Make me a Vice President, and I’ll take the job!

Some time ago, I wrote an article entitled, “Location: the biggest challenge to talent management”, and talked about the challenges of relocation. As an international Executive Search organisation, we are constantly asked to carry out global searches to find “the best person for the job”, no matter where the people are located around the world. Our clients usually have great roles that need filling, wonderful facilities and a brilliant company culture, but many of the people they are looking to attract are working in another country. This is where the biggest challenges can lie, and companies have to be aware of the issues facing candidates and their families when considering an international move. One would imagine that if the job, the company and the remuneration package were right, then the main challenge would be that of relocating one’s family. In most cases, that is correct, but for some people the job title will become a “show-stopper”…….and the battleground is usually around the “Vice President” title.

The curse of the Vice President title

Maybe I have a somewhat jaundiced view of the Vice President title, but in my days working for one of the major US biotechs, I can recall that the UK subsidiary initially stuck to very British titles of Manager and Director; these were people who had serious levels of responsibility – there was not a Vice President in sight. The problem arose when anyone from the UK travelled to visit the US parent company. A UK Manager, who was respected as a senior employee on home turf, suddenly had a crisis of confidence when surrounded by hordes of people carrying the titles of Associate Director, Director, Senior Director and various grades of Vice President. After a number of humiliating visits to the US, the UK adopted the US title nomenclature, which eventually resulted in a Divisional Vice President reporting to a Corporate Vice President who in turn, reported to a Senior Vice President. The SVP then reported to an Executive Vice President who, in turn, reported to the CEO.

These days companies use the title, Vice President, in a number of ways. One example may be similar to that of my former company, whilst some other companies only grant the Vice President title to someone who is heading an entire division. On the other hand, I have come across a “Vice President” of Research of a biotech company who had only 4 years postdoctoral experience, a total budget of less that US$ 2 million and a reporting team of four.

I carried out a rather unscientific survey on LinkedIn, using the search function to see what percentage of a company’s job titles included the words “Vice President”. The results were quite interesting. The Swiss based companies had around 3 VPs per 1000 employees, whilst the (non-Swiss) international pharma companies had around 5-6 VPs per 1000 employees. The generics sector tended to be around 10, whilst the biotech sector had as many as 30 VPs per 1000 employees (that being said, one sizeable UK biotech company didn’t appear to have a single Vice President). In a nutshell, it is very difficult to compare the job content and seniority of the position by the job title.

Maybe this is why I get a little irritated when candidates say, “I’ll only take the job if it’s a Vice President position”. My advice to them would be to ignore the job title and look at the actual job content. How influential will you be, how much real difference will you make, what does the remuneration package look like and what career prospects will the role provide. For sure, it might be a little galling to see a former colleague with a Vice President title, when you are a senior Director, but let’s get in the real world and look at the real seniority of the role.

Paul Edwards is the Managing Partner, Global Healthcare with Horton International, a leader in the Executive Search community