is not how it plays out in real life. What you need to be certain is of the candidate’s capabilities – that they are not just “high potential” but also highly capable. We tend, as humans, to be enamored by potential. What really should be at focus is capability. So, how do you measure capability?

First you need to define your business goals and clearly defined objectives for the role you intend to hire for – in other words – if you hire a great candidate, what outcomes do you expect? What do you want to accomplish with this hire? Then you need to look at what the candidate has already accomplished to date in their current and previous roles to see how they measure up.

For example, you want to commercialize a novel and disruptive technology, in doing this, you will replace or improve a standard of care treatment protocol. Has this person done this before? Did they set the strategy for the launch? What were the results? Did they direct hire a team and work with consultants or use partners or distributors? Were they on target with sales? What was their spending budget? How well did they coordinate with other key members of the leadership team?

For C-Suite hires you also need to examine the candidate’s leadership capacity. How well is this person able to establish trust quickly, build strong relationships based upon mutual respect with your other leadership team members, how well do they communicate ideas, negotiate good outcomes for all, focus on advancing the company more than their personal agenda, will people follow them? If you want to grow your team, these are critical capabilities you need to understand in your candidate. It is easiest to determine when the candidate has executed this in their previous roles.


If the candidate has not demonstrated mastery of these skills and abilities, then they will not be able to bring that to your company. However, if they have led teams of people, mentored and developed other people, and have demonstrated key leadership capabilities while they executed well, then they could step up into a bigger role.

When defining capacity, it is very important to conduct thorough reference checks – from the people that the candidate has worked  for, with and has supervised. You need to understand the candidate’s “in the trenches” strengths and weaknesses, not just the surface person you meet in the interview process. You also need to understand how this person’s skills have evolved and grown over past roles, that will also provide insight into how this candidate will grow with you. It is especially important to understand how the candidate manages pressure and unexpected events. This information will allow you to learn just how to motivate, and manage the candidate, as well as their capacity for growth and execution.

Remember, hiring potential can lead to unmet business endpoints if the person does not have the capacity or capability to perform to your needs. It is very important to learn as much as you can about the candidate – their strengths as well as their weaknesses and capabilities before you hire.
Working with a seasoned executive search consultant can help you not only identify strengths and weaknesses, but also help you rank candidates with their peer group, ensuring that you make a great hire every time.
Laura and her team specialize in working a very well-defined process to ultimately find you the very best executive talent in life sciences available. We have over 20 years building companies and relationships with the very best in the business.