Earlier this year, the McDermott + Bull Technology and Life Sciences Practice began a search for a client in the life sciences and medical device sector. This client, based in the Southeastern U.S., is a privately held company committed to saving lives and improving health economics and outcomes within the neonatal intensive care and acute care segments of the hospital community. With a fully integrated 24,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and over 300 employees, the client leverages the resources of world-class academic clinical and research centers. With a strong commitment to patient safety and innovative technologies, this client company was looking to find and hire a new Vice President of Research + Development to bolster their standing as a leading provider and innovator in the space.
At McDermott + Bull, I often work with clients in highly specialized industries. They seek our expertise when the task of finding the perfect candidate for their unique roles extends beyond their available resources. I often say, “Good talent is hard to find,” and to locate such talent, it’s crucial for us to develop a comprehensive persona of the ideal candidate – an “all-star.” This process begins with a thorough understanding of two key aspects:
The role and postion itself
The client's company culture
First, we needed to clearly define the role and its responsibilities to determine what success and high performance would look like for this leader. Given that the role was a Vice President position within Research and Development, we initially gleaned several functional needs of the client. A VP-level leader inherently requires an innovative mindset and the capacity to implement, elevate, and execute their vision — both to the C-Suite and to their direct reports and teams.
Such a leader necessitates not only a creative and curious mindset for generating innovative ideas, new applications, and technologies, but also the leadership and management skills to actualize these concepts. The candidate would be expected to lead, manage, and communicate with cross-departmental teams across the organization, driving results in areas ranging from marketing to engineering. In addition to having the right experience, education, career progression, and qualifications, this candidate needed to align with the culture.
When discussing culture, we typically use the term “fit”, however, the nature of this role required a different approach. To create a substantial impact and attract a genuine innovator, the ideal candidate had to offer a “cultural add,” rather than simply fitting into the existing culture.
Consequently, they needed to bring new skills and perspectives to the organization:
Curiosity to challenge existing processes and ideas, sparking transformative change.
Strategic thinking coupled with an ability to collaborate effectively with all stakeholders.
Leading By Example
The ability to not only bridge cross-functional teams but to also empower and influence others to think beyond their immediate responsibilities and roles.
Encourage and inspire colleagues and teams to exceed expectations and also act as a mentor to nurture emerging talent.
Hands-on and Data-driven
Taking the lead with a team-centric approach to engage at every level and build and develop the people, systems, and processes necessary to achieve the organization’s objectives.
Build Strong Connections
Understanding how to build strong internal and external working relationships across functions, while providing leadership and oversight to all involved stakeholders.
The Mandate: A Tale of Two Candidates
Armed with detailed insights about the role and company culture, we initiated our search. As we began sourcing, interviewing, and reaching out to our talent networks, we knew we were searching for a unicorn in this space. The role demanded someone who was highly innovative and collaborative to challenge the status quo and inspire new ideas and products, but was also incredibly technical, process-oriented, and had the ability to execute that vision end-to-end – all of which require very different skill sets. After countless interviews, conversations, and assessments, we presented two candidates to the client. To maintain their privacy and confidentiality, we will refer to them as Candidate A, or “Arthur,” and Candidate B, or “Bruno.”
Arthur came with over two decades of R+D experience within mechanical and electro-mechanical engineering roles, as well as 17 additional years of experience working with class III medical devices within the cardiac rhythm management, electrophysiology, interventional cardiology, and structural heart spaces. In addition, Arthur’s prior experience included working in the neonatal space with pacemakers and defibrillators for newborns, and a strong background with fluidics, drug delivery, capital equipment, and implementing wireless remote connectivity. His R+D experience included leading the initial design conception, testing method development through to execution and dealing with obsolescence. Arthur was a high energy and focused leader, who was frequently pulled in to lead through transitions at each of his past companies. He was also a strong communicator with a solid executive presence.
Bruno brought over 25 years of experience in research, product development, marketing, and customer success. His career spanned various technologies and applications in digital health, respiratory care, anesthesia, medical diagnostics, drug delivery, infection prevention, and pharmaceutical manufacturing. Bruno was also a key contributor in the design, development, and launch of multiple market-first and FDA-approved products, including combination medical device/drug products. Holding an engineering degree, his distinguished career featured over 60 patents, 25 publications, and an industry-wide reputation as an innovation expert across many areas, from teaching to technology. Bruno, deeply passionate about enhancing lives through technology, particularly saw unexplored opportunities to foster rich and profound innovation within the NICU, and he complemented this vision with his exceptional communication skills and a commanding executive presence.
Both Arthur and Bruno were highly qualified, engaged, and eager to step into the role as VP of R+D for the client company. Arthur represented the highly technical, process-oriented, end-to-end delivery the role required while Bruno’s well-rounded background across functions and sectors represented the innovation and collaboration the company sought. Each presented diverse perspectives, skill sets, expertise, leadership qualities, and core competencies, making them well suited for the role, and embodied the definition of “culture add.” Typically, at this stage, clients favor one candidate, but in this instance, they found themselves at a crossroads.
As I said previously, good talent is hard to find. It’s in these situations where a company finds themselves challenged to choose between two highly qualified candidates, I know I have done my job well. For a role demanding a highly technical, process-driven executioner and an innovative pioneer and collaborator, we were able to deliver both to the client. Ultimately, we advised the client to adopt an alternative approach by hiring both Arthur and Bruno. Arthur came aboard as the new VP of R+D, while Bruno assumed the position of Chief Innovation Officer.
The result for the company has proven to be a massive value-add to their product development and innovation planned. The close collaboration of two highly focused PhD scientists with vast and varied experience has enhanced the existing product line and spurred the creation of new products and technologies. These advancements serve patients and caregivers better, open new markets, and increase shareholder value for the company.
Our outcome? A thoroughly satisfied CEO and board, coupled with delighted VC sponsors who recognize the exponential value being contributed to their investment.
If you are looking to add additional value to your company from the addition of game-changing talent, hiring for your executive leadership team, or need some guidance on your executive leadership strategy, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Your input and inquiries are always welcome.
Jake Vander Zanden
Jake Vander Zanden serves as a Partner and leader of McDermott + Bull’s Technology + Life Sciences Practice.
Jake spent over 25 years as a turnaround and growth leader completing business transformations as a senior executive at companies like Allergan, Medtronic, and more. He has lived and worked throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe, and managed businesses in all the major regions of the world. Jake’s success has come from his ability to quickly and continuously develop high performing teams and guide their achievement of company changing initiatives, regardless of country, language, culture, or product group.