A Technical Career in Industry – The View from Retirement
Dr Kenneth G. Kneipp
BS ’66 Tulane; PhD ’71 LSU
Retired from 3M, St Paul, Minnesota
The year 1957 was a turning point in the history of American science. In October of that year, the U.S.S.R. successfully launched the first human-made object into space (“Sputnik I”), and the “space age” was born. The “International Geophysical Year,” an internationally sponsored period of scientific cooperation involving 67 nations, also was initiated in July, 1957 and continued through 1958. It was intended to herald a period of scientific cooperation primarily in the earth and space sciences.
The United States, under President Eisenhower, had announced the intention to launch “small earth circling satellites” back in July, 1955, but the Soviets beat the USA to it with the first successful such launch. Then, barely a month after the launch of Sputnik I, Russia followed with Sputnik II in November, 1957. Despite the successful launch of the first American satellite, Explorer I, in February, 1958, the USA seemed to be lagging behind the Soviets in space related technologies, and perhaps in other scientific efforts as well. Suddenly, the “space age” was transformed into the “space race.”
America’s apparent second place position in scientific achievement behind the Soviets, its staunch Cold War foe, was seen at the time as a national crisis. After all, the rockets that had been developed for these satellite launches were known to potentially have other more sinister purposes. As a result, NASA was created in July, 1958 as our country’s primary response to the Soviet Union’s early space successes, and to bolster our country’s “catch up” program.
In a speech delivered to Congress in May, 1961, President John Kennedy made a bold challenge to our country in which he proclaimed the national goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” before the end of the decade of the 1960s. It was obvious to Kennedy, and to the entire nation, that such a monumental goal could not be achieved without huge increases in national funding for scientific purposes.
In the early 1960s, university science departments began to receive large increases in federal funding through the National Science Foundation, the National Defense Education Act, and other government initiatives. These new funds were intended to stimulate improved capabilities within university science departments through hiring new faculty members, helping to fund their research, and in attracting top students to become engaged in a wide range of scientific endeavors. All of this activity throughout the 1960s demonstrated an increased priority in the basic sciences and made that an exciting time to be a science student.
College began for me in the fall of 1962, and my intention from the very beginning was to become either a scientist or mathematician. Experiences during the first year of college quickly sharpened my focus, and from the middle of my freshman year it was clear that chemistry would become my area of concentration. Early in my sophomore year, in the fall of 1963, I became aware of a new National Science Foundation sponsored “Undergraduate Research Participation Program” (URPP) in chemistry that was just beginning at a number of universities with potential as emerging centers of excellence. LSU in Baton Rouge was among them, and LSU’s chemistry department received funding allowing it to add faculty and to fund an undergraduate research program. Recognizing that participation in such a program offered a chance to gain valuable experience, I applied to LSU, was accepted into the program, and was assigned to work for the summer of 1964 in the newly created laboratories of Prof. Bill Pryor. It was a rich and interesting experience.
During my junior year, I decided to look for another similar opportunity for the upcoming summer of 1965. This was a low-risk way of exploring a different university’s chemistry program. It offered a chance to meet new people and it was an attractive way to assess the location’s potential for graduate study. I was fortunate to spend the summer of 1965 in the laboratory of Prof. Jack Saltiel, an organic photochemist at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
By the time I began my senior year, I had decided that I wanted to do my graduate study in chemistry under Prof. Pryor at LSU. But before that was to begin in the fall of 1966, I took a summer job that year at Ethyl Corporation in Baton Rouge. This would be my third consecutive summer of hands-on laboratory work, but it was my first experience in industrial research and development. It would also turn out to be my only experience in Louisiana’s large specialty chemical industry, but it opened a new window for me by helping me begin to understand a little about how R&D worked within a commercial enterprise. I got my first real taste of applied industrial research.
From my various short term summer work experiences, I learned that they could be both interesting and challenging. At the same time, I was making important contacts, expanding my skill set, learning what I enjoyed doing, and clarifying the route that I might take to a productive long term technical career. An important observation here is that seeking new challenges and proving that they can be met (albeit in short term positions) is critically important to both personal and career development.
How I ended up with an industrial career of over 30 years at 3M Company in St. Paul, Minnesota is described a bit later. Along the way through all those years, I learned a lot more about life within a large industrial organization, and about how applied research and development within such an organization operates.
I hope that discussing some of those experiences and highlighting some of the things I learned along the way is helpful for newly trained scientists about to embark on a career of their own.
When you’re compiling a list of top football teams, it sometimes comes down to the “Top 10.” That was my initial intent, too – listing my top 10 -- as I pondered important discussion topics for those just starting out on an industrial career. This list, however, ended up being twice as long! And I suppose it could have been much longer if I didn’t take seriously the task of limiting it to topics I really feel are critical.
Below I have shown my list of topics in summary form. Each of the enumerated points will be described in more detail in the next section, and many of the individual topics will include anecdotal stories taken from my own memory bank to illustrate the point. My descriptions – and, of course, the list itself – are completely personal and unique. They are highly influenced by important details such as the nature and culture of the company that employed me, the specific positions I held there over the years, and my own responses to challenges that those positions presented. Nevertheless, I have the feeling that the thoughts conveyed in this account are general enough to have broad applicability to varied corporate environments, other job titles or positions, and other individuals. It is also likely that they apply just as well today as they did when I was in the workplace.
So, with that brief introduction, here are some of the things that I have found to be worth considering, especially for the new technical employee in an industrial setting.
As I entered the graduate program at LSU, I was sure that when I finished I wanted to work in an applied chemical R&D position. As mentioned in the Introduction, this was a “boom” period for science students and, perhaps as a result of those consecutive summer jobs, I felt I had a pretty clear understanding of the general direction my career would take. While the overall trajectory seemed set, the “details” were admittedly still pretty hazy. At the time, I had no idea just how important those “details” would be in shaping my career path.
I was to learn that initially (but also throughout your career), things will occur which you could not have foreseen, controlled, predicted, or perhaps even imagined. A good example is how, after having lived my first 25-plus years in South Louisiana, I ended up spending my entire professional career in Minnesota.
Through a set of unusual circumstances, one year into my graduate studies at LSU, I had the opportunity to again seek an off-campus summer job. I sent inquiries to companies all across the country seeking a three month temporary appointment. Imagine my surprise when, just a few days after sending a letter and resume to 3M Company in St. Paul, Minnesota, I received a phone call from their staffing office offering me a job in the 3M Summer Technical Program!
How had that happened? In my inquiry to 3M, I had listed as references several people who knew me. One of them had been a longtime 3M consultant, something that I was totally unaware of at the time. When 3M saw his name on my application, they called him and he endorsed me for their summer program. I accepted that three month job offer, had a great summer experience, made lots of important contacts, and, solely as a result of that temporary position, was given an opportunity to return to 3M when I finished my graduate work at LSU almost four years later.
That’s how my career of over 30 years at 3M Company happened. It could neither have been planned for nor predicted. Especially as a new graduate, but also throughout your career, you will not be able to see very far into the future or be able to predict reliably what opportunities might come your way. Career shaping opportunities will sometimes come in completely unexpected ways, and you should always be open to considering them.
Some professionals entering a new organization think that they are ready for any challenge, but that confident feeling can be quickly shaken. Being new in a large organization where everyone around you seems to know exactly what they are doing while you are still trying to figure out how the phone system works can be traumatizing.
I have never forgotten what one of my early 3M mentors taught me about this situation. One day about six months into my new job, we ran into each other. He asked me how things were going, and I told him that I felt like I was on a very steep learning curve and was having a hard time figuring out how to get things accomplished. He smiled, and then said “That’s great! You’ve only been here a few months but it sounds like you’re way ahead of schedule.”
He went on to explain that over his long career, he had observed that most new professionals spend almost the entire first year thinking they know almost everything. They have just experienced their final graduation ceremony and are ready to “hit the ground running.” Then, reality sets in and in their new job they gradually discover that they are a “freshman” all over again. Moving into the second year, their earlier confidence severely shaken, they are convinced that perhaps they’re really not up to this new challenge. My friend claimed that it is only in about the third year that new technical professionals begin to develop enough of a perspective about their job to become truly productive. By then, they have figured out some of the basics, made enough important contacts, learned where their work fits into the larger picture, and understand how things are done in this strange new environment. My friend pointed out that I was less than midway through my first year, and I was already expressing self doubts that he told me normally come much later in the adjustment process. I was really way ahead of schedule! That short conversation lifted my spirits and somewhat restored my confidence.
Learn to be patient with yourself. You have the skills to succeed, but it will probably take you a little time to become convinced of that and to comfortably settle into a new environment.
Because opportunities will sometimes come in ways you cannot anticipate, it is always good to be aggressively seeking to learn new things and welcoming unfamiliar technical areas to master. This broadens your expertise, improves productive collaboration with co-workers, and increases your value as a technical contributor. Being open to new things really should not take you outside of your comfort zone – that should be the natural inclination of any well trained scientist. The chances are high that the work you did as a graduate student was new to you when you began your research, so you have already proved to yourself that mastering new things is possible. It is reasonable, therefore, to suggest that a new job or a job change should not be so intimidating.
In the 1980s, about 15 years after I began my employment at 3M, it was announced that an entire sector (about one fourth) of the company would be relocated to a new 3M facility being built in Austin, Texas. This created major shock waves in an organization whose entire corporate history had been forged in Minnesota. There were lots of questions about why this action was being taken and which groups would be moving, and the then-CEO, Mr. Lew Lehr, gathered the entire 3M technical community together to announce some of the details. At the end of his discussion he made a few concluding remarks in which he explained something important to the technical personnel who were gathered. He noted that while newness and change can sometimes make you uncomfortable, inquisitive scientists are expected to embrace such things. He said to us all “Rather than resist change, you should really be uncomfortable without change! It is often the clearest sign of growth.” That was an important message that I never forgot.
Within a couple of years, a significant portion of 3M was moved to a fabulous new state-of-the-art facility in Austin. I remained in St. Paul, but some of my friends and former colleagues were relocated to Texas. Those of us who remained in Minnesota soon began to hear that most of our Texas-based counterparts were enjoying their new surroundings. Their businesses were thriving in the new location and they were prospering as a result.
Over more than three decades in the industrial workplace, my job responsibilities changed lots of times, sometimes in completely unexpected ways. Some of these job changes were sought by me, but sometimes they resulted from attrition or reorganization. In one case, after spending the first few years working as a bench chemist and then as technical manager, I was offered a job with less technical and more business and financial management responsibility. At first, I was reluctant to accept this new assignment because I knew I had no experience or formal training in these areas. I openly admitted to the person offering me this new position that I was unsure and hesitant. But, what he told me really calmed my fears. He said that the main reason he thought I was a strong candidate for this new job had nothing to do with my level of experience in managing business or financial matters. He thought I had demonstrated other characteristics on previous assignments that were more important – the eagerness to jump into new areas of inquiry, a scientific approach to problems, the ability to assimilate information from various diverse sources, knowing when to take reasonable risks, etc. He said “I can teach you what you need to know about finance and marketing, but I can’t teach you the way to think.”
I ended up taking this new job, experiencing things I had never imagined, learning a tremendous amount, and, over the next several years, having as much fun as I ever had during my entire career.
Unexpected changes and new opportunities are likely to come within any organization. Learn to accept them, learn from them, and use them to build your career.
The odds are overwhelming that you are not going to be hired into a job solely because of the subject of your Ph.D. dissertation. It may play a role, but, as a former hiring manager, I can tell you that there are a lot of other things that are much more important. One of those things is the demonstrated ability to quickly and competently master new technology.
As a technical employee in any organization, one of your most important objectives is to become an “expert” in what you are working on. You want to be the “go to” resource when others have questions or seek opinions and guidance. Of course, you won’t have all the answers, but your views will be valued and will be known to have merit.
3M is a company with tens of thousands of products spread across many diverse global markets. The foundation for this broad array of products, however, is almost always found rooted in one of a relatively small number of “technology platforms” that the company has developed expertise in. As a result, mastering a core competency in one of these fundamental technical areas is of great benefit, both to the company as well as to the individual technical employee.
Developing a depth of knowledge as well as breadth gives you a combination of valuable attributes upon which a successful career can be built.
Simply put, if your career goals are misaligned with your employer’s, your value to the organization is greatly diminished. And, you are likely to be unhappy.
For many of the years I was working at 3M, I served as an on-campus college recruiter for the staffing department. This was an assignment I volunteered for and which only took a few days each year away from my regular responsibilities. It was always interesting to see how different students approached a corporate job interview.
On one of my campus recruiting trips, I asked one candidate to briefly describe what she could see herself doing five years following the completion of her graduate work. Her answer surprised me: “I want to work as a polymer scientist in industry for a couple of years, but then I really want to find a teaching position.”
3M was looking for outstanding technical people that the company could invest in as potential long term employees. Any employer that hires new technical people makes a big investment in them – relocation expenses, training, salary, benefits, etc. Why would any employer make such an investment in someone who really wanted to be on a different career path?
Technical jobs in industry always come without any kind of long term obligation on the part of either employee or employer. However, when I accepted the job at 3M in 1971, I saw it as a big commitment, both on my part and on the part of 3M in hiring me. Still, despite the noble intentions of all involved, there was no real guarantee that this “marriage” would be a long term one. Everyone acknowledges that both individual employee interests as well as corporate objectives may change over time, and that sometimes what was intended as a long term commitment turns out to be neither practical nor even possible.
However, for an employee to remain in an organization and be happy and productive, it is impossible for the two to be at cross-purposes.
I certainly am not suggesting here that you will lose your personal identity once you become part of an industrial organization. But, you do represent both yourself and the company you are affiliated with in all of your professional activities.
Awareness of this is certainly less critical if you are never going to be in contact with people outside of your own corporate environment. But, that is rarely the case for most technical employees in the corporate world. Depending on your specific project, your responsibilities and interests, and your individual skill set, you may find yourself in a wide variety of situations in which you are called upon to interface with people outside of your own organization.
For example, you may be making presentations at technical conferences. Or, you may be called on to manage your company’s product display at a trade show. You might be expected to make presentations to customers who are visiting your corporate facility, or at a time when you are visiting theirs. All of these kinds of situations will put you in contact with people who are much more interested in the products and capabilities of the organization you represent than they are in you personally.
Whenever I was involved in meetings with outside people, I always tried to act as though I might be the only person from 3M that the group I was interfacing with would ever meet. They would perhaps draw conclusions about our products and even the company itself solely from their personal experiences with me. That was a big responsibility, and it caused me to always be mindful of the way I looked, the way I acted, the way I spoke, etc. All of these things leave lasting impressions on others, and it is essential to pay attention to them.
Especially when you are not selling to government customers, purchasing decisions are often made for reasons other than cost. Such decisions can result more from relationships, impressions of fairness, honesty and trustworthiness, the ability to form friendly partnerships, etc. These subtle things relate directly to the attributes of the individuals within organizations.
It is critical to always remember that you really are your employer’s good will ambassador.
Another potential employee attribute that I would always probe in my on-campus interviews was related to what I call “flexibility.” Could this individual take what was learned at the university and apply it in new, unrelated areas of exploration? So, a question I would sometimes ask when interviewing candidates went something like this: “I see that your Ph.D. dissertation describes an in-depth study of (for example) the kinetics of styrene polymerization. What do you feel is the value of that research and what do you think it has prepared you to do in the future?”
If the reply given has anything to do with extending the scope of the work done at the university, the candidate is completely missing the mark. It is unlikely that your new employer cares very much about the details of the kinetics of styrene polymerization. The question really is “what has that work prepared you for?” Industrial research and product development is almost always application oriented and driven by financial objectives, and, while fundamental understanding of materials and processes may certainly be important to achieving applied objectives, that in and of itself is almost never the goal.
So, you must recognize that as an industrial researcher you will almost certainly never be asked to extend the work you did as a graduate student (or post-doc). The value of that work is that it provided you with tools that can now be used to tackle some new and unrelated project of interest to your employer. Your Ph. D. research is simply the first project in which you acquired knowledge of how to use some valuable tools. The next step is using those tools on a new job.
While it is true that your work as a graduate student may be an extension of the work of previous students, the progress toward your degree is primarily measured by what you, as an individual, have accomplished. Others will surely collaborate with you along the way, but it is ultimately your individual achievements which provide the benchmarks leading to graduation.
It is certainly true that there is room for individual contribution and recognition in the industrial workplace. But it is important to also recognize that you will often be called upon to work within the framework of a team setting. Generally these teams are comprised of a number of individuals with diverse training, expertise, and responsibilities who are brought together to insure overall success of a complex project.
Consider, for example, an industry like automotive manufacturing. Imagine the complexities and diverse challenges involved in getting a new automobile from the mind of the designer to the salesman on the showroom floor. It might begin with an analysis of the market to determine what customers want and what attributes of the new automobile are important. What new technical challenges do those attributes present, and can they be met? Can this new automobile be produced on existing equipment, or is an investment required in the manufacturing plant? If the new automobile is destined for a global market, where should it be produced? Can it (or should it) be tailored to meet specific regional requirements? What about the cost constraints? Can the automobile be produced at a volume and cost that will permit it to be sold for a reasonable profit? Does the new automobile fit with the existing distribution capability? Ultimately, the most critical question that must be answered is “will enough customers buy this new automobile at its projected price to make it an attractive business?” (Or, as we at 3M used to say, “Will the dogs eat the dog food?”)
The problems you will be working on are generally complex and multifaceted, and skills beyond those possessed by any single individual or within a single area of expertise will be required to successfully solve them. In short, product development is a team sport – it is much more like football or baseball than it is like tennis or golf.
Over the years, I had technical responsibility for development of a variety of new products. Sometimes, I had complete responsibility as a single researcher, and sometimes I was part of a larger technical group, depending on the nature of the specific project. Always, however, the technical component was only one part of a much larger team that needed to work together to accomplish all the project’s goals. I worked alongside marketing colleagues who helped identify product requirements, cost accountants who tracked product investment and costs, manufacturing people who were charged with production issues, an engineering staff to support any need for new equipment, logistics people who managed inventory and determined the best route to market, and, of course, sales people who ultimately brought the product to the customer.
However good communication across the various functions is achieved, having them all working in harmony dramatically increases the chances for ultimate project success. No one person or function will succeed independently of the others.
This really fits with the previous discussion about teamwork. As a technical employee you will have a well defined set of responsibilities, but it is important to recognize that there are no artificial barriers in place that prevent you from making contributions outside of that defined set. The more you can contribute, the better it is for you and for the team you are part of.
I remember a brief discussion I had with one of my early career supervisors right after he had announced my promotion within his organization. He stepped into my office and said “Ken, you are going to have significantly more responsibility in this new position, but I suppose I should let you know some of the things you won’t have responsibility for.” Before he could even begin, I said “Tom, I would prefer if you didn’t do that. I assume you put me in this job because you have some degree of confidence in me. If I step out of bounds, just let me know and I will be quick to seek forgiveness.” He smiled, nodded in agreement, and just walked away. Remember that “stepping out of bounds” is exactly what you should do in some situations. (Of course, it all depends on when and how you do it.)
The employees who often turn out to be the most consistent contributors are those who seek out ways to work with their colleagues across boundaries and outside of their own narrow set of formal responsibilities.
This one is really important. It is almost certain that the work you do will be under budgetary limitations and on a time schedule. Schedules should reflect what the project is actually thought to require, be realistic, and be understood and agreed to by all involved. Once program schedules are put together using that kind of rigorous and thoughtful approach, it is really important that all who are involved remain on target. If one part of a project’s timing slips, the entire project is at risk, and that sometimes makes the difference between ultimate success and failure.
Of course, quite often it is impossible to know in advance exactly what the timing of all facets of a complex program is going to be. There will be situations that arise that were not expected and things that happen to cause the schedule to change. This is not necessarily a sign of poor planning or the result of performance shortcomings – it is sometimes simply the result of the uncertainties inherent in doing research and development. Such changes may well be outside of anyone’s control.
What is most important at times like this is that an alert be sounded to let everyone else involved know that something has changed. Sometimes mid-course corrections can be made in the approach or more resources can be applied to get things back on schedule. Those possible corrective actions won’t be taken, however, if others don’t know that a problem exists. It is the duty of the researcher to raise the red flag.
A reputation that must be avoided at all costs is that of being a person who over-promises but under-delivers!
When I was working as a bench chemist, I was required to keep a complete, detailed, dated, and peer witnessed technical notebook which was retained by 3M as a permanent part of my work record. One of the primary reasons for requiring this was to establish unequivocally when and by whom certain work was done. Ultimately, this might be critical information required for a patent filing. Formal, dated documentation is necessary to establish both inventorship and the validity of any patent claims.
In addition to this justification for keeping detailed records, however, there is another important reason for you to produce comprehensive documentation of your work. Doing this provides a useful mechanism for the researcher to “take stock” of the work that has been done, to recognize missing elements, or to identify potential next steps. In other words, it helps you sharpen the focus of your work.
In some technical organizations, individual researchers will also be required to write regular quarterly (or at some other interval) reports. These are usually less detailed technically than the technical notebook and may include more discussion of the work’s significance for the reader (often the project management). It is true that sometimes the writing of such reports can seem to be a burden or an unnecessary step that detracts from the time available for research. However, in my experience, these kinds of reports serve a very useful purpose for both author and reader.
In order for such reports to be useful, you will need to know for whom they are written, the level of detail needed, and whether the reader wants a microscopic view of the subject or just a summary.
This might be the most important item on this entire list. I enthusiastically support using all the powerful electronic tools available to help you do your job more efficiently. But you will not be able to accomplish all your objectives using just these time saving tools. Industrial researchers, regardless of their responsibilities, do not do their work in a vacuum or solely at a keyboard. Because of the team nature of your work, you are constantly going to be in situations that will require you to speak and write with effectiveness.
If you are not a skilled writer who can organize and document your thoughts clearly and succinctly, work on becoming one. Learn to write for different audiences – some might be your technical colleagues who want all the details of your work, but some will also be your management who are less concerned with understanding all the technical details and are more interested in the value of what you have done and its potential business impact. Recognize that brevity and clarity are especially important when writing for an audience that is less well versed in the technical details or has less of a need to know them. In addition, you may be asked to write to audiences entirely outside your organization. Perhaps you can’t share any proprietary details here but must focus instead only on the value of your work.
Everything that pertains to writing effectively applies equally well to speaking. If giving presentations to groups makes you uncomfortable, work hard to overcome this. Instead of shying away from such an activity, seek more opportunities to do it so that you gain confidence. You really will not be able to avoid it, nor should you want to. In most any job, your ability to sell your ideas orally, convince others of your conclusions, and promote the value of your work is going to be tied closely to your success. And, as with writing, it is important to recognize that different audiences require different approaches to what you say and how you say it.
large auditorium (Yes! Industrial scientists sometimes do this!) requires tremendously different presentation skills than speaking informally in a small group meeting around a conference room table. In speaking to large groups, speak loudly, enunciate clearly, and be very deliberate. Always speak louder, slower, and more distinctly than you think is necessary. You may think you are screaming, but the person at the rear of the auditorium won’t.
Remember that the objective is to be understood by your audience and not to simply finish your presentation.
When I first began working as a technical employee, I was told that a reasonable approach to take in my work was the following:
- Spend one-third of the time planning the work. That is, decide what you are going to do and lay out an experimental plan.
- Spend one-third of the time actually doing the work, gathering data, repeating critical experiments, etc.
- Spend one-third of the time analyzing data, interpreting the results, and documenting and reporting them.
It is not important that these three steps break down into precisely one-third increments. But it is important to recognize that they are all critical.
Do not confuse “activity” with “useful activity.” Just being busy all the time doesn’t mean you are being effective. I have always tended to place a higher value on the “front end” of a project, i.e., the planning. You can be working hard on something, but what if it is the wrong something?
It is equally important to recognize that when you decide what you are going to do, you are simultaneously (and perhaps unconsciously) deciding what you are not going to do. There are always more things that you could be doing than there are things that you should be doing. This seems pretty obvious, and we face such realities in our personal lives all the time. When you decide you need a new car, for example, you may need to temporarily give up that vacation trip because you won’t be able to afford both. While this seems hardly worth mentioning, I have seen lots of people in a wide variety of job functions and at all levels of management who don’t seem to understand it.
In summary, there is great value in priority setting so spend an adequate amount of time doing it well. Remember that there is no shame in making adjustments as your knowledge increases. And, because you are working in teams, it is worthwhile to get some level of agreement from your colleagues concerning what you are planning to do.
In my experience, one never gets to the next level within an organization by promises of what they could accomplish. If it happens, it is only because of what they have already shown they can do. Over the years, I saw plenty of technical people who appeared to possess all the knowledge and experience needed to merit career advancement. But, sometimes they just were never able to “get it together” in a way that consistently demonstrated a high level of effectiveness. It is tempting to think that this was simply the outcome of being assigned to programs that didn’t quite make it. More often, however, it seemed to result from a lack of setting good priorities, a loss of focus, inadequate follow-through, inattention to detail, the inability to work well in a team setting, or ineffective verbal or written skills used to communicate what they had done.
Promotions usually don’t result from having done one thing well, or even one thing exceptionally well. They result from a consistent pattern of performance, usually over an extended period of time. One must demonstrate that they can work at the next level by actually working at the next level.
An interesting way of thinking about corporate life is to compare it to the life of a professional baseball player. It is extremely rare for a high school or college baseball player to step right onto the roster of a major league team. Why? They haven’t demonstrated the high level of performance required over a sufficiently long period of time. If, as a young player, they are drafted by a major league organization, they almost always are first assigned to a minor league team, and then they work their way up through the various levels of minor league baseball. If they have exceptional skill, and they prove it with consistently high performance, they will finally get their chance on the big stage of the major leagues – but demonstrated consistent performance is always a prerequisite.
It’s much the same in corporate life. Demonstrated consistent performance is always the prerequisite to advancement.
If you are working on truly new-to-the-world ideas and programs, it is important to recognize that not everything you investigate will lead to a new multi-billion dollar business success. I can assure you that most of the really new things I worked on over my career never saw the light of day outside of our laboratories. Some made it out of the lab into a test market phase, only to stumble when we learned that there were not enough “dogs to eat the dog food.” That is not necessarily a sign of failure, but is simply recognition of the fact that it is impossible to reliably know in advance what will work and what will not when you are doing something that hasn’t been done before.
It is also certainly true that the “success rate” in industrial research and development is strongly linked to the nature of the program – those which are focused on doing something truly new are a lot more “risky” (i.e., have a much lower success rate) than those involving incremental changes to an existing product. It is much harder to either imagine or produce the first “widget” than it is to make a blue “widget” if green ones already exist.
However, in any R&D organization of reasonable size and diversity, technical people with a wide array of skills will be needed and will be able to make important contributions. In managing technical employees, I quickly became aware of the fact that not all capable and valuable technical people are equally well suited for “new to the world” research and development. Some skilled technical people were much better suited for “product modification” work. Different skills are required for each type of activity. But, it is crucial that the right people are put into the right assignment and are rewarded appropriately for their respective contributions. It is likely that people doing the “riskiest” things will have fewer “successes” than their counterparts, but the quickest way to lose contributors in these “high risk” areas is to penalize them when their ideas don’t pan out as hoped.
I always tried to put the most creative people on the highest risk programs because they have a tendency to see opportunities that others sometimes miss. But, this is not intended to overlook the value of those who can manage the efforts required to successfully broaden an existing product line. These efforts sometimes provide important financial returns that make the investment in longer range, higher risk programs possible.
Regardless of the kind of industrial research and development work you are engaged in, some (perhaps most) of the time your work will serve only as a learning experience and little else.
Every job, at times, can lead you to a point of frustration and disappointment. Some of these frustrating times might result from a feeling that your career is not progressing as it should. Or it could be related to what seems like an inability to make sufficient progress in the work you are doing. Perhaps some of the people you work with are making your life more difficult than you would like. At times like this, it can be tempting to change jobs, change employers, or even change careers. While I had many different job assignments, my entire professional career of over 30 years was with one corporation. But, I certainly recognize that this is not the norm in today’s workplace and there can be good reasons for changing jobs.
Making a change, however, should always be related more to seizing a better opportunity and less to fleeing what is perceived as a bad situation. It is important to recognize that the position you are thinking of leaving may seem unattractive because you know a lot about it. Similarly, the new position you are drawn to may appear to be much better only because you don’t have the same level of familiarity with it. There is truth to the saying “The devil you know may be preferred over the devil you haven’t met.”
It is better to keep the focus on the new position’s opportunities rather than the old position’s challenges. In short, look forward and not backward. Thus, you don’t leave a job because of a desire to “show them” how valuable you were or to “send a message” to your employer. Making those points may sometimes seem tempting, but they are just not worth making.
It is always best to leave any position or any employer on positive and friendly terms. Situations and individuals that we encounter during our careers can sometimes have a way of going “full circle,” and we are occasionally surprised at the people we have known that turn out later to be important to us in amazing and unpredictable ways. In the corporate world, as in every other aspect of life, it is better to have friends than enemies.
Employers give their employees vacation time for the simple reason that time away from the daily pressures of a job is required for maximum employee effectiveness. It is important to realize that, while your professional career and daily job activities will consume a major portion of your life, there are things besides work that also need your attention. I do not believe that you can be a truly effective professional employee if you do not also have a full and engaging home/family life apart from your job. Of course, we each get to define what non-job related things we find fulfilling and rewarding, and there is no one right formula for deciding this. If you are married and have a family, it is important that you spend enough time with them. If you have hobbies or interests outside of work, engage in them regularly. This is all just another facet to the discussion on “setting priorities.” You will need to find ways to juggle important commitments at work and outside of work.
When I was an active employee, the amount of vacation time earned was related to my longevity with the company. And, with our management’s approval, we could take time off from work at any time and in any increment we liked, down to as little as one half day at a time. Sometimes it was useful to take just that single half day if you had an important non-work related appointment or wanted to leave early on a trip. But, generally we were encouraged to take larger blocks of time off, a minimum of a week at a time. There was a good reason for this. Having multiple days off in succession provides a meaningful break from the rigors of the workplace – you will return to the job feeling as though you have really had a break. Trickling vacation time away with frequent very short breaks completely undermines the reason for having vacation time as part of your employee benefits.
There are times in almost everyone’s life when the focus must swing either in the direction of your work or in the direction of your family. Work projects can have critical deadlines that can’t be ignored, and families occasionally face emergencies that require immediate attention. Maintaining balance between these factors is really important.
This speaks further to the subject of work – life balance. If all your friends are work friends, you will find yourself talking about work with these people whenever you are with them, whether actually at work or at a Saturday night party. This serves to exclude others who do not share your common work experiences (like your spouse or family, for example) from the conversation.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that none of your social friends should be those people you work with. There is much to be said for having warm, friendly, social relationships with your colleagues, especially to the extent that it engenders tighter knit work teams. But, as in so many other things, maintaining balance is something worth striving for.
As has already been mentioned, there are important things to do at home and with your free time other than things relating to your job. This is yet another lens through which to see a healthy work – life balance.
There’s something wrong with the way you are doing things if you have to always bring work home in order to get everything done. Take a step back and examine what you feel you need to accomplish – and then take a look at your list of priorities. Chances are you are falling into the trap of filling your hours with non-essential tasks. Or, perhaps you are not using all the productivity enhancing tools that you could be using. It is important to recognize that a reality of the workplace is that there will always be increasing pressure to accomplish more things more quickly and with fewer resources. This means that adjustments to how you do your job must be made. But, it does not mean that what you can’t get done at work should be finished at home.
Of course, there occasionally are situations that arise that dictate the need to work at home, or to perhaps make weekend trips to the office or lab. But, those should be the exception, occur only rarely, and not be the general rule.
Another corollary to this rule that I tried to always follow is that I almost never talked about the details or frustrations of work at home with my wife and family. Certainly my wife, and eventually my children as they got older, had a general idea of what I did at work. But they didn’t share in the details of any of my work experiences and were not likely to be of much help to me in resolving issues. I always considered my family as a separate part of my life to whom I could turn to escape the daily pressures of the workplace.
Sometimes you have to be creative in finding ways to set aside family time at home. When my oldest child was about two years old, and my second child was just an infant, I was surely aware of what a challenge it was for my wife to be with two little children all day – and how difficult it was for her to get anything done with the constant distractions. When I arrived home from work, the kids would be tired, hungry, and cranky, and my wife would be in need of a break. I decided that the best way to help her relieve the stresses of her daily routine was for me to try to break away from my work earlier and be home in time to help with some of the “children duties.” My normal routine had been to work until about 6:00 PM every day, but maintaining that schedule meant I wouldn’t usually be home early enough to be of much help. So, I decided to shift my work schedule every day to an earlier time period. I began to arrive at work by 6:00 AM and tried to leave by 4:30 PM, or even earlier if possible. Making that one change in my routine made a huge difference in the quality of our home life, and I maintained that schedule throughout my entire career, long after the need to help at home with child care had ended.
There were other benefits I had not anticipated. Having a couple of hours of quiet time alone in the office at the start of every day turned out to be very valuable. It provided time to prepare for meetings that would be occurring later, allowed for answering e-mails that had not been handled, and it permitted contact with colleagues around the world who had been at work for several hours by the time I got to my office in the morning.
And, an additional benefit that resulted from my modified daily routine was that I had more time for other activities at home in the evening. This made it much easier to maintain a reasonable balance between my work life and my home life.
You may think this is not a career related point, but it really is. You won’t be an effective employee (or a happy, helpful member of your family) if you don’t pay attention to your own health.
I had a friend in my early working years who was very focused on his job. Leo was extremely conscientious and productive, and was a very valuable staff member. One day he mentioned to me and a few of his other close friends that he had not been feeling well. But he never took time off from work to go see a physician. His symptoms were sort of vague and didn’t really seem to prevent him from being at work. However, as time progressed, the symptoms worsened and finally could not be ignored. But, by the time Leo was examined by a physician, it was too late – he had inoperable cancer, and within a year, even with aggressive treatments, he was gone, leaving a wife and two young sons behind.
If you think you don’t have time to deal with doctor’s appointments and medical tests, try to see things differently. You owe it to your family, to your employer, and to yourself to make time for something that is this important.
And, if you are new in a place where you don’t know any doctors, dentists, or other healthcare providers, talk to your colleagues. They will be happy to share what they know about the local community. Then, take the time to become established with these providers before you encounter some potentially significant health issue that needs immediate attention.
The specific things discussed here could perhaps be broken down into the following main categories:
- Planning a Career
- Adapting to the Workplace
- Thriving on New Challenges
- Becoming Part of the Team
- The Importance of Prioritizing, Planning, and Executing,
- Life Outside of Work, and,
- Self Care.
As mentioned earlier, I have confidence that these thoughts have broad applicability but it is wise to remember that no two organizations are the same. Each has its own unique culture. Similarly, no two employees are the same either. We all respond to situations we face in a different way. So, please don’t consider what is written here to be a “recipe” for success – each person has to “chart his own course,” and find happiness and career fulfillment in his own way. What is presented here is only intended as an incomplete listing of things I wish I had known when I first started down my own career path.
Now, looking backward, I realize that the people I encountered on my career journey were what really provided much of the joy and satisfaction that was sometimes attributed in a broader sense to “the job.” I was fortunate to work with, and, in some cases establish lifelong friendships with, some really exceptional individuals. What made 3M a terrific place to work was that it was populated with a highly qualified and diverse workforce, people with tremendously varied backgrounds, perspectives, skills, and interests. They had come from universities all across the country and, since 3M is a truly global organization, from many overseas locations as well. Putting these people together in a “melting pot” environment where they worked side by side often yielded interesting and unexpected results. And, these results sometimes led to great commercial successes. After all, that really is the main objective in the corporate world! For me, and for many others in the industrial workplace, the need to hit scientific targets that were linked to financial ones was what made for an interesting career.
In the process of discovery and development, factors like age, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, political persuasion, where we were from, or where we had been educated were all completely irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was our demonstrated capability, as individuals and as teams, and that capability was not linked to any of those factors.
Finally, now that my professional career has ended, it is interesting to recall the following words from my graduate school advisor, Bill Pryor. Sometimes, during those long stretches in the lab, often working late at night and through the weekends, Bill would hear his students grousing about how they never seemed to have any time for “fun.” He would chuckle, and then tell us “You won’t believe this now, but some day you will look back on this time in your life and say it was the most fun you ever had.”
He was right on both counts! We certainly didn’t believe him when we first heard those words. But, now, with all the years behind me, it is easy to see that those really were the “good old days.” And, they provided the foundation needed for a satisfying and productive career.