#155 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 5          May 1995

"Perhaps This Job Isn't Right For You..."
by Lewis H. Sarett, Ph.D.

Dr. Sarett, now retired, was president of  Merck, Sharp and Dohme’s R&D Division from 1969-1976, where he was responsible for managing 2,000 research scientists.  From 1976-1982, he was corporate senior vice president for science and technology with responsibility for strategic planning, licensing, and R&D.  Among many awards, Dr. Sarett received The Industrial Institute Medal, The National Medal of Science, and the Perkin Medal Award.  He lives in Viola, Idaho.

Upon joining an organization—any organization—a newcomer encounters a mass of rules. Some are written, many are unwritten.  The newcomer joins a group of individuals with varying kinds and degrees of skill.   He is ordinarily evaluated in formal terms by the boss and more searchingly by peers.  The transition from undergraduate, graduate student, or post-doc to an industrial organization such as a pharmaceutical company isn’t easy for most scientists. 

I hope the experiences I’m about to relate will be useful to get you thinking further about your career plans.

Let's start with why I joined an industrial research organization rather than academia.  The answer is embarrassingly simple.  First, my father was a professor and I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of becoming a “me-too” teacher.  Second, the fathers of most of my high school friends' had commercial jobs as bankers, salesmen and executives.  They all seemed to be having a great time of life, whereas I felt that the academics weren’t having much fun; most seemed to take themselves too seriously. 

I set out for graduate school at Princeton, and did my thesis on steroids, and in 1942 joined Merck as a steroid chemist.  At the time, the adrenal corticosteroid (later named cortisone) was top priority for Allied military medical establishment, which had heard rumors that the German air force was taking adrenal extracts—crude cortisone—and becoming super-aviators.  The military interest in adrenal-gland products was equaled in intensity only by its interest in penicillin, which proved to have much more solid military uses. In hindsight, the idea of cortisone as a combat weapon seems naive, but at that time, animal experiments had demonstrated that adrenal extracts could counteract a great variety of stresses.

The Expert Was Wrong!

Accordingly, a consortium of industrial and academic steroid experts was assembled to synthesize cortisone, since beef adrenal glands, the original source, couldn’t supply enough.  A key difficulty was introducing oxygen at the C-11 position on the steroid molecule.  A long-time steroid expert claimed he’d solved the problem, and our research director wanted the claim verified.  Thus my first assignment at Merck was to prove that oxygen has, in fact, been introduced at C-11.

Several frustrating months went by.  I just wasn’t able to prove it, and began doubting my skills as a chemist.  One day, my boss paid me a visit.  “You haven’t made much progress, have you?” I’ll always remember his exact words.

“No,” I admitted. 

“Maybe Merck isn’t the company for you,” he continued.  (Here was clearly a man who valued a  direct approach.)

This chilling suggestion sent me into shock, but it also jarred loose a wild idea:  maybe the premise was wrong!   I thought the unthinkable.  Perhaps the famous authority had erred.  Perhaps the oxygen (we knew it was there somewhere, due to elemental analysis) was not on the site I was investigating!  I spent a nerve-wracking weekend in the lab, trying to reverse the assignment and prove the elusive oxygen was not at C-11.   By Sunday night, I'd pinned down the errant oxygen atom.  It was, in fact, at the adjacent position C-12, so there was a good reason why I'd failed to find it at C-11.  (Soon afterward, a member of our consortium in Switzerland solved the problem by affixing an oxygen at C-11.)

The Bench or the Office?

Years later, reading a book on secrets of administrative success, I read this eye-popping suggestion: “One of the most successful ways for a person to gain administrative perspective is to be fired from his first job.”

Wow!  Apparently somebody else had gone through this character-building experience, too.  But I have to believe that a footnote to this advice is needed, that is “if he survives!”  Did that mean I lost my opportunity to become an administrator since I had not actually been fired, just threatened?

Even if a researcher evades being fired (or the threat), he or she will likely face a crucial decision: whether to start climbing the management ladder, or stay at the bench.  For a few lucky people, the decision is easy.  For the rest of us, it's important to recognize that administration is an entirely different animal than discovery.  In administration, the mantra is “plan, organize, delegate, motivate, and control.”  For the research scientist, the joys of discovery are personal and direct, not experienced vicariously. 

The dual ladder (administration or research), in my experience, has been a sound way of helping scientists find their natural preference for one ladder or the other, but it may be a little more expensive than a single ladder system.  After all, paying two sorts of vice presidents is bound to cost more than paying one.  Nonetheless, the system has been highly productive at Merck.

Another organizational device has proven itself useful in this connection.  As our research organization grew, traditional departments with functional roles—chemistry, pharmacology, engineering, and the like—became less efficient at interacting with each other and with the ever-more complex regulatory world.  Thus we installed a small group of product managers and created a system of matrix management, in which departments interacted by focusing on a product; rather than on a department function.  These product managers had to be sure that their candidate products did not get stalled between departments, and that they met self-imposed deadlines. 

The system also had an unexpected benefit, since it allowed scientists to leave their line job for a while to try interacting with people.  As product managers, they had no line authority, and the only way they could reach their goals was to be helpful and persuasive. This gave them the chance to decide whether to return eventually to a research post or to try for administration.

In my case, I accepted the chance to become department director without much of a clue how to succeed at the new responsibilities.  I had yet to learn that a successful manager needs not just technical proficiency, but also an appropriate blend of confidence and humility.  That a leader requires confidence is obvious, but it’s also true that humility is indispensable.  That’s so partly because none of us knows all the answers; but also because arrogance severely erodes motivation.  Who wants to do the best for a boss who regards himself or herself as infallible?  In my experience, this is a rare combination; learning it requires patient tutelage by experienced managers.

Problems, Problems, Problems

If you're a manager, you're going to deal with conflict, since industrial scientists, even though they have a common goal of discovering and developing new products, won't necessarily exhibit angelic behavior.  Just one example I had to deal with:  I faced a conflict between two department heads who reported to me.  Each had been performing in head-of-the-class style, but they had somehow gotten crossways with each other.  A set of manufacturing processes had to be transferred from one of the departments to the other, and since the processes would eventually be examined by the Food and Drug Administration, the hand-off had to be flawless.  Predictably, the transfer got stalled amidst accusations of incompetence (and worse).  Then the old light bulb finally illuminated in my brain, and I sat down with each of the executives and told them, “A significant part of your job description involves cooperation with your peers.  If you ignore that, your annual bonus is going to suffer badly.”  Suddenly, the problem disappeared.

The staff’s idiosyncrasies (and who doesn’t have them?) can lead to organizational inefficiency, occasionally even to conflict, since they can be misinterpreted by coworkers and unrecognized by perpetrators.  If these idiosyncrasies are too personal, it may help to bring in an outside professional.  One of the wisest, in my experience, is Dr. Edwin Glasscock, who uses the “Managerial Grid” (this is a system of review by one’s peers with the aim of identifying management styles and particularly any hindrances to effective communication among co-workers).  Those who’ve been through this analysis—and there are many—will recall the enlightenment, even astonishment that can result from an analysis by one’s peers.  In my case, I was surprised but enlightened to hear myself described as unduly “poker faced.”  I like to think my critics were pleasantly surprised to see me nodding and beaming the next day!

A common mid-career crisis arises from an offer to join a new company or university.  When this first happens, it may seem a terribly difficult decision; with so many pros and cons.  A perfect decision seems hopeless.  After facing this situation several times (and deciding to spend my entire career with Merck), I’ve come to believe that a perfect answer often is hopeless. 

Nevertheless, two factors seem paramount: the impact on one’s family, and the chemistry between oneself and the prospective boss.  If these factors are favorable, the chances of a successful move are good.

Here's one final thought. One wall of my library is occupied with pictures of some of those who have helped in my career.  In different ways and at different times, they provided crucial assistance.  The lesson: that friends and mentors can be amazingly helpful; they're a resource that's available for the asking. 

And next time around, I’ll be a little quicker about asking.

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