I sincerely meant the title of my article as a compliment. Having spent the better part of my professional life leading and managing scientists and engineers as well as professionals in marketing, business administration, human resources; I can attest that they represent the biggest challenge to your success as a leader. The vast majority of scientists and engineers are extremely smart, very skeptical, and highly independent.
The first process in the Performance Trilogy® is the development of a winning strategy and communicating it in a compelling way that inspires faith among your followers. Faith in this context means asking others to believe in something (your vision and strategy) that you cannot yet prove. This is an especially difficult challenge when trying to convince scientists and engineers to believe in and support your strategy.
By their very nature and training, scientists and engineers are taught to be skeptical. The scientific, peer review process demands that every new idea or concept be thoroughly examined and critically challenged before acceptance. Convincing scientists and engineers to believe in your strategy requires strong evidence that your strategy is desirable (not only to you but to them); achievable (a well thought out plan of action with contingencies); and beneficial (what’s in it for them if the strategy succeeds). You might be able to get away with answering those three questions with most staff through the art of persuasion; but to get scientists and engineers to believe in your strategy will require a much more rigorous analysis and accepting repeated challenges.
This oftentimes leads senior business managers to avoid involving key scientists in the strategic planning process as they are viewed as obstructionist and slow down the planning process. This is unfortunate because these are the very people who are the most likely to improve the strategy by challenging it with their tough questions and technical input.
For those scientists and engineers who have accepted the strategy in theory, getting them to execute the strategy (the second process of the Performance Trilogy®) is the next big challenge. This requires translating the strategy into clear organization-driven performance and financial goals that they will be willing to follow. Once again, outstanding technical staff are not often focused on the needs of the business as much as their own personal and professional goals. It is critically important that you spend time understanding their personal goals and aspirations and align them with the needs of the organization. Senior technical professionals are independent minded and oftentimes have a work agenda that is inconsistent with the organizations’. This alignment process (often referred to as getting on the same page) takes a considerable amount of time and effort and is the only way to ensure flawless execution. My rule of thumb is that the organization’s and individual’s goals should be at least 70% aligned to ensure both organizational performance and individual satisfaction.
Finally, the most difficult challenge is that of coaching technical staff to further develop their skills (the third process of the Performance Trilogy®). Scientists and engineers have spent a great deal of their time and energy building their technical skills and are rightly proud of their accomplishments. They can be reluctant to acquire non-technical skills that can help them succeed in an organizational setting. These include communication, productivity and leadership skills; acquiring industry knowledge and business savvy. This is where coaching plays an important role in understanding the talents and motivation of each individual. Only then can you “cast” them in the right roles that balance organizational and personal needs.
Graffeo and Associates is an organization committed to improving the quality of leadership in science and technology (S&T). It was formed in 2008 around the expertise of Dr. Tony Graffeo, a senior executive from Arthur D. Little and Battelle Memorial Institute. Dr. Graffeo has consulted with leading research institutions in the United States, Europe, Latin America and the Middle East, and has created a codified system of leadership development centered around the principles of the Performance Trilogy® which he has taught throughout the world. He is currently a professor at Northeastern University teaching Professional Masters entrepreneurship and leadership courses. His new book, titled “Leading Science & Technology-Based Organizations: Mastering the Fundamentals of Personal, Managerial, and Executive Leadership” will be published in 2018.