Needed: Managers Who Are Leaders

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Vol. 52, No. 2 March-April 2009 pp. 58-60.

As a research/technology manager, you are being challenged to lead technical professionals to achieve significant innovation. That’s not the same as being a manager or an expert. In this Human Side, I’ll describe the kind of research/technology leaders needed for innovation. And I suggest you ask yourself “Do I really want to be this kind of a leader?” And if the answer is yes, “What do I need to learn to become a better leader?”

In a time of economic upheaval, threats to life from weapons of mass destruction and environmental damage, urgent needs to provide affordable quality health and education for all, people look to the world of research and technology for innovative solutions. That’s a huge challenge but also a great opportunity for the research/technology community. However, it won’t be achieved by business as usual. Great results call for exceptional leadership. Here’re some reasons why:

  1. Inventors aren’t usually innovators, but their inventions could become innovations. For example, there are many brilliant scientists and engineers with ideas for cheap, clean energy creation. Probably most of their visions won’t fulfill their promise, but if someone does come up with a game-changer, leadership will be needed to transform an invention into a competitive product. Inventors are usually too individualistic and uncompromising to be leaders able to recruit investors and gain partners for production and distribution.

    Even in large companies, this kind of leadership has been needed to support inventors who are difficult to work with and turn people off. Only when executive leaders are willing to risk their credibility by protecting them do their inventions have any chance of becoming valuable innovations.

  2. Complex technical solutions require collaborative teamwork and collaborative leadership. John Chambers, CEO of Cisco, tells the Harvard Business Review (November 2009, p75): “From a business-model and leadership perspective, we’re seeing a massive shift from management by command and control to management by collaboration and teamwork. You could almost say this shift is as revolutionary as the assembly line.”

    Jim Meier is a former Union Pacific manager and now a leadership coach who is writing a workbook with me titled “Becoming a Leader We Need.” He proposes seven factors that are essential to achieving high performance collaborative teams. He writes:

    “Although leading different types of collaborative teams requires different technical skills, management capabilities, and knowledge, each team needs a common language-a blue print or roadmap-to guide the team to achieve its goals. To accomplish this, a leader must develop:

    • Common Purpose: Key questions are: Why are we here? How important is the work of this team? How well do I fit with this team? When answered positively a team achieves a common sense of identity and the meaning of its work. Unanswered, this question creates disorientation, fear and uncertainty.

    • Trust: Key questions are: Will you do what you promise? Will I be listened to with respect? Can I count on the others? When these questions are answered positively, a team achieves mutual regard, forthrightness, mutual support and spontaneous interaction. Unanswered, these questions lead to mistrust, caution and insincerity.

    • Clear Roles & Responsibility: Key questions are: Who does, what, when, and where? What guidelines govern team behavior? What does the team leader expect from members? When answered clearly, a team operates with explicit assumptions, clear and integrated goals, identified roles, and accountability. Unanswered, this question leads to misguided competition, conflict, and apathy.

    • Support: Key questions are: How do we fit in to the organization? What does the organization expect from us? How will the organization help us? When resolved a team has support from and alignment with the organization and properly allocated resources. Unresolved, these questions lead to demotivation, fragmentation and disempowerment.

    • Directed Action: Key questions are: How do we implement? How will we make things happen? How will we integrate our work among ourselves? When answered well, a team has clear processes, solid alignment and disciplined execution. Unanswered, these questions reveal conflict, confusion, misalignment and missed deadlines.

    • Continued Excellence: Key questions are: How do we continually improve? How will we tap our creative energy and skills? How effective will we be at stepping outside our comfort zone? When resolved a team demonstrates innovation, flexibility, intuitive communication. Unresolved, a team atrophies which leads to a sense of being stuck, disharmony and negative stress.

    • Vitality and Resiliency: Key questions are: How do we stay energized? How well will we renew our sense of purpose and cohesion? How will we deal with tension and stress? When answered well a team demonstrates change mastery, staying power and motivation. Unanswered, a team atrophies which leads to a sense of overload, boredom, and burn out.

  3. Many of the solutions we need are not just new technologies and won’t be achieved by teams alone, but require the systemic integration of technology, processes, and expert collaboration. That’s what’s needed to improve the quality and cost of healthcare, for example—and it won’t happen without exceptional leadership.

    According to a study reported in Academic Medicine (Vol. 82, 2007, p. 1,178): “The transition of a typical 500-bed hospital from average to top levels of performance could result in 150 fewer deaths per year... Common qualities shared by top performers including a shared sense of purpose, a hands-on leadership style, accountability, systems for quality and safety, and a culture of collaboration.”

    The study cites few top performers, because there are few hands-on leaders able to create a culture of collaboration. Without such leadership, technology alone won’t do the job.

What It Takes

What does it take to be the kind of research/technology leader needed to support innovation and create collaborative solutions? It’s much harder than management by command and control. When I spoke to technical professionals at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, they wanted advice on getting rid of bad managers. I’ve spoken with talented technical professionals who have left a company because they couldn’t stand a manager. The kind of leader needed will only succeed with willing collaborative followers.

Scientists are recognizing that to sell their ideas, they need to become entrepreneurs, and there are M.B.A. programs catering to them at the Rady School of Management at the University of California, San Diego, Stanford Graduate School of Business and MIT Sloan School of Business. But learning about strategy and finance is not enough to create the kind of innovative collaboration that solves socio-technical problems.

Meier includes trust as a key factor in high-performance teamwork. But surveys show that most people don’t trust leaders. That means they either aren’t sure what to expect from leaders or they expect them to act badly—for example in the old command and control style. Leaders will be trusted only when followers know and believe in their philosophy as well as their competence.

Some people think a philosophy is a statement of soft, high-flown concepts. Others think it should be tough-minded and just deal with measureable values. But for leaders, a philosophy for the common good can be an extremely practical way of defining oneself and developing trust. Effective leaders not only communicate their philosophies; they can be trusted to act in harmony with what they say they believe.

In developing your own philosophy, consider three elements: ethics, moral reasoning and practical values.

  • Ethics is a no-brainer. It means playing by the rules.

  • Moral reasoning doesn’t just follow rules. It considers the impact of actions, and it defines what we mean by the common good. Is it just what’s good for me, my team, my company? Or is it a commitment to do what benefits, or at least doesn’t harm all those who might be affected by my actions. This is what Sergey Brin and Larry Page, founders of Google point to in their philosophy of “Do no harm.”

  • Practical values express your belief in what will strengthen collaboration and further your purpose. An example of a leader who espoused and practiced a philosophy with practical values was Bill Hewlett, one of the founders of Hewlett-Packard. His philosophy included making products that helped technical people perform better. It also included treating employees with respect, being loyal to them so they’d be loyal to HP, and contributing to their continual development. When there was a downturn of business, he persuaded his partner Dave Packard that everyone should take a cut in salary and time off rather than laying anyone off. He also believed in hiring entrepreneurial people. When I interviewed Hewlett in 1970, I suggested that these people were likely to leave the company to start their own businesses.

“That will be OK,” Hewlett said, “If we treat them well, they’ll become good suppliers and customers.” And that’s what happened. Hewlett’s philosophy not only built HP, it also contributed to the Silicon Valley miracle.

Developing and expressing a philosophy will help you to create trust. But it can also cause you internal conflict. Your values may clash. You want to invest in people’s development, but times are tough and you also want to maintain financial independence. You may want to empower people and allow them to experiment, but you may need to push people to meet a deadline essential for a customer’s success.

The inevitable conflict of values is why a leadership philosophy needs to be one of principled pragmatism: continually testing your values or principles in the real world and explaining the reasons for your decisions, making it clear that to achieve the common good in the long run, you have to compromise. This kind of wisdom is very different from that of a scientist or engineer trained to find the one right solution. But it’s the kind of leadership thinking essential to transform inventions into innovative solutions.

Now, ask yourself again whether you really want to be a research technology leader and if so, what you need to learn to become one that your collaborators trust and want to follow.



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