Jumping to a Role in Management: Good or Bad Idea?

Mark E. Jones, Ph.D., weighs the pros and cons
Man contemplating
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You have enjoyed a long, successful career at Dow. What are the most critical non-technical skills than enabled your success?

“I don’t know” is a sentence that should be used more.  Adding the clause, “but I will sure find out” can be pretty helpful, too.  Admitting when I don’t know something, admitting when something is a conjecture and knowing when I can say with rock-solid certainty that something is true, and recognizing the difference, served me well.   Being comfortable admitting I don’t know is certainly one of the most important skills, though it falls between technical and non-technical.

Ability to communicate in a creative and interesting way certainly got me into the position I’ve held for most of the last decade.  I proved better able than most to synthesize a difficult technical story into an easily understandable story.  I remain a pretty quick study, able to grasp meanings quickly and have the technical depth to understand.  What likely differentiates me is the ability to explain what I’ve understood to others.  It is certainly an important skill that led to some of the success I’ve had.

Wisdom might be one of the few advantages of advancing age.  Recognition that the answer you have is better than the question asked is one piece of wisdom that I do try to pass on.  Titrating the amount of effort to reach perfection against good enough is something I’ve gotten better at with experience and is a non-technical skill I recommend cultivating.

How have your parents influenced your leadership style? 

I never desire to be in charge, but I do like to lead.  I see a big difference between the two.  People who are put in charge don’t always enjoy the backing of the folks they are asked to lead.  Respect and trust are important aspects of leadership.  Respect is something you earn, not something that is bestowed upon you.  Trust is something you earn, not something that is bestowed upon you.

I’ve observed my parents, and particularly my dad, and learned about earning respect.  It comes from the way you treat people, but it also comes from effort.  I learned that getting your hands dirty, being willing to step up and being willing to work shoulder-to-shoulder with your team to achieve that objective makes people want to follow you.  You are the leader because you lead, not because you’ve been placed in charge.

What do you tell young chemists who ask for advice on whether they should stay on a technical career path or jump to a management track?

Technically skilled people that go into management typically get their first taste of management managing a project rather than managing a group.  Managing a project is the most enjoyable job I encountered.  It is also the most devastating job I’ve encountered when the project was killed. 

Project management leads some to conclude that they are better than any other candidates at energizing and leading the group.  The world is very different today from the one I joined.  Styles of operation ebb and flow, but I don’t see the world going back to the world I encountered.  The Dow Scientists, what Fellows were called back then, were partners in management when I joined.  Managers were, in many cases, non-technical.  The difference between technical and managerial roles was that managers dealt with budgets and human resources.  The Scientists carried most of the weight in setting technical directions for the group and for the projects within the group.  Today, managers are expected to be technical and still deal with the onerous aspects of budget and human resources.   It is a very different job and the decision more clouded than the one I faced.

The concepts of thin and thick markets must enter into the decision.  There will always be fewer people managers than people being managed.  The thin market for managers leads to the escalator problem.  In order for an escalator to work, people must get off.  Companies must cultivate managers, and that requires existing managers to get off the managerial escalator.  I went back to the technical ladder when it was clear that some of the folks I’d mentored were better managers than I was.  I am happiest and most valuable doing technical work.  The technical ladder was better for me.   

For a long time, both you and your wife worked for Dow in the same location. What are some pros and cons to that arrangement?

Dual careers are challenging whether in the same or different companies.  Opportunities will come and they will inevitably be poorly timed for one of the partners.  When one’s career is going swimmingly, the other will be in the middle of a stressful reorganization.  Opportunities were presented.  Opportunities almost always involved moving and one of us was clearly the trailing spouse.  Sometimes it was my wife, Erin; many times it was me.  We looked at the whole, maximizing the appeal for both even when it meant passing up a great opportunity for one.

We were very lucky that rebuffed offers did not impact our careers.  To be fair, we can’t run the counter-factual.  Maybe Erin could have been the CEO were it not for me holding her back.  All indications are that we both did pretty well.  We both advanced and, for most of our careers, were largely at the same level.  She moved to management and, when she retired last year, was at a higher level than me.  

On the day-to-day front, I probably liked the years best when she didn’t really care about what I was doing.  When we worked more closely, it was too easy for work discussions to intrude on our family time.  Some distance between work and leisure is optimum.   Some of the least appealing times were when we were on different sides of a work issue or when a deliverable I owned impacted her.   Separation is good, not in the marital/divorce way; in the work and the rest of your life way. 

Kids, travel and commitment to the job present balancing challenges.  We were fortunate that Dow allowed the flexibility for both of us to say no, that our work output rather than our participation was what mattered.  We were lucky in striking a balance that worked.  More importantly, we’ve largely been happy, have few “what could have beens”, and don’t spend time regretting them.

What’s the one area where chemists tend to fall short when communicating their science in the workplace? And what should they do to rectify it?

The biggest mistake is forgetting that communication is about persuasion and influence.  Too often the goal of communication is merely to inform, inform so that others can synthesize the data into something actionable.  It is not a good idea to leave interpretation to chance.  Most commonly, the speaker is the expert and they must let the expert opinion shine through.

The penultimate mistake is over-selling.  You must maintain your credibility and the trust of others.  You must walk the line between getting noticed and over-selling.  It is a tough line to walk.  Never put your integrity at risk.  Stay true to the data and don’t become deluded.

How is the Dow culture of today most different from the one you joined 30 years ago?

There are too many to name!  The level of automation today exceeds even the wildest dreams of 30 years ago.  Chemists today have tools that I couldn’t even imagine 30 years ago. 

The expectations are very different.  I started in a world where I was free to work in the lab pretty much all the time.  Communication was hierarchical and the senior folks came to me to tell me what I needed to know.  I was left free to focus on the science. 

Today, I think we over-communicate.  Everyone gets everything and the curation by the senior staff doesn’t happen.  I routinely find young folks struggling to find the signal in the noise and less able to do productive work simply because they don’t have time to think.  Vonnegut fans will know of the Handicapper General.  I think the internet, the company intranet and WebEx meetings are zapping constructive thoughts at a pace the Handicapper General would envy. 

On the subject of culture, Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Do you agree, and if so, what are the implications of this for people in their day-to-day workplace?

I am constantly reminded of Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy, which certainly related to Drucker’s statement.  It states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself, more worried about keeping the organization alive. The second type will always win.  They will gain control. 

Dow is a large company and my next comment is likely limited to larger organizations, as is Pournelle’ Rule.  Success means being true to the strategy and succeeding in spite of the bureaucracy.  It means being Pournelle's first kind of employee.  There will always be more of the second type of employees and, because they are in control, they make it difficult for the first kind of employees to stay true to the strategy. Figuring out how to get what I wanted done when the system wasn’t designed for it is a recurring theme in my career.

What does it mean to ‘manage up’, and how do you recommend that people do it?

I’m not a good sycophant.  The managers I’ve worked best with were those that liked to be challenged, where insubordination was almost a requirement for employment.  That said, you do have to know when it is inappropriate to challenge beliefs or actions.  One-on-one was always allowed.  At a town hall meeting for the entire R&D community?  Never. 

One of my early mentors and I never agreed on one point.  He said you should come to work every day focused first on how to get yourself ahead, how to get our group ahead and how to return for the stockholders, in that order.  I was then, and remain convinced, that his order was backward. 

Every day, I come to work asking first what to do for my employer, the stockholders, then my internal organization, and last, me.  Focus on the good of the stockholder and the organization before focusing on my self-interest served me well.  I have been blessed with great bosses and, further, had long runs with several.   I don’t feel that I’ve ever managed up and that keeping the right focus alleviates the need to do it.

You are not far from Detroit, the automotive capital of the U.S., and where scientists are feverishly working on self-driving cars.  Will children born this year in the U.S. ever learn to drive?

A better question is whether children born today will be employable as chemists.  The robotics and AI that would allow self-driving might actually be harder than the automation and algorithms to perform chemical synthesis.  I will take the Luddite view on both. 

I believe the challenges are too great for driving.  For chemistry, I still see it as a creative endeavor.  I don’t believe we are yet at the point where AI can equal the creativity of a good chemist.  I don’t believe we are near the point when AI can completely take over all driving tasks.  Automation will continue to march into our homes and workplaces, but I think in 16 years, when kids born this year will be of age to drive, I’ll still be touching a steering wheel.  Most of them will want to learn to drive.  Those with the aptitude will still be able to be chemists, too.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

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