Insight on Assessment: Life Science in the Day of a Senior Consultant


Life Science in the Day of….

Nicolaj Thomsen, Senior Consultant

Nicolaj works from Coulter Partners’ Danish office just outside Copenhagen on search assignments that span the globe. One of three accredited assessment specialists on the Coulter Partners team, he brings skills to the table that are now in high demand as part of the search process. Wherever clients can benefit from psychometric assessment to refine short lists and help evaluate candidates’ suitability for positions across many disciplines and therapeutic areas, Nicolaj plays a substantial role. Here, he talks about the key aspects of his work:

Neuroscience and Assessment: Among therapeutic areas where Coulter Partners has developed strong executive search credentials, neuroscience and CNS is becoming a significant focus. We have recently conducted searches for several senior management positions, both commercial and operational, for a Nordic neuroscience company, where assessment has played an important part in the selection process.

In such a case, final short-listed candidates are invited to take an online psychometric assessment to help determine their suitability for the relevant role, using Saville Wave assessment tests. Following the online tests, a feedback session is then scheduled with each candidate, where we discuss different personality traits that are demonstrated and evaluate how these fit the role, depending on the particular function that constitutes the search assignment.

This in-depth discussion, which takes about an hour and a half, focuses on candidates’ working styles, on what motivates them and on how their personality reflects the requirements of the role.  The feedback interview does not explore an individual’s merits, but rather how they would fit the company’s culture, helping define expectations on both sides of the table. Two kinds of tests can be conducted – aptitude tests and psychometric tests. The latter tests help to evaluate motivational factors, working styles and the ways a candidate interacts and communicates with others. The psychometrics provide us with a personality profile to aid the selection of the right person for the role.

All candidates will have already been interviewed as part of our regular search process and at the second feedback interview we are then able to validate additional information supplied by the psychometric and/or aptitude assessment. First interviews give us insights into a candidate’s performance and management style in their current position and a strong insight and understanding of the career history, and then we build each profile from here. The four searches we undertook for our recent neuroscience client were based in different geographies across Europe and the Nordics, and this involved both face-to-face and skype video interviewing.

Assessment is highly valued in the market by both clients and candidates. Most candidates are genuinely delighted to gain insights from the assessment on their own personalities. They can begin to understand themselves better! Psychometrics are invaluable in verbalising some of the factors that are not immediately tangible. They help to give us further insights beyond the obvious – we go beyond assertions such as “because you have been CEO for your past three jobs, you are likely to be a successful CEO for the 4th role that we are recruiting here”.


Together with Geoff Dobson, who has been our lead assessment specialist for some years, and Lilyana Chukova, who is also accredited to conduct Saville Wave tests, I am now working to conceptualize the assessment process for the rest of the global team and give them a better understanding of what is involved. There are a variety of further applications outside our regular search processes, including executive coaching, succession planning and board and leadership assessment, where this expertise can be utilised highly effectively to meet the needs of clients.

Life Science Search, day-to-day: To a large degree, I am the main project manager on an assignment as soon as the contract is signed. Responsible for the main interaction with the client from the initial business meeting, I am in constant contact thereafter. Following the team kick-off meeting, my role is to write the job specification and continue to manage all communications with the client, while the researchers play their part. I interact with the researchers regularly during this phase, discussing candidate profiles and deciding who is to be interviewed. I conduct first interviews either by Skype or face-to-face initially to establish to what extent candidates’ qualifications closely match those defined in the job specification. In parallel with this candidate interaction, the team conducts regular update calls with the client to discuss candidate profiles and lead us towards a shortlist.

Business Development: I spend as much time as I can too on new business development contacting companies that we have identified as potential clients and following up on the different leads that come along. These are generated in a variety of ways, for instance talking to candidates and to my network in general and from conferences and events that we attend. We use business intelligence to keep abreast of industry developments and often this knowledge leads to relevant opportunities or gives us new ideas. An article on neuroscience may prompt us to screen companies with a neuroscience interest in the Nordics, so we can then target those that are relevant and initiate a dialogue to establish their search needs. A great deal of interaction also occurs via social media, which is often a source of inspiration and can offer a new angle for business development or approaches to industry leaders. A stimulus may come from a company achieving a financing round and we can then initiate a dialogue around their future strategy, as they move forward into clinical development and various needs arise; maybe an R&D director or another senior leader becomes a priority.

Of course, I am also involved in a great deal of general research, keeping up to date with what is happening in the market, as well as interacting with candidates and clients. Further on in a project this involves taking references and communicating these to the client and writing reports. I am very well supported by the rest of the team at this stage in preparing various parts of reports. I interact closely with the researcher, who contributes as much of the report as they can by elaborating on all aspects of the candidates’ career to date and then my own observations are added to the report. These are based on my interviews with candidates, evaluating their personality and how they behave when face-to-face. Once we have developed a suitable long list, we refine this and psychometric assessment may then be used for the final short list of 3 or 4.

A recent search for a position in Asia required us to conduct Saville Wave assessment for the final candidates on the short list and follow up with a Skype video feedback session. These interviews helped to confirm my observations and interpretations of the psychometric assessment. Examples of various behaviours at interview were observed to substantiate the findings from the tests – for example a candidate defined as very “outgoing” was seen to demonstrate examples of this personality trait when face-to-face.

Global Collaboration: I often work closely with London based or US based colleagues. Recent team cooperation with US colleagues, Mat and Lauren was on a search assignment for a Vice President, in the manufacturing area for a specialist pharmaceuticals company in anti-infectives. This was a US based position where the American team were responsible for research and candidate contact and I conducted the interviews via Skype. Holding regular update calls to calibrate candidate profiles is often critical to our success in such global team collaboration. This sort of ongoing communication to establish why a particular candidate profile is a good fit for the role and why another is not can include evaluating cultural fit, personality and experience. It’s preferable always to meet candidates face-to-face but where this is not possible it’s important to gain a clear impression via Skype on all these aspects.

What I like most about my job is the interaction with the clients and candidates, whether this is meeting them face-to-face or in the ongoing dialogue to record candidate discussions and explain why we are presenting certain candidates for a given role. It is a privilege to meet so many skilful people and they also teach me a great deal. The job offers me plenty of variety too. In the morning, I may be discussing a commercial role, how to launch a new product throughout Europe and how to prioritise markets and then in the afternoon I may be interviewing candidates for a quality role and the issues are completely different. The global nature of the searches means we are talking to people from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures and nationalities, in addition to the variety of functions and therapeutic areas. Sometimes we conduct local searches, for instance medical advisors for Danish affiliates of global Pharma and local sales manager roles, but 90% of our search assignments are international.

Talent considerations in Neuroscience and CNS: I see this as a very interesting broad therapeutic area for Coulter Partners. Our clients are involved in developing treatments for a whole range of diseases, from cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s to multiple sclerosis and opioid addiction, to name a few. The growth in opioid dependency in the US is predicted to kill nearly half a million Americans over the next decade, while in Europe where prescription medicines are perhaps more tightly controlled, the focus has been mainly on heroin addiction.

The success rate of drug discovery within cognitive diseases has been relatively low and there have not been many new products for many years to combat dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases. Finding someone with a successful track record in this area is not easy and of course this has repercussions for the whole value chain; if nothing has been developed then nothing has been marketed either. Those who do manage to be successful in neuroscience therapeutics often stumble when it comes to the market access challenge and payer issues further down line. Finding true end to end experience is therefore quite a challenge. Nevertheless, there is still great interest in the ever-growing neurodegenerative space. Multiple sclerosis has been a stable market for many years now, but finally new drugs are coming through the pipeline. The second largest pharmaceutical company in Denmark, has a 100% focus on CNS products. It is only a matter of time before we will see significant breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience.