Scientist leader

The promise and peril of transitioning into management

Fred Mael

Scientists and technical professionals also have mortgages. They need money for college tuitions and retirement. They may be tired of working for their bosses and wish to have more nfluence on the direction of their work lives. Often, their solution is to move into leadership roles. For some, it’s a fantastic success, bringing out latent skills they hardly ever used. For others, it’s a complete disaster for themselves and others. Knowing why and who succeeds in this transition is crucial for all involved.

The Best – and Worst – Options

It’s a question many people have asked after they’ve been publicly accused of wrongdoing — how can a damaged reputation be salvaged? The question applies to those who were falsely charged with misbehavior and even those who were guilty of indiscretion and are ready to make amends. These are the key questions:

Unfortunately, there are reasons why some scientists and technical professionals, even or especially those who are high achievers in their specialties, fail to embrace the leadership roles they undertake. These include:

Some have low needs or taste for power and dominance, the personal orientation needed to be willing to make decisions that affect others and be the deciding vote between competing factions. They may be unwilling to discipline others and tell people what to do better, or conversely may be unfamiliar with how to influence others, leading to awkward or heavy handed attempts at leading.

Many scientists care little for how they are valued within the hierarchy of their companies – what matters is the esteem of their external colleagues in their chosen field. Upon becoming a manager, they may be unfamiliar with the need to build coalitions across disciplines with leaders in other parts of the company or management team.

Many technical professionals measure their advancement and progress by the output attributed personally to them, be it inventions, patents, journal articles, or books. The leadership role takes them away from their research role and adds an expectation that they will primarily facilitate the productivity of others. In many cases, the new manager hadn’t thought this through and spends much effort trying to be as personally productive as before in a fraction of the time.

Many scientists have high needs for autonomy – they like to do things their way and will fight strenuously for what they believe is a matter of truth rather than effectiveness. They may be unaccustomed to negotiating, compromising or trading in order to get things done well, if not perfectly

Finally a number of these professionals have treated other functions such as marketing, HR, and policy setting as trivial for so long that they find it hard to adapt to taking it seriously.

Bethesda native and Stanford PhD Peter Fiske, CEO of PAX Water Technologies in Richmond, California, and author of Put Your Science to Work, says that scientists need to realize that business challenges can be just as intellectually stimulating as scientific ones, that working as a leader can add breadth to one’s work life – and that contrary to perceptions, it is possible to go back to research if being a manager does not work out.

There is Hope

With all these caveats, a significant number of technical professionals go onto be successful managers, executives, and entrepreneurs. The key is whether any given person has either the disposition or the adaptability to embrace a new role. If this type of professional is being considered for a management role in your organization, you should raise these questions:

What continues to motivate this employee – is it still the adulation gained by personal accomplishments, or is it now also the desire to accomplish more by orchestrating the work of others?

Has this person had a realistic job preview spelling out the full range of formal and informal responsibilities that will come with a new position?

Is this person willing to dictate to others and discipline others when needed, or is being collegial still a very high priority?

Would the person thrive more quickly as a manager if offered developmental training or coaching in crucial areas such as financial management and supervisory skills?

Does this person identify with the persona of a manager or executive in that industry and all the stylistic changes it may entail?

What is motivating the change from professional to manager? If the person really doesn’t want to lead, there are perks other than promotion that could provide a sense of advancement, such as bigger bonuses for patents or more extensive travel to conferences.

Those who are motivated, open to growing, and honest with themselves can succeed. Peter Fiske believes that the great majority of transitioning scientists adapt to and flourish in their new roles as leaders. As their CEO, you may wish to invest the effort to smooth their entry into a broader role within your organization.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers. This article appeared originally in the October 2012 issues of Washington SmartCEO magazine and Baltimore SmartCEO magazine.