There are quite a few news items to catch up on after the break – I’ll start off with a note that John Lechleiter has become the CEO of Eli Lilly. The main reason this catches the eye (and the main reason it got e-mailed to me!) is that he’s a medicinal chemist who worked his way up the ranks.
And that doesn’t happen very much, which is a topic that came up around here a couple of years ago. There are several companies run by chemists, but most of them got there as founders. Going from the bench all the way up to the top of an organization, that’s taking the long route for sure, especially in a place the size of Lilly.
Is there a reason for that? The sample size of large drug company CEOs isn’t particularly large, so it feels risky to generalize, but it’s been my impression that in many companies the scientific talent is under-represented in the top executive ranks. (That would make business degree holders and lawyers over-represented, I suppose). If that’s true, there are several possible explanations.
One is that fewer scientists are willing to devote themselves totally to the job of climbing said ladder, as opposed to their regular work. Many go into research because they like to do research, and don’t have as much of a taste for managing. But if you’re on the business side of things, the climb is much more related to your job description to start with, I’d say. Starting at the bench means that at some point you’re going to have to completely drop the work you were first hired to do and start doing something different.
That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of chemists (and biologists) who do just that, but they’re generally aiming at positions lower than CEO. Scientists who become managers usually end up managing other scientists, as section heads, associate directors, directors of research, and so on. That makes a lot of sense, because they understand the work that’s going on under them – you’re not going to import a lawyer to be Director of Translational Biology, right?
And that brings up another possible problem. Scientists, taken as a class, do not always turn into the best managers. No particular group produces a huge number of good managers, to be sure, but I’m pretty sure that researchers run on the low side. Putting it delicately, there are a number of personality types reasonably well-suited for science, but not so well-suited for supervising and developing other people. Such subsets exist in every other profession, but those categories are particularly roomy in the research labs. Ugly situations can ensue when these people are perforce given direct reports. It’s even worse in academia, where some truly borderline personalities are year after year turned loose on 22-year-old grad students.
But inter caecos regnat luscus, and if a scientist does have good skills as a manager or leader, then so much the better. These people will stand out all the more.