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From Bench To Management

Knowing what might lie ahead can ease the transition from the lab to the corporate ladder

by William G. Schulz
November 5, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 45

Credit: tetra images
Credit: tetra images

FOR MANY BENCH CHEMISTS working in industry, the time may come when they leave the world of research and enter the world of management. The move can be self-directed, or higher-ups might tap the shoulders of those R&D workers who they believe have management potential. Regardless of how the transition comes about, understanding what lies ahead and how to prepare for it can ease the path, say both career counselors and those scientists and technicians who have already made the switch.

It's not wise to think about a transition to management until you understand research and the values of the company you are working for, says Joel Shulman, an adjunct professor of chemistry at the University of Cincinnati who worked at Procter & Gamble for 31 years, with 24 of them in management.

"You can't go in saying, 'I want to be a manager.' You have to be a scientist first," says Shulman. He advises "looking for ways to get your feet wet."

One way for scientists to do that, say Shulman and other career advisers, is to pursue opportunities to be a research team leader. Team leaders get a chance to practice their people and organizational skills, but they most likely don't have supervisory or budget authority.

"Hopefully, it's a two-way street when someone moves from the bench to management," says Shulman. The company should provide opportunities for would-be managers to learn without plunging in completely. He advises that researchers work out alternatives with their employers should they find that they don't want a management role after all. But, he adds, "if the company asks, it believes you are going to be successful."

In larger companies, he says, would-be managers usually have to make their aspirations known to higher-ups. If the company is interested, he says, it should provide training opportunities.

Career counselor and chemist John K. Borchardt says a transition to management is best made in the context of a current employer. For researchers with no management experience, he says, "it would be hard to sell yourself to an outside company. You need to understand your own company first."

Borchardt, who is also a freelance writer, advises those interested in management to seek out opportunities to work on cross-functional teams. He says it is a good idea to build contacts within the company. Next, he says, managers-to-be should check internal job-posting boards for positions that are on a management track.

"Look for things that are less than a 100% fit," Borchardt advises. "Learn new technology areas, or if an opportunity comes out of the blue, make the case to higher-ups that you can learn what's needed to do the job."

Borchardt says some people wonder whether they should pursue a master's degree in business administration, "but I don't think it's worth it to take a leave of absence and go to school full time. A lot of things can happen in the interim. An M.B.A. is fine, but focus on courses that will help you short-term. Project management is a hot field right now."

"Going all the way to an M.B.A. doesn't make sense for most people," Shulman says. He recommends learning on the job and maybe taking a business course or two. He says the American Management Association offers courses in business management "that are really valuable." He teaches a course called "Preparing for Life After Graduate School," which includes survival skills for researchers going to work in industry. Under the auspices of the American Chemical Society Office of Graduate Education, the course is now being offered at a variety of locations around the country.

"Being a first-line manager in industry is not too different from managing a research group in academia," says Shulman. "You have to manage people and budgets."

Shulman adds that the mistakes managers in industry and academia make are similar, too. He and Borchardt agree that the biggest pitfall for people moving from the bench to management is becoming a micromanager.

"In general, the most common problem is that the former researcher has problems delegating and letting go," Borchardt says. "The can-do spirit of researchers can lead them to become managers who charge ahead, doing everything themselves and leaving subordinates feeling demoralized."

But "in industry, you have the situation of managing people whose jobs you can't do," Shulman says. "You have to learn to delegate and look at the big picture."

Another pitfall, says Shulman, is not giving proper credit to people. People need to feel that their contributions count. He adds that it is important to "manage upward as well as downward," which is to say, you need to make your boss look good, too.

Teamwork is essential, says Borchardt. He says most researchers are used to having their own piece of a problem and managing it separately. "They're not used to working effectively with people in widely different functions."

Borchardt offers an example from his own transition to management. He was managing a project to bring to market a new chemical that was a biodegradable replacement for a known endocrine disrupter and had a slight price advantage over the chemical it was replacing. But in a rush to bring the product to market ahead of competitors, Borchardt discovered that the Environmental Protection Agency required that tanks of the product carry a dead fish symbol—something that alarmed customers.

It turns out, Borchardt explains, that the product would not biodegrade fast enough to prevent fish kills if there was a large spill of 100%-active product in a stream. This was true of the competition's product, too, but because he was in a rush, his company's product got hit with the dead fish label first. He says it would have been much better if he had communicated with the firm's environmental safety and health team, which could have advised him of exceptions to EPA rules. In this case, it was not an advantage to be ahead of the competition.

Borchardt advises that new managers need to learn their responsibilities as well as the responsibilities of people in other departments in order to be successful. But he cautions that "other people don't have time to be a coach." He says a better strategy is to look for role models.

Communication skills, including writing skills, are a must, Borchardt and Shulman say. "I was used to writing reports that were read by researchers," Borchardt says. "It's not the same as writing reports to inform business people."

Sometimes firms offer to move a researcher into management simply because they believe an employee has potential. If this happens to you, Borchardt recommends the following course of action: Ask when management needs to know your decision. Ask yourself, "What are the responsibilities of the position, and am I equipped to fulfill them?" Then, talk to people in those functions now and ask, "What do I need to know first?"

The company wants to promote someone to management who will succeed, Borchardt says. This is the time to ask about compensation, travel requirements, and prospects down the road. "Collect information before you say 'yes' and commit yourself," he says.

Guidelines and advice are useful in charting the course from researcher to manager. But there's also much to learn from those who have made the transition. What follows are vignettes of several people who have made, or in one case is beginning, the move from bench to management.

Credit: Hollywood Portrait Studios
Credit: Hollywood Portrait Studios

TAUSEEF SALMA says having an abundance of patience and respect is necessary for any manager. Salma is director of upstream projects for commercial technologies at Baker Petrolite, which provides chemical services for the energy transmission and processing industries. She says she started with the company 10 years ago as a development engineer, and after about four years, she took an opportunity to move toward management by becoming a research group leader.

"I was encouraged by my supervisor to apply to become a group leader," Salma says. "The company sent me ahead of time to leadership courses and provided me with supervisory training."

Salma says management challenges often involve people. "Keeping an R&D workforce motivated is one of the biggest challenges I face today," she says, adding that this is often a matter of helping people see how they contribute to the overall performance of the company. Younger people coming into the R&D workforce, she says, are much more apt to question priorities, deadlines, and workloads.

A related challenge, she says, is appreciating different talents. "I am very process-oriented because of my training, but that's not always the case with other people. Effective communication is a key factor in maintaining commitment and achieving results with the varied talents of a given team."

As a manager, she especially likes "the ability to understand where R&D fits into the business-how it satisfies customer and market needs and creates value for the company," she says.

Credit: W.R. Grace
Credit: W.R. Grace

SUSAN EHRLICH is a business director at W.R. Grace. When the company first approached her about moving from R&D into management, she said, "No, thank you." When higher-ups asked again, she was assured that if she didn't like her new assignments, she could have her old job back. That was six years ago. Since then, she has tackled such projects as managing due diligence for mergers and acquisitions, being the marketing manager for new businesses acquired by Grace, and managing a biofuels incubator initiative. Today, she works in the company's BioFuel Technologies Group, which supplies products for that industry to make biofuels more efficiently.

For the most part, Ehrlich says, she has learned about management on the job and through leadership programs offered by Grace. She says the company offered to pay her tuition for an M.B.A., but it was not something she had time for between her home and work lives.

"It's more fulfilling," Ehrlich says of her move into management. "I know that what I am doing makes an impact. I like being involved in the development of new products and businesses for Grace."

The compensation is also welcome, she says. "You are rewarded if you hit your targets," she says. "I am happy with the way Grace rewards me."

To be sure, the work is often more demanding in terms of the hours she puts into the job. "I've got a goal, and I want to hit it," she says. But even that extra time on the job can come with perks. Sometimes those hours are taken up by travel, she notes. "I get to see the world."

Credit: Mickey Singletary
Credit: Mickey Singletary

ALLISON A. ALDRIDGE is an analytical R&D supervisor at Mikart, a contract manufacturing firm for the pharmaceutical industry. She says a supervisor approached her about making a transition to management not long after she began working at the company.

"I miss the lab a little bit," she says, noting that her career in management is sometimes completely different from that in the R&D world. She says she is learning other aspects of the business and is usually planning several projects at once and keeping them all moving.

"I do enjoy teaching," Aldridge says, noting that "teaching other people how to do their jobs" is a big part of her work.

Aldridge says she has taken some leadership courses through ACS, "but the rest is on the job." For her, the biggest challenge is dealing with people. "You have to deal with people problems," she says, estimating that about half of the job falls into this category.

As an example, Aldridge points to new employees, especially those who are just out of school. They often don't know how to behave at work, and it's the supervisor's job to help them learn, she says.

Credit: Bob Siurek
Credit: Bob Siurek

MICHAEL HOEHNER is R&D director at Dixie Chemical. He now reports directly to the chief executive officer, but he began his career with the firm in 1998 as a bench chemist.

"I eased into it," he says of his transition to management. First, he became a group leader, then an R&D manager, and finally, R&D director. He recommends the gradual approach.

"Find a way to get your feet wet and see if you like it," he says of making a transition to management. "I have taken small steps—that's what has worked for me." Today, some of the people he worked with when he began at Dixie now report to him.


"It can be awkward and challenging but still very rewarding if the transition is successful," Hoehner says. "By taking gradual steps, you not only prove to yourself you can do the job, but it allows your colleagues a chance to understand how you approach both technical and nontechnical situations."

For the most part, Hoehner says, he has learned management skills on the job. He has taken some daylong courses in management and thought about getting an M.B.A. but in the end decided not to pursue it. He says having children has helped him be a better manager. Being a parent, he says, "makes you look at all sides of the picture."

Hoehner didn't start out with an eye on management. "I came to Dixie because of the wide variety of chemistry and the focus on manufacturing," he says. As opportunities arose, he took them and found that he enjoyed working with people as much as he enjoyed the technical problems.

"I didn't realize I had some of these characteristics—the people management skills," he says.

Credit: David Dellar/Photography By David
Credit: David Dellar/Photography By David

CONNIE J. MURPHY had been a chemical technician at Dow Chemical for 20 years when she began to make the transition to management. Today, she supervises about 40 people in information systems for the company. "I am out of chemistry," she says.

Murphy explains that she had reached the top of the Dow job ladder as a technician. Concerned about what to do next in her career, she went to a supervisor who helped her move to another division where a team leader for new technicians was needed.

"They put together this new job in about 45 minutes," Murphy says. "I got a new job and a promotion."

Although she hadn't had any prior management experience at Dow, she says she was able to demonstrate those skills through her activity with ACS as a member of her local section and as chair of the Division of Chemical Technicians.

"That was the thing that made the difference," Murphy says of her ACS involvement. "It really gave me an opportunity to learn and practice skills that I didn't have in my day job." She cites writing, communication, organizational skills, and people skills among them. And she could document all of this for her bosses at Dow.

From the rank of team leader at Dow, Murphy has moved on to other management positions, and she has survived several reorganizations. At one point, her own job was eliminated, but she was able to move on to something else.

The most difficult part of a leadership role, Murphy says, is making decisions that affect people's lives, such as letting someone go or having to deliver hard messages about an employee's performance. "I had no idea how much stress there would be—it's someone's life."

At the same time, such leadership actions can be rewarding. She says she has witnessed employees make a complete turnaround in their job performance after hearing the unvarnished truth. "You have to have people tell you these things. You can't improve on something if no one tells you about it," Murphy says. "It's so rewarding to see people succeed."

MICHAEL L. HURREY is a bench chemist with some management responsibility at Vertex Pharmaceuticals. The company underwent a reorganization at the beginning of the year, leaving him with an opportunity to take over a small team in charge of about 60 different pieces of equipment at the company. "It's getting my foot in the door," he says.

There are nine people on the team, Hurrey says, but he doesn't have direct authority over any of them. The team meets biweekly and has goals for the year.

Hurrey says he is also building management experience and networking through his activity with ACS. He has been active in both the Younger Chemists Committee and the Division of Business Development & Management.

It's challenging to manage people and resources without direct authority, Hurrey says, especially when it comes to motivating people. But he is happy to be on the first rung of the management track.

"If you don't reach higher than where you are, it's hard to go anyplace," Hurrey says.

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