Monday, April 25, 2016

How chemists get promoted

Also in this week's C&ENLinda Wang has an thought-provoking article about how chemists get promoted, with some stories from actual chemists. I found the one about the chemist at 3M to be most interesting: 
...Sos was presented with an opportunity to become an international director at 3M, overseeing the company’s businesses in Asia. But the position required that he relocate to Shanghai. 
“Never in my life did I anticipate we would move to China,” Sos says. “I was excited, but when you have a family and a life you’ve established, you have to really think about what it means for your career. There’s no guarantee that you come out of those assignments and you’re better off.” 
But the gamble paid off, and it became a career-defining move for Sos. “I was thrown into a completely different culture, and it was really challenging, but it was a good learning opportunity in many ways,” he says. “I developed a lot as a leader.” 
After living in China for four-and-a-half years, Sos began exploring his options for returning to the U.S. One opportunity that presented itself was at Thermo Fisher. “What I found was that the experience that I had in Asia was highly attractive to companies like Thermo Fisher.” 
Sos joined the company in November 2011 as vice president and general manager of molecular spectroscopy before assuming his current position in October 2015. “Life is about experiences,” he says. “I felt as though it was tremendously valuable to take on some risks, and they’ve paid off for me.”
It seems to me that "go overseas for a short while" is a pretty standard way of getting a promotion in a large multinational company. Don't miss the other ones; they're all worth your time. 

31 comments:

  1. I've found that the key, no matter what size company you're in, is to kiss enough of the right ass and then you get the promotions, whether you deserve them or not.

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  2. I mean cherry picking these stories by Linda Wang is very deceptive to say the least. I know many people who have been burned (by taking that route of ..Sos) and life is not that simple! May be Linda Wang ought to do a story on how many people ended not as VP and may be more like run -of-the mill chemist in China who go there from the US.

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  3. I know I'm a natural skeptic, but these examples don't represent the overwhelming majority. The story about the AMRI teaching chemistry and then it ends up he got promoted? Seriously? Why not just have the headline - "If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life" and then have rainbows coming out a unicorns ass? That is about the equivalent to these stories.

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    1. So you don't believe the story? Or you think it doesn't represent the bulk of promotions?

      What do you think is the story of most promotions? "He was there long enough, and he didn't challenge the bosses too much"? "He was a classic brownnoser"? "She's the best freakin' chemist I ever met."?

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    2. "...Sure enough, when the manager returned, he was placed in a different role..."

      An end-run around an absent manager is not exactly a rainbow-ejecting unicorn, by the way.

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    3. Sorry to rain on your "please read these, they are worth your time" parade, but yes, all the things you stated are the bulk of promotions - except for the "best freakin' chemist...". Most are like ClutchChemist/NMH/etc. and others say. Basically what C&EN is reporting on are buzzwords - outside comfort zone, apply skills to other jobs, problem solver, passion, do the job you want - HR BS. Most places would say, "hey you used to teach chemistry, great, now get back to work." C&EN reports on what they want to, to try and make it look much better than it really is out there and it appears you just latched on to the hype.

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    4. Once again, Lyle, we must sadly agree to disagree.

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    5. So you really believe these are truly representative and not just cherry-picked using the buzzwords of the day? If so, then it's not sadly that we have to agree to disagree, it's gladly.

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    6. I don't think anyone (including you, Lyle) knows what "truly representative" is; it's my hope that we'll all know someday.

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    7. After 20+ years in industry and academia I know what is not representative, and these five stories would classify as that. They simply chose the buzzwords that C&EN wants to foster and found five stories. You cannot believe these represent how promotions actually occur across the board. If so, you haven't worked any where and simply believe what someone tells you. It's good that you promote what the weekly digest is in C&EN; but, it's also good to do it without the rose colored glasses.

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    8. "They simply chose the buzzwords that C&EN wants to foster..."

      Your belief in mustache-twirling C&EN editors is kinda cute, Lyle. Be sure to add an extra layer of foil to your hat.

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    9. The common flaw of the C&EN piece and many other studies of this sort is what Phil Rosenzweig calls "the Halo Effect" in business. It's a bit different from the standard cognitive bias with the same name. In essence, when you start with a successful person/company and then try to point to the things they did, you get fooled into thinking you understand how they got to where they are, when in fact lots of other people/companies could have done those same things and not had any success. It's the same problem with the "drop out of college to form a start-up" trope. Is there really significant correlation, and even so, does it imply causation?

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    10. Overall the anecdotes reflect pretty generic advice, stuff that's fine but something you would have to figure out how to adapt to your own situation.

      Funny that they don't highlight the lesson from at least 2 stories is "be willing to live in China/manage Chinese people (presumably by knowing Chinese?).

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    11. I believe CJ's comments are offensive to all men and women who are 9/11 truthers, believers that vaccination as the cause of autism, etc, and all those who proudly wear foil on their heads.

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    12. You're right, CJ. Just "think differently" and you'll be promoted. My bad.

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  4. I would suspect in most organizations, for every person who is promoted there will be someone over 50 who will get fired. Except, of course, in acdemia, where if you are tenured they cannot fire you even if they really wanted to.

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  5. I think the problem with all this is that its all anecdotal, and its all very situational. I know people who get promoted through international transfers and it works out great for them in the long term. I've also talked to people who do that and then have to come back to the US and there's no good fit for them any more and they take a lower position at another company. You can get a bunch of stories to tell whatever angle you want, and it will resonate with those with similar experiences, but only a true survey would give us a better indicator of how people get pomoted. I suspect that most promotions happen gradually and internally, many times once an employee has maxed out his/her current pay grade.

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    1. "How did you get promoted?" is really something that should be tagged onto the end of one of the annual salary surveys.

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    2. I bet you would get lots of answers that didn't reflect reality. In truth, it's probably a complex mix of things that got you promoted, including luck. But who is going to answer "I just got lucky!" Even if you ask the supervisor, they will likely have different answers than the person getting promoted.

      Allow me to quote Kung Fu Panda: "There is no secret ingredient."

      Some things that probably help:
      1. Working on projects that are highly visible to management and not screwing them up (or better yet, hitting them out of the park)
      2. Having a good relationship with your supervisor and your supervisor's supervisor (whether you accomplish this by kissing ass probably doesn't matter)

      If you do good work on projects no one cares about, or you work for someone who takes credit for all your good work, you aren't getting promoted no matter how much of a badass you are in lab. Even if your direct supervisor thinks you're good but they can't convince their boss you're good, you're also not getting anywhere. If you feel like you're in this situation btw, you should try to move (internally or externally).

      Taking an international position can set you up for both 1&2, but not all international positions are created equally. Why are being sent to an international post? What are the odds the task you are given can be done (by you, specifically)? Is this really something your boss (and his/her boss) are going to value if you do it well?

      All my above advice is anecdotal, but it comes from trying to see it from management's point of view. If you're the boss, who do you promote? People whose work you know because it had some significant impact. How do you know whose work it was? Well, you have to take your direct reports' word for it usually, hence the good relationships needed up the chain.

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    3. Thanks, Phil, I really appreciate it.

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    4. Thanks, Phil. Wisdom summarized perfectly.

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    5. I'll chip in that a common theme in the stories is being able to demonstrate to your bosses that you can do the higher-level job. Other commenters have indirectly pointed out that such opportunities can be rare, and I'd concur. Keeping one's eyes and mind open can help to an extent.

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  6. The guy from STREM using the glovebox sans lab coat will not be getting promoted now that his safety infractions are in C&EN

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    1. The glovebox is already protection!

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  7. Is it just me, or does the third story not sound particularly inspiring? Wait for your boss to break their leg then take over their job, then tell management that you can do it better so that when the sick guy comes back they are put somewhere different. Well, at least it sounds realistic.

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    1. Probably would sound slightly different from the manager's perspective. "5 ways backstabbers get promoted" maybe.

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    2. For a guy without paper credentials, this might be the only way to get a chance.

      At my plant, the maintenance manager is supposed to have a trade-school diploma. A plant floor worker with no formal training served as a temporary substitute several years ago, and he ended up getting the job because he outperformed the last several credentialed people we had.

      We also had a situation a few years back when we planned a simple project for a summer intern, but he was forced to act as an emergency substitute for a chemist with health problems. The kid performed admirably, and we ended up hiring him when he graduated.

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    3. True, I guess it works out sometimes, but seems like a zero-sum game as presented.

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  8. The inspiring part of some of these stories is that there are really good managers and supervisors out there. Someone once said that management's job is to set the correct strategy and develop people.

    The manager at AMRI that let Mark Darey teach chemistry to other employees helped Mark advance and improved the skills of many others in the company.

    A supervisor at Strem gave Jason Stevens, who was "just" a high-school graduate, the chance to make changes in warehouse operations.

    Both Mark and Jason were rewarded for their accomplishments.

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  9. Great, these people greased the right wheels to move up the ladder while everyone else is hanging on for dear life...I would be much more interested to read "how chemists keep their jobs past 50," but I think that getting enough anecdotes to write a story would be challenging

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  10. How one is promoted is as nebulous as how one is hired. I don't think there's a set formula, and it seems to me a combination of 'not being a jerk' and 'doing good work' in impossibly variable proportion. Probably helps if you're tall and good looking....

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