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Advice from the C-Suite

CREDIT: Kelly Krause, AAAS

I collect career advice like some people collect seashells or vinyl LPs. In fact, my collection of career advice was the reason for my first Tooling Up article, published on this Web site more than 15 years ago. I believe there is power in other people’s experiences. This “O.P.E.,” as I call it, coming at the right time, can steer you clear of land mines you might otherwise run into.

In many of my previous articles I've discussed how valuable advice is from people who are just a year or two ahead of you. They have already traveled the same road you’re on, not long ago. For a Ph.D. student, hearing how a postdoc managed to find his or her dream job—that’s good stuff!

Great capability will be squandered unless coupled with a healthy ego that is focused on customers and colleagues rather than yourself.

—Greg Duerksen

But there’s a whole ‘nother level of career advice that I haven’t written about in Tooling Up: advice gleaned from senior executives. These successful people, with titles like chief executive officer (CEO), chief operations officer (COO), and chief scientific officer (CSO)—the “C-suite” as we call it in the world of executive search—occupy corner offices. They have years of experience climbing the corporate ranks, hiring people, and watching others succeed or fail. This perspective is completely different than that of a near-peer, but it is no less valuable.

Raising the bar for hiring decisions

As my readers know, I’m a recruiter for a global search firm. This job involves a lot of conversations with top brass about how they evaluate and select talent.

Greg Duerksen is the president of the company I work for, Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search. He networks with C-suite executives in the corner offices of some of the largest science-based companies in the world. Like me, he asks clients for advice that he can use to make our practice more successful, and he keeps track of the answers.

Do you want more advice from the C-suite? Listen to this interview with David Jensen.

In a recent white paper, The New Standard, Duerksen described how the bar for hiring has risen during years of economic difficulty. His concise set of five pieces of advice came right from those high-level conversations. It's rare to hear snippets of career advice distilled from the experiences of senior executives, and these are especially good. I spoke with him about this advice and how it might apply to people at the start of their industry science careers.

The new standard: Think and act both strategically and tactically

“A decade ago a CEO could focus on strategy and outward-facing actions and leave the tactics to the lieutenants, who in turn had the luxury to concentrate on actions and execution,” Duerksen wrote. “Today all senior executives must do both.”

In the old days of recruiting (just a decade ago) we used to think of the CSO as the “big picture thinker” with layers of scientists beneath her to conduct the science and move management’s ideas forward. She was a strategic asset (in those days it was usually a “he”), and not usually a person who would get down in the trenches and push past technical roadblocks. Today, that CSO puts her tactical expertise to the test on a regular basis.

But here's the thing: This lesson doesn’t just apply to the CSO. Even entry-level scientists need to be strategic and tactical at the same time. Guess who’s promoted within the first year on the job: The scientist focused on only the assay he has in front of him, or the scientist who sees that assay as a piece of a big, strategic vision of a future drug’s path to the marketplace?

The new standard: Understand and embrace the gray and drive it to black and white

You'll surely agree with Duerksen when he says that the world is full of uncertainty and ambiguity. Scientists thrive on it; it's the very substrate they work on. In the world of business, decisions must be made. That means that—as in science but often on a tighter timetable—uncertainty and ambiguity must be tamed.

“Top performers get comfortable with the gray areas and think broadly and deeply about which questions must be resolved and when, yet have a sense of urgency to get the answers and drive decisions to the black and white of actions and results,” Duerksen wrote in the white paper.

You want this quality in a boss. She or he must make those big business decisions, often with insufficient information, and take responsibility for the consequences. But this is also a useful quality in a wide variety of employees at all levels.

One general manager I recently worked for insisted that this was a major requirement for a scientist-hire in his company's bioanalytical services group. This contract research organization wasn’t in trouble, but it wasn't growing either. The general manager hired a scientist who looked broadly at the slate of new services they could offer drug company clients and put together an action plan to integrate the new services. The scientist helped build their business.

There will always be a gray zone to deal with on the job. Those who do well find a way to thrive and even relish being there, while pushing as much as possible into the black and white.

The new standard: Develop a keen self-awareness and a 1:1 ego-to-capability ratio

We see it all the time in the search business: Talented people who don't thrive because their ego is cranked too high—or too low. It’s out of sync with their real capabilities.

“Great capability will be squandered unless coupled with a healthy ego that is focused on customers and colleagues rather than yourself,” Duerksen wrote. “A balanced ego-to-capability ratio requires the self-awareness and security to ask for help and surround oneself with others who are smarter, more knowledgeable, or more capable than the leader, and thus complement the leader’s strengths and shortcomings.”

Ever work for a boss who didn’t want anyone else to shine? It's frustrating. Just imagine if that were the culture of a company! Even if you join a business as an entry-level research scientist, you’ll need to know how you can best contribute and where you’ll need help.

Scientists are always worried about interview questions concerning weaknesses. Perhaps you’d be surprised to know that it isn’t the confessions of weakness that will hurt you but your inability to expose a keen sense of self-awareness.

The new standard: Become both clever and wise

Your graduate studies in science have brought you a degree of book smarts that few people attain during their lifetimes. In order to put that to use for your employers, however, you’ll need to combine that education with wisdom that comes from experience and that can't be learned from books, at least not easily.

“Smart, educated, and wise do not overlap without years of experience, success, and mistakes in multiple roles, environments, and cultures,” Duerksen wrote. In other words, get out there and take a few risks, don’t be afraid to goof up, and repot yourself now and then. Such choices and experiences will make you wise and bring downstream benefits that you probably can’t foresee.

“Great leaders know that intellectual rigor and insight are required to synthesize the complex or ambiguous into a short list of clear, understandable, and memorable points," Duerksen wrote, "or to make decisions that look beyond the numbers and reflect the wisdom born of experience.”

Simple is good—but simple is hard.

The new standard: Be a “strategic doer” and simultaneously lead others

Today's companies are lean. We no longer have the luxury of support structures and large staffs. Everyone, whether at the bench or in the C-suites, is stretched to the max.

As Duerksen wrote, “Today’s superior executives must both complete tasks themselves and concurrently inspire, motivate, manage, and work through dozens, hundreds, or thousands [of people] who are not wired like them. This latter capacity remains the most challenging to nurture and develop.”

Being a strategic doer means taking that list of 20 priorities and prioritizing them for action. You know which ones you can manage and which ones you can count on others to manage. Where most new employees fail is in the delegation step. That’s job #1 when learning to manage and it's a challenge worthy of a future Tooling Up column.

Learning to delegate is tough; it also requires you to have direct staff. Know what’s even tougher? Getting those priority items accomplished through people who do not directly report to you. It’s this “influence without authority” element that is so essential in the early stages of your career. Few early-career scientists ever have real authority—but all of them are called upon to get things done and take responsibility, and not just in their little slice of bench space. You need to learn how to get things done as a member of a team, without authority. If you can do that, delegation to employees who report to you will be easy when that time comes.

Do the research—continually seek out career advice

Throughout the years I've been paying attention and taking notes, I’ve found that those who succeed in their own careers are the ones who learn from others’ experiences, whether it be fellow lab mates, peer-level contacts, or C-suite residents. Gather material, use what makes sense, and toss the rest aside (or save it for another day); it's ultimately your own judgment you're trying to develop. The more information you gather, the more you'll exercise these developing skills. The more you do these things, the more opportunities come your way!

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