By Mehran Yazdanian
As graduate students, we spend almost all our waking hours thinking about our projects, running experiments, interpreting results, and counting days to graduation. Then one day we graduate and most of us get jobs in the industry. A few of us are given supervisory roles because of our academic degrees without any managerial training or experience. However, supervisory responsibilities are usually given after working in the lab for a few years and demonstrating superior performance as individual contributors. In either case, we become managers of other scientists by virtue of time and education and not necessarily because we are good at managing others or have any management training.
This is a big distinction that James E. Tingstad, Ph.D., made in his first column, “The Technical Manager,” which appeared in Pharmaceutical Technology in 1988. He argued that there is a difference between being a technical manager and a technical manager. He wrote that “A technical manager regards himself primarily as a technical person with some added supervisory responsibilities, whereas a technical manager views himself as a manager of people who have technical training.” He espoused the idea that highly successful managers are of the latter type.
In 1989 I met Dr. Tingstad and his wife, Phyllis, as part of the workshop that they conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Pharmacy. The workshop was on figuring out what kind of personalities we had and how they affected our interactions with each other when working in teams. The Tingstads gave us a set of questions, a sort of Briggs Myers test I suppose, that categorized our personality traits and how they manifested themselves when we interacted with others and in response to their personalities. I found this exercise intriguing as it seemed useful for any situation where two or more individuals needed to work with each other. Later in my career, I found this to be an effective way of ensuring success when leading any team.
I did not have any industrial experience then, and Dr. Tingstad’s presentation on how the personality of a manager can influence and impact the way that the individuals are managed piqued my interest. I started to read his columns in Pharmaceutical Technology religiously, and as I embarked on a career in the pharmaceutical industry, I found his advice and examples he gave on every topic that he discussed very useful. I met him a few more times over the years at various meetings. At each encounter, I mentioned to him how influential his columns have been in my professional growth as a technical manager. He was always very generous with his comments and insight in response to my questions in our conversations. Unexpectedly one day in August of 2006, I received a package from him containing reprints of all his columns. I cherish that package to this day, and I go back to reading some of the columns from time to time.
Today, I lead a group of scientists in pharmaceutical development who work in areas from preformulation to formulation development to manufacturing of clinical supplies. As a technical manager, it’s my responsibility to make sure that they get all the resources they need to accomplish their goals and grow as scientists. And I continue to be involved in scientific discussion and problem solving. As Dr. Tingstad reminded me on many occasions, when we are given managerial responsibilities, we do not cease being scientists. However, as we go up the career ladder, the balance between scientific and managerial responsibilities shifts toward the latter.
Dr. Tingstad passed away in 2011 after a long struggle with Alzheimer disease. I have often thought about writing an updated version of his columns. It is my goal to write a few columns a year to discuss topics related to being effective technical managers based on current trends, my own professional experience, and stories that I have been told by my colleagues and friends. It is imperative that today’s technical managers be prepared to address contemporary issues in order to manage their groups well.
I invite the readers of this post to share their thoughts about managing in technical fields and comment on their own experiences both as managers and as the managed.