I was reflecting on my R&D career while recently attending an executive coaching course  and it occurred to me that R&D training is nearly always centered on improving competencies in technical areas, and seldom focuses on the “human element”. During my career, I received considerable training on aspects of management theory, portfolio management, interviewing skills etc. but training to improve “soft skills” that dealt with the “human element” in the workplace was limited.
It’s all about the data…or is it? Many R&D leaders who come from a technical background tend to be data-driven and are weaker in areas where communicating and influencing people are crucial. This becomes a critical liability as the young scientist progresses to management. As a young scientist I believed the data always spoke for itself. How wrong I was. It took a while, but I learned the critical part of “influencing” was not the data but rather understanding my audience, understanding what information they were looking for, understanding the context, understanding the environment and understanding the audience’s goals.
As I moved further up the ladder and became a Manager, then Director, and finally VP, I found that my job increasingly entailed more people management and many issues where related to people-people interactions, not the science or data. My competency was increasingly tested by how well I could handle conflict situations around timelines, resources, prioritization of projects, cross-functional collaborations, and influencing others to adopt an idea. If R&D employees received more targeted coaching on these “human” issues, then their transition to R&D leadership positions would be better for everyone.
Influence and People Skills… The ability to “influence” and lead with “people skills” are important skills for an R&D Leader. R&D leaders have to champion, in collaboration with other company leaders, an innovation culture within the company which nurtures the best R&D talent, while also engaging senior executives in developing a balanced R&D innovation strategy aligned with the corporate strategy and getting buy-in on that strategy from other leaders in the company. R&D situations in which the power to influence and resolve issues through your people skills are limitless and varied: collaboration on projects; communicating project status updates; discussions around organizational structure; allocation of resources; setting project priorities; and determining when projects are initiated or killed to name a few.
If you’re a young emerging R&D leader reading this, remember that sometimes the data is the least persuasive part of your argument. Know your audience and differentiate between a presentation to a technical leader and a non-technical leader. Sometimes your audience doesn’t understand the significance of the data. Sometimes they are just not as interested in the data as you and just want a short summary. Sometimes they would prefer to talk rather than see charts and tables of numbers. Sometimes they don’t “speak” your (scientific) language. It’s an R&D leader’s job to learn to bridge these gaps and become a more effective communicator. Listening becomes just as important as talking.
Coaching for Emerging R&D Leaders… R&D leaders need to be able to move from the technical arena to managing the “human elements” (as opposed to the “chemical elements”):-). The soft skills of emerging R&D leaders will be needed increasingly as they advance in their career and failure to acquire them will affect the trajectory of their careers. This means coaching on the soft skills is a critical learning step for an emerging R&D leader.
I remember the comical surprise of my group when I took the unusual step of introducing a meeting where we discussed such “wacky” ideas as the role of body language in R&D communications. After they recovered from the shock, the feedback was very positive. But there is so much more room for improving R&D training in the softer skills and increasing awareness of the “human element” in our R&D activities. Many R&D Leaders are completely unaware of the effect they can have on other people when communicating but the good news is that many of them can be easily coached to become effective communicators and good people managers. Coaching for R&D leaders would be a great start.
Building High Performing Teams… The transition from R&D scientist to R&D leader is a difficult one to make for scientists who often tend to be highly analytical and have low “F” (feeling) scores in the Myers-Briggs personality test . Believe it or not, it is possible to learn to “influence” by speaking up in a more extraverted style even though you may not have all the facts or data you would like to make a decision. Successful R&D leaders would also benefit from learning about the various different personality types in their teams and collaborative partners, as well as understanding coaching and mentoring processes that can be used to create high-performing teams. Since R&D is a highly collaborative process, work spent on establishing high performing teams within the R&D context will reap rewards in establishing a positive innovation culture.
Conclusion… Success in influencing others means that you have to start feeling comfortable with the “fuzziness” of human interactions and personalities and learn to trust your “gut”. I believe that the cost of utilizing coaching for improving the soft skills of emerging R&D leaders would be well worth the cost and ultimately result in a more efficient and collaborative innovation culture. It’s an area that I suspect has been neglected in many companies.
PS… I’ve also written several posts about other aspects of R&D leadership for those readers who may be interested [3,4,5,6,7,8].
1. Philosophy IB Executive Coaching Certification Program, Rutgers, NJ, Fall 2014.
© Dennis Nelson 2015