March 21, 2019
Episode 1 with Jeff Kordenbrock
Jeff started his career in the United States Military where he was an attack helicopter pilot and platoon leader in the US Army. I realize it would be difficult to drop everything, join the military, only to hope that it would lead to a career in medical device sales four or five years down the road. However, if you happen to have military experience and you are wondering what the next phase of your career holds for you, the medical device space could be a good option. Jeff is not the first person I have crossed paths with in medical device sales that has a military background. Much like Jeff, many of these individuals are now leading Divisions or entire companies.
Jeff’s medical device sales career began at CR Bard where he was a territory manager. I do not have any personal experience with Bard, but I do know at least one other person who got their start in medical device sales at CR Bard. If you are looking to break in to this field, it may behoove you to look at those companies that have a history of hiring those without specific medical device experience. Ethicon, a division of J&J, is another company with a history of hiring individuals with no medical device sales experience. These companies typically have an extensive training program. Just keep in mind that this training can be focused on the clinical aspect of the job and not necessarily the sales aspect.
Jeff then moved into the cardiovascular space when he joined Guidant as a sales rep. Guidant’s primary business was in the cardiac rhythm management space, which includes implantable pacemakers, defibrillators, and heart failure devices. Jeff then moved into a Regional Sales Manager role followed by a Manager of Internal Recruiting and Talent Management. He then became a Director of Sales in the cardiac rhythm management division before moving into the Director of Corporate Accounts and Healthcare Solutions, which is typically responsible for large IDN and GPO sales. Guidant was later acquired by Boston Scientific.
Jeff subsequently left Boston Scientific to become the Vice President of Sales for the Eastern Area in the Neuromodulation division at St. Jude Medical (remember when I said a few people with military experience are now leading divisions and entire companies?). St. Jude Medical was later acquired by Abbott.
Jeff left St. Jude to start his own recruiting firm, Wingman Recruiting Group.
Q: How did you get to where you are?
Jeff: Luck and timing. I was a Cobra attack helicopter pilot in the Army. I got out as a captain after five years and was lucky enough to get picked up by a medical device sales company. This is my opinion, but I believe luck happens when opportunity crosses paths with preparation. Jeff’s experience in the military prepared him for a career in medical device sales. I mean seriously, after flying attack Cobra helicopters, do you really think Jeff was going to be intimidated by standing in the OR and having a surgeon yell at him? Uh, no. Side note, not all surgeons yell. I started with a small laparoscopic surgical instrument company, which was later acquired. I eventually ended up at a company called Guidant. I was at Guidant for sixteen years on the cardiac rhythm management side in sales and sales leadership positions. One of those positions was an opportunity to go to the corporate office in Indianapolis and build a recruiting team. We started with two people on the team and built it to twelve people. This was in 2004 and it gave me the bug for recruiting. I have always loved recruiting, attracting, and developing talent, it was always my favorite thing to do. After 22 plus years in the medical device space I decided to start my own recruiting firm, and I did that four years ago, and its called Wingman Recruiting Group, a correlation to my days in aviation. The only regret I have is I wish I had done it a bit sooner.
Q: What is it about the correlation with the military and medical device that seems to be a match?
Jeff: A lot of folks that go in to the military have a background in sports and with competition. Most of the people in the military are very competitive which translates well into the medical device space, which is very competitive. It’s discipline, it’s time management, it’s competitiveness. All of those traits and attributes translate well into business, and specifically sales.
Q: Can you walk us through the process of getting a position to fill? What does that look like?
Jeff: I am contracted with multiple companies. It can go two ways. The hiring manager will reach out to me and say, “I have a sales manager position to fill in Chicago.” And sometimes I have a candidate and I will contact the company and ask if they have any positions in the area where the candidate is located. It’s usually the companies that come to me. I usually work directly with the hiring manager. One of the benefits of working with a recruiter is when that person has a relationship with the person doing the hiring. This enables you to guide the candidate through the process because you know the person doing the hiring.
Q: You are in sales too. You have to sell yourself to get that contract, right?
Jeff: That is the client side of the business. You are out there talking to companies to get them to put you on contract as one of their preferred recruiters. You are selling in two different directions: you are selling the companies to get them to use your services and you are selling the candidates to be able to get them to consider leaving their current job to go to another opportunity.
Q: Do you find that recruiters specialize?
Jeff: I think it depends. I am just in the medical device space, I don’t do pharmaceutical or IT. A subset of that is medical device sales and medical device sales leadership. Because much of my background, 16 out of 22 years, was in the cardiovascular space at Guidant and Boston Scientific, 60% of my business is cardiovascular related. I do other things, such as neurovascular and ENT, but the vast majority specializes in the cardiovascular space. That is because of my network from 22 years in the field of medical device space. I think about it often, whether I should branch out into orthopaedics or into something else. I haven’t done it yet, I don’t know if I will, but I have decided to stick with my niche. I have found that many medical device reps do this similar thing. They find a specialty they enjoy and tend to stick with it as long as possible. There could be many reasons for this, but my theory is twofold: one, each specialty tends to speak its own language, and it can be difficult to become proficient in that language. Notice I did not say, “difficult to learn”. I believe anyone can “learn” the language. However, getting to the point where you can engage in a clinical dialogue with physicians using their terminology, and using that terminology and clinical data to change the habits of a physician can be a daunting task. Side note, if a physician tells you that he or she believes what you are saying, but his or her habits or actions do not change, he or she is not telling you the truth. In medical device sales, there is only one gauge that measures your effectiveness as a sales rep, and that is the actions and habits of your physicians. The second reason I believe many reps stick to one specialty as long as possible is because of relationships. Trust is huge in this business, and once you have earned that trust (as evidenced by the physician continually using your product), it is very difficult to walk away from that, knowing you will have to start the process all over in a new specialty.
Q: There is a lot of talk about medical device vs. pharmaceutical. In the minds of some people, there seems to be some distinguishing characteristic that separates medical device reps from pharmaceutical reps. Can you talk about that?
Jeff: There are many ways to go about getting in the medical device space, there is no one way to do it. I talk to people all the time about going in to pharmaceutical sales. There is nothing wrong with it, it is great. There are phenomenal companies out there like Bristol Myers, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Merck, etc., along with many other smaller and mid-size companies. Those pharmaceutical companies have phenomenal sales training programs. I tell people all the time, don’t shy away from those organizations. A normal path in to medical device sales is, you graduate, go in to business-to-business type sales for two to three years, such as Xerox, ADP, etc., build a track record of success (you have to be able to demonstrate performance in this space with rankings and awards if you want the attention of a medical device hiring manager), then jump in to the pharmaceutical space and do that for two to four years. There are a lot of similarities in B2B vs. medical vs. pharma, but some people my get in to pharmaceutical or the medical world and they may not like it. If you want to progress to medical device sales and you have been in B2B, try pharma. They have great sales training, you are in the medical world, you get to work with physicians, physician offices, and hospitals. See if you like it, and if you do well for two, three, or five years, then move in to the medical device world. You have built a track record of success from B2B to pharma and that is what people look for, that track record. I don’t have that stigma of medical device vs. pharmaceutical, but I don’t think it should be out there. If someone has been in pharmaceutical for 10 or 15, 20 years, it is going to be really tough for someone to take a chance on you because you are comfortable in that space and it will be tough to transition in to medical device sales. One possible difference is many medical device companies expect you to have already had that sales training behind you, so if you don’t you are behind the eight ball. Some B2B and pharmaceutical companies do a better job of sales training. That is because many medical device companies expect you to have it when you come in.
Q: What do you look for when you fill roles? Do you break roles out in to entry level, mid-level, and highly experience?
Jeff: It doesn’t matter what I want, it’s what my client’s want. I have done a lot of hiring and I may think candidate A is the best fit for a particular role, but if my client doesn’t think candidate A is the best fit and they think candidate B is the best fit, then I better start finding more people like candidate B. The nice thing is I have relationships with a lot of the clients I have. They might think candidate B is the best candidate and I bring them candidate A, so we are able to talk through that. I do have companies that come to me and they are very specific as to what they want. They can be VERY specific. I have to make sure I don’t instill my bias in to people and try to find the wrong person for them. It has to be what they are looking for in that candidate, what are the skill sets. Are they looking for business acumen, clinical acumen, work ethic, etc.? One of the things we always do when we get a new client is taking an extensive period of time finding out what skill sets they are looking for in that particular candidate, be it for a sales role, a clinical role, a management role, etc. It is very specific to the role and the company.
Q: Can you give an example of some of those specific parameters a company may give you?
Jeff: One of the tougher roles to fill for one particular company is an associate rep role. They always bring people in as an associate rep and one of the things they look for is that person has to relocate in 12 to 24 months. An associate rep is someone that is brought in to the organization and trained on the company’s products and process. They are typically “assigned” to a full territory manager or may work with multiple territory managers. They can be given what may be considered “grunt work”, such as running instrument trays from one hospital to another. It is an opportunity to get in, learn the business, and then be “awarded” a territory anywhere in the country when one opens. It can be tough to fill because many people do not want to uproot and move to another location. A lot of this is looking at people with a strong work ethic. It’s hard because how do you break that down and look at it specifically? You have to go back and look at the resume and have very distinct questions that you ask candidates in the filtering process before passing them along to the client. You have to dig in and understand if it’s business acumen, or clinical acumen, technical acumen, or work ethic that the client is looking for. And, of course, they want to see sales success. How consistent have they been, where do they rank, are they in the top 10%, top 20%, top 50%? That’s why your sales numbers are so critical. Not only are they critical in the moment because that is where your paycheck comes from, but if you ever want to make a career transition, that is what people look at. Where did you rank, what were your numbers, how much did you grow, where were you percent to plan? All of those things are so critical because you are going to be under a microscope.
Q: As you compare candidates for roles, other than experience, what separates one candidate from another?
Jeff: A lot of what I see today is people jump around so much. I see people that are switching jobs every one to two years. Many companies want to see some longevity, loyalty. There are always exceptions such as acquisitions, layoffs, RIFS, there are so many factors. In today’s world, it is very common to be affected by one of these situations. If you have been in this business for more than 10 or 15 years and has never been affected by a RIF, it’s almost surprising. Those situations are understandable for someone switching jobs. Outside of that, you really want to be somewhere for three to five years, that’s the sweet spot. Some companies I work with will tell me they don’t care what the reason is, if someone has jumped around every one to two years, they do not want to talk to that candidate. If you decide to make a move, make sure you have thought through that and done your due diligence. Companies want to see your decision making, and that shows up on your resume. Are you making a move up, or are you going backwords, or is it a lateral move? That’s why I say going from B2B to pharma to medical device is a logical progression. That is someone moving up the food chain.
Q: Have you seen a particular background, other than military, that lends itself to medical device sales more than another?
Jeff: It really varies by employer and role. There are some that look at military backgrounds for the reasons we talked about earlier… time management, discipline, competitiveness, etc. Another one is student athletes, scholar athletes. There are a lot of companies that look for that for the same reasons as the military…time management, discipline, competitiveness. For those that weren’t student athletes or in the military that doesn’t mean you can’t get in to medical device sales. You just have to demonstrate success of those types of attributes and traits and a track record of consistent success.
Q: Can you talk to me about some of the things you do to help candidates put themselves in the best light?
Jeff: One of the biggest things, and this seems so obvious but so few people tend to do it, is being prepared, and it starts with your resume. To me, the resume is one of the most important things because it is a snapshot of you. How does it look, how well organized is it, what does it say? Then as you go through the process, it’s being prepared for the interviews, doing your due diligence on the company and understanding what the company is looking for in that role, going out to people in that organization and knowing what their background is and what they do every day, and then trying to convince the person doing the hiring that what they look for matches to what you have done. The person that ends up getting the job tends to be the person that has been the most prepared and told the story to the hiring manager the best. That is where the recruiter comes in and they can help guide the candidate through the process, and if the recruiter know the company and the hiring manager well, it just helps the process go that much more seamlessly. This is why a good recruiter is so important. If he or she has experience and a relationship with the company and, more specifically, the hiring manager, he or she is able to truly help you through this process because of the knowledge of what it is the role and hiring manager require for success. I always say the interview itself is the ultimate sales call. You are selling yourself. If you can’t sell yourself very well, how are you going to be able to sell a product?
Q: Do you have examples of things every candidate should be doing?
Jeff: This is going to sound self-serving, but every time a recruiter contacts you, either by phone or email, respond back to them. Not responding to a recruiter, even if the role is not something you would be interested in or even if you are completely happy in your current role, respond back to them. You never know. You never know when you are going to be impacted by a layoff or RIF, or suddenly you are just not happy with your job anymore. All recruiters know who gets back to them, and if/when they get a job in a particular area and they know one candidate always gets back to them and one other candidate never does, who do you think they call first? If a candidate has always been responsive, chances are that he or she is going to be responsive after they get the job. Everyone is busy and there a million things going on, but always reply, even if it is just an email saying thanks but no thanks.
Q: Do you have examples of things candidates should stop doing?
Jeff: The first thing I would say is stop talking yourself in to staying at a job you are not happy with. It’s amazing how many calls I get from people on a regular basis who are not happy with what they are doing but they stay there. Then I talk to them a year later and they are still there, two years later they are still there, and they are still not happy. It’s easy to say, and I know most people are risk averse. If they have a job, they want to stay in that job. But the economy is humming, it is a candidate’s market right now. This is a great time for folks in the medical device space to be looking for jobs because there are more jobs out there than qualified candidates for those jobs. If you are not happy with what you are doing, get your head out of the sand, look at what is out there, start networking because you can find something else. The worst thing is to stay in a job that you are not happy with because then what is going to happen is your productivity is going to go down, in a sales environment your numbers will go down, and someone will ask how your numbers are and they aren’t good, and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I have been in a few situations where there is that one person that is just not happy with their job. They constantly complain about the work, about the pay, about coworkers, about customers, and about their manager. This person is toxic to be around and will drag you down with them. If you have one of these people at your company or on your team, stay as far away as possible. If you are this person, move on. Find something that makes you happy. Life is too short to be in a job you hate.
Q: Are there certain positions that are harder to fill than others? If so, why is that?
Jeff: I did mention earlier that some of these associate sales positions where you have to relocate can be tough to fill. There are different parts of the country that I find are harder to find people. The recruiting process is luck and timing. I can have a great role with a great company, but I just can’t find the right candidate. On the other side, I may have a great candidate, but I don’t have an open opportunity to match them. That is where the luck and timing come in.
Q: From your perspective, how has medical device sales changed over the last 5 to 10 years?
Jeff: It has changed dramatically. When I got in back in 1993, it wasn’t easy, but it was a lot easier than it is today. It is much more difficult, you have to be an expert at so many different things. You can’t just be someone that is great at developing relationships with your customers. That is a key factor, you have to be good at that. But the old days of you going out and developing a relationship and they continue to buy from you are coming to an end because that is only part of the equation. Now you have to be an expert in pricing, contracting, a clinical expert, a business expert, a sales expert, understanding the whole healthcare environment and understanding the changes. It is a lot more complex than it has ever been, and that isn’t going to change, it is only going to become more complex. You can’t just be good at one of those things, you have to have all of those skillsets to really be able to thrive in the complex, competitive environment we are in today.
Q: What trends do you see that you think will define the future of medical device sales?
Jeff: It’s those selling skills that you touched on earlier. People could be great relationship developers in the past and do well in sales, but now you really have to have strong selling skills. You have to be able to take it to that next level and uncover needs of customers and being a sales expert. It’s also the things I mentioned before, such as understanding the healthcare environment we are in today, and how your product or service helps that customer. They want experts, they want people that can bring them knowledge and information. The customers need that, so you have to understand contracting and pricing, all of those things are so critical today where they weren’t as critical in the past. That is the trend I am seeing, you have to have a good handle on all of those aspects to be successful in this complex world we are in. You have to be a lot more well rounded and really be fine tuned in all of those aspects to be successful. Many physician practices are no longer independent, they are now employees of the hospital or healthcare system in which they operate. This means that they no longer have the final say in what products they use. The best healthcare systems have physicians involved in the purchasing decisions, but they are certainly not the only customer. Not only do you need to communicate clinically, but you must be able to communicate economically as well. When you are speaking with the CFO of a hospital, he or she may or may not understand the benefit of having an inner lumen that accommodates an .014mm wire vs. an .018mm wire. But if you can explain that it means less risk to the patient, lower complication rates, quicker recovery times for patients, and lower overall cost to the hospital, then you may have his or her attention. Of course, having the data to support those statements is crucial.
Q: What do you see over the next couple of years as the best positions to look for or to try and be in?
Jeff: There are so many great companies out there, and so many great positions out there. It’s hard to pinpoint just one, but cardiology is still doing well and will always do well, orthopedics, neurosurgery, ENT, just to name a few. Demographics and the fact those disease states will always be there, unfortunately, are driving these spaces. Cardiology and neurosurgery are so critical and there are so many subsets and comorbidities that it is becoming more complex, and companies are out there trying to come up with a solution. As people are looking for opportunities, you have to ask yourself, “Do you want to work for a big company or a small company?” They are both good, there is no right or wrong answer, it’s what do you want? I personally say to folks get experience in both. I am seeing a lot of companies that want to see experience in both. There are smaller, start-up type companies that think it’s great if a candidate has big company experience, but they want to know if they have ever worked for a smaller, start-up company because they don’t want to take the risk of bringing them on to their smaller company if they have never had that experience. I have heard that the average medical device company spends about $150,000 to get someone up and fully trained on their products. This is just one of the reasons that companies want to mitigate risks when hiring. Just in terms of dollars spent, turnover is simply too costly to make hiring mistakes. This is in addition to customer frustration with seeing new reps every year or two. There are many customers that will not put up with that and will go somewhere else, even if they like your product. If you have big company experience and small company experience, it makes you that much more valuable, and the number of opportunities expands as well.
Q: What would you say makes one recruiter better than another? What should a candidate look for to know that a recruiter is in a position to guide them through this process?
Jeff: One of the easiest ways to do it in today’s world is go to LinkedIn, look up that recruiter’s profile and look at their background. What have they done, what positions have they had, what types of companies have they been a part of, how long have they been in the medical device space? You can tell pretty easily when you look at a recruiter’s profile on LinkedIn how much experience they have in the medical device space. It doesn’t tell you how good he or she is going to be, and it shouldn’t be used solely to make a decision, but it can help guide you to decide if that person has the experience necessary to navigate through this process. Then talk to that person and find out what they have done to help other people, see what they are like, what is their personality like, who have they placed in other companies, if they are willing to share that information. I hear often that recruiters don’t get back to candidates. I like hearing this from a competitive standpoint because I feel like I communicate a lot with both candidates and companies I work with. It is hard to respond to everyone that contacts you throughout the day, but if you have someone in the process and you are not communicating with them, that is really bad. I try to do my best to communicate with anyone that reaches out to me.
Q: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you think would be important for potential candidates to know about?
Jeff: We have touched on quite a few things. One thing is to keep your resume updated, even if you are not looking for a job. You should be updating your resume every year, even if you are happy with what you do. You don’t want to be in a situation where 5 or 10 years goes by and now you are in a position where you are looking for a job and you haven’t looked at your resume. As a sales person you do a business plan each year, you should do the same thing with your resume. You should go back and update it with your rankings for that year, your sales successes for that year, your numbers for that year, then it is easy because you just have to remember the last year. Don’t wait until you need a job to go back and try to remember all of that information, do it every year. It’s like going to the dentist, nobody likes doing it but you just do it.
Q: Where can people get ahold of you, where can they find you?
Jeff: The easiest way is my email, firstname.lastname@example.org, I’m on LinkedIn as well, like most people are. If you go to my LinkedIn profile, www.linkedin.com/in/jeffkordenbrock/, you can connect with me there because I do post a lot of my positions on LinkedIn. I also have my website, www.wingmanrecruiting.com.