4 dos and don’ts for scientists moving into management

Transitioning from the bench to the boardroom poses unique challenges, says author of new book

Bertrand C. Liang, MD, PhD, MBADr. Bertrand Liang is Visiting University Professor at Liaoning He University in Shenyang, China; Guest Lecturer in Biotechnology Strategy at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego, and Managing Director at Forward Medical Science Ventures. He also serves as CEO of Pfenex Inc ., which was awarded a Fierce 15 designation in 2011 and the Frost & Sullivan Enabling Technology of the Year in North America in 2012.

Managing and Leading for Science ProfessionalsPreviously, he led a number of other companies, including Tracon Pharmaceuticals and Coronado Biosciences (NASDAQ: CNDO) and started 10 companies in the biotechnology arena. He has also held leadership roles in product development and corporate venture capital.

Dr. Liang holds a doctorate in medicine with clinical training in neurology and oncology; a PhD in molecular biology and genetics; and an MBA with advanced training in management, innovation and technology.

He has edited a number of volumes in the fields of neurology and oncology, including Hematology-Oncology Clinics of North America (Neuro-oncology) and is the author of two Elsevier books: The Pragmatic MBA for the Scientific and Technical Executive and Managing and Leading for Science Professionals (What I wished I'd known when moving up the Management Ladder), which was just published. This article is based on the first chapter of this book. [divider]

As STEM professionals, we pride ourselves on being able to "get the data," moving us a step closer to finishing that all-important project. After all, the emphasis ever since graduate school has been to find the right answer – that which will allow us to be recognized as competent and smart and thus be rewarded with accolades, publications in prestigious journals and promotion.

Indeed, this approach is based largely on individual effort and, while not exclusive to academia and R&D, clearly reflects their emphasis on singular accomplishment.

Hence, our independent efforts to determine what is the right experiment, the right information to be generated, and the right end results are compensated with first authorships, advanced degrees, grant awards, salary increases, tenure and being deemed important by our institutions.

[pullquote align="right"]The minimization of team orientation, combined with data that encompasses primarily gray areas rather than black and white, has disadvantaged R&D personnel to thrive in management and leadership positions.[/pullquote]However, this ecosystem, while the traditional pathway for many scientists and engineers, often puts these professionals at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to becoming a manager and leader in their respective organizations. The emphasis on individual efforts – where scientists can work on their projects in situ in a reductionist manner – stands in stark contrast to the broader and commercial side of the organization, where team orientation is heavily appreciated, and where risk and uncertainty are viewed as a normal, ever-present part of doing business.

The involvement of others in decision-making, and the frequent lack of any "right" answer, can be foreign territory to R&D personnel, who may have little experience in situations with minimal clarity. Further, having to accept risk and uncertainty to make decisions without waiting for a complete data set is an anathema to anyone trained within R&D. Thus, it is no surprise that the minimization of team orientation, combined with data that encompasses primarily gray areas rather than black and white, has disadvantaged R&D personnel to thrive in management and leadership positions compared with their colleagues on the commercial side of the organization.

For those moving (or thinking of moving) into the management and leadership ranks of their organizations, a different mindset is often needed. While the analytical and diligent conceptual framework of those trained in science and engineering is always of value, these professionals should also cultivate an appreciation of the need to work actively with others in situations where information may be less than clear – and where decisions must be made when all the data isn't (and won't be) apparent.

Here are four tips to help those trained in R&D as they transition into management and leadership positions:

1. It's more than just creating data.

As a manager and leader, a key responsibility is to mentor and develop the staff reporting to us. We must be wary of demotivating with success, where the project succeeds but team members are treated only as "hands" and extensions of management. Instead, we need to ensure the members of the team are recognized and continue to develop, and help them achieve their own goals.

2. Expect as you gain in management skills, your technical expertise will decline.

One's perspective as a manager and leader changes from focusing on being an expert per se to a facilitator of the group's work. While being able to help locate an answer to a question or problem is important, it is unrealistic to expect to maintain the level of technical competence as when you were at the bench. Your job has changed, and the responsibility is to the group with a broader remit than being the technical expert.

3. Perfect is the enemy of good enough.

We as scientists strive for perfection, and often times, rightfully so – we want to show the best efforts we can to solve a problem. However, as a technical executive, we need to balance the target product profile and organizational needs versus our desire for perfection. We must be careful to avoid the latter resulting in building a prototype that, while addressing a problem, is so cost-prohibitive it does not create a solution. It is our job is to balance the needs of the organization in order to create such a solution that addresses the customer's needs and those of the business (whatever that business may be).

4. Being complete doesn't mean being complicated.

One of the largest challenges technical staff face is the ability to simplify; it is too easy to use jargon, assume understanding, and move on when discussing our projects and programs, presuming those cognoscenti will comprehend our missives, and those who do not are unimportant. This could be not further from the truth; as one moves up the managerial ranks, the ability to simplify and yet be complete is a key skill needed to efficiently transfer information to those who are not technically trained or sophisticated. Communication is relevant in all areas of an organization, but the translation of scientific and engineering concepts into language that can be comprehended by senior staff from other parts of the organization creates significant value to the team and the organization at large.

[divider]There are many aspects of management and leadership where the technical expert can play a key role, given a background in R&D or engineering. Understanding that one's perspective need change will only improve upon one's transition to the role. Being able to manage these new challenges creates significant value for those within the executive's reporting staff, his or her own managers and the organization at large.

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