Coping with a Mean Manager

October 31, 2011

There are many kinds of poor managers: ones who are micromanagers, demanding, uninvolved –the list goes on. Managers who are tough may just have high standards. However, the worst to deal with are bullies; they are downright mean. They are mean for many reasons. They may have learned from their own boss to manage by intimidation. Alternatively, they may be insecure and unsure of their ability to keep control. They may feel they need to make people afraid of them to maintain control. They may be taking out their own disappointments in life on staff members who report to them.

Whatever the reasons they may yell or humiliate employees often in front of their coworkers. This makes staff members feel incompetent or angry rather than motivating them to excel. Despite their efforts, mean managers tend to have less productive work groups.

So what can you do to avoid crumbling under the pressures of a mean, unreasonable boss?

Is your boss really mean?

To start, be sure you have a mean boss, not one who is demanding and perhaps undiplomatic. Demanding bosses require you to do the job you are paid to do. Are you doing your job well? Do you have the knowledge and tools to do your job well? Are you communicating well with your manager?

Begin working on these problems by discussing them with your manager in a clear and constructive way. Discuss how you can improve your performance and better  your manager’s requirements. Unless you do so your situation will not improve.

Constructively confront your mean boss

If you really do have a mean boss, it may still be worthwhile to meet and express your concerns. Remain calm and don’t lose your temper during these discussions. Avoid calling your boss mean or blaming him for problems. Instead try to discover and address his concerns that lead to his mean behavior. Do so by asking open-ended questions. Tell him your goal is to learn how you can better support him.

If well executed, this approach can lead to the boss developing respect for you and moderating his mean behavior. I once had a mean boss who called me into his office to upbraid me for a problem that occurred with one of my staff members and a chemist in another department. I didn’t argue or defend the employee. Instead I said that the situation was my responsibility and I would deal with it so it wouldn’t happen again. The meeting was much shorter than either I or my boss had anticipated. I dealt with the situation. The boss was still mean but less so to me than to my coworkers. So I did succeed in moderating his behavior somewhat. Actually this wasn’t my goal at the time. I just wanted to get out of his office as soon as I could!

These tactics can be constructive; particularly if you notice that your mean boss has favorites who he isn’t mean to. Learn what they are doing that results in their not being targets for his mean behavior. If you feel comfortable with these behaviors, adopt them yourself.

Don’t fold

In playing poker, folding means you throw down your cards and take yourself out of the game. Doing so in your job means the mean boss wins. You may find yourself avoiding your mean boss or not offering your ideas in his presence.

If you fold, your performance probably declines and you find yourself with less job security and overlooked when it comes to raises or promotions.

Change the game

Be concerned about impressing your coworkers and your boss’s manager as well as the mean boss. You may eventually be able to engineer a transfer to another department where you can work for a more congenial manager.

Work at becoming an outstanding performer and you may outlast the mean boss or even win him over. This happened once to me. My boss wasn’t great but was all right to work for. Then he gradually became mean after a reorganization. Later I realized the cause of his increasingly mean behavior was that he was now reporting to a mean boss himself. My boss was taking out his frustrations on his staff members. He would pound his desk at meetings, shout and sometimes threaten to arbitrarily fire us if we didn’t rapidly improve our performance. The problem was solved when he became so miserable that he took early retirement.

Document and report mean behavior

Consider cooperating with coworkers to document the mean boss’s behavior and report it to the appropriate person in your human resources department. Include dates, times and specific descriptions of the mean behavior. Describe how the mean behavior is adversely affecting productivity. Doing this should be a last resort.

In extreme cases, you may wish to consult an attorney because some of the mean boss’s actions may violate laws regarding hostile work environments. If this is the case, the mean boss may be subject to legal action.

Final comment

Formerly you could simply quit your job when confronted with a mean boss and get another job. However, given today’s difficult employment environment, the consequences of unemployment by running away from the problem may not be a realistic option. Instead you have to deal with the situation one way or another.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.

Success Factors for Chemical Sales Careers

October 17, 2011

What does it take to become a successful corporate sales representative? Steve Martin, a faculty member at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, performed personality tests on 1,000 corporate sales representatives to answer this question. He reported the results in his book “Heavy Hitter Sales Psychology: How to Penetrate the C-level Executive Suite and Convince Company Leaders to Buy.” The personality tests were given to high technology and business services salespeople.  He compared test results from top performers to those of average and below average performers. The findings indicate that key personality traits directly influence top performers’ selling style and ultimately their success.

His survey of top corporate salespeople indicated that 91% had medium to high scores of modesty and humility. The most successful salespeople are team players, notes Martin. Their teams are multidisciplinary and include researchers and marketing managers. In contrast to stereotypes, top salespeople are less gregarious than average performers. They aren’t overly friendly people often too close to their customers. Instead they have the ability to persuade customers to respect them and follow their recommendations and advice. 
Key traits of top salespeople

About 85% of the best performers were highly conscientious and took their jobs very seriously. They are focused on achieving goals and measure their performance against achieving these goals. They are competitive. Martin concluded from his studies that there seems to be a link between playing sports and being able to bounce back from losses and prepare themselves for new opportunities to compete. They aren’t afraid to cold call new sales prospects.

Many corporate sales people have degrees in chemistry, other sciences, and engineering. In keeping with this background, top salespeople are more curious than average performers. Their curiosity drives them to ask potential customers difficult questions to help them understand the true nature of their problems and what they want a product to do for them.

The sales process

The corporate sales process is evolving. To assure that they and their team are focused on developing products that customers really need and are willing to pay a good price for, corporate sales representatives are spending less time traveling to visit customers in 2009 than they did five years earlier. An SEC Solutions ( study indicated that salespeople are spending 15% more time planning their sales activities. (SEC Solutions is a consulting firm helping corporate clients improve the effectiveness of their sales processes.) Time spent on administration has increased 21% while actual time spent with customers has decreased 26%.

Superficially this is a worrisome trend – less face time with customers? How can this facilitate the sales process? However, salespeople are spending more time with their team getting themselves and others ready for these presentations. They work with sales managers, product development scientists and engineers and others on the details of these presentations. Among other things, they face the customers with a clear idea of the benefits their firm’s products provide customers, the value of these benefits, and how their firm’s products compare with the offerings of their competitors. Once they make the sales, salespeople spend more time getting feedback from customers and educating end users about their products and how to use them. They develop strategies on how to build on their success and sell additional products to the customer in question.

Another reason for customers spending less face time with sales representatives is that many firms have undergone staff reductions. The remaining employees have more work to do and less time for these meetings.

In particular, presentation skills are even more important to sales success than previously. Having less time to present the value proposition to customers, each presentation needs to be carefully crafted for maximum effectiveness.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.

Avoid Career Potholes

October 10, 2011

Career potholes are behaviors or events that slow your progress towards your career goals. Just like potholes in the road, career potholes can upset your mental equilibrium and focus. They can have a long-lasting effect on your career progress. Therefore, it is a good idea to steer a career course that helps you avoid career potholes. What are some common career potholes and how can you avoid or deal effectively with them?

Job loss

The biggest career pothole is job loss. Determining your skill deficiencies and repairing them can help avoid job loss. Pay careful attention during performance reviews and ask your boss how you can improve your performance. Ask your mentors the same question.  Get the advice of both your boss and mentors on strategies to overcome your deficiencies.

However, as recent and widespread events in the pharmaceutical industry illustrate, outstanding job skills cannot save you from job loss if your employer makes major changes in its R&D and business strategies. Savvy chemical professionals closely observe events and trends in their company, industry and chemical specialty. Attending professional conferences and networking with your peers working at other firms can also help you identify troubling trends. Your efforts can indicate whether developing trends are occurring that have a substantial possibility to cause you to lose your job despite excellent performance.

Should this be the case, you should at the least be prepared for job loss by updating your résumé, developing a job-hunting plan, and building up your personal savings. You may wish to transfer to a department experiencing healthier business conditions. If your entire industry is experiencing major business problems, your best course of action may be to change industries as well as companies.

Recharge your mental batteries

Establishing a better balance between your personal life and your career can have the effect of reenergizing your career. So can taking a wonderful vacation. For example, in 2005 I took a two-week vacation and traveled through Alaska engaging in many recreational activities. It was the first real vacation I took in more than a decade. I returned home with a new sense of energy and purpose.

Reconnect with the best of who you are

Since the early 1990s I have been a volunteer ACS career consultant helping new chemistry graduates and experienced chemical professionals find jobs. Giving back to the profession in this way has been tremendously fulfilling. My college roommate, still a good friend, has long been involved in various activities to encourage grammar school students to consider engineering careers. There was an article about him in the March 2011 issue of Amazing Kids Magazine. Another ACS Career Blogs author, Lisa Balbes, is currently chairperson of the ACS Committee on Economic Affairs and a volunteer ACS career consultant. In fact, all of the more than 70 ACS volunteer career consultants are reconnecting with the best of who they are through their volunteer efforts to help ACS members find jobs. I find just being around them and seeing how much they care about ACS members and the chemical profession to be energizing. Working with them at ACS national meeting career fairs boosts my morale.

Avoid self-sabotaging career behaviors

It often takes self-analysis to determine what your toxic career behaviors are. For example, I used to be so completely focused on my work that I seldom considered my coworkers. I would rush from my office to my lab and back again often ignoring my coworkers in the hallways. I would routinely eat lunch at my desk while working. As a result my coworkers, while respecting my abilities, didn’t like me much. My boss gave me a wakeup call when he commented that whenever he saw me I had a scowl on my face.

Many television shows include workplace behaviors that, while entertaining would be very annoying in real life. A great example is the show NCIS. The lab rat, Ph.D. chemist Abby Sciuto, is brilliant but exhibits behavior that in real life would drive most managers crazy. Don’t believe everything you see on TV!

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1400 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.

5 Keys to R & D Management Success

October 3, 2011

R&D managers have a wide range of responsibilities. They have to manage people, relationships with other departments – also budgets, equipment, and supplies and suppliers. With this welter of responsibilities, how can managers stay focused and achieve success?

The answer is to have five key goals and concentrate on achieving them.

Goal 1: Finish projects and tasks on time
This begins with determining how long projects and tasks will last. Once you’ve set a schedule, good time management skills are required to achieve it. Another difficulty is that requirements often change in the course of a project. This “project scope creep” can require additional work making projects take longer to complete than originally planned.

Preventing project scope creep can be difficult. If it can’t be prevented, you must get project participants to agree to any project scope changes and the modifications to the schedule that they will require. Keep your project plan and schedule up to date. Also keep all participants informed on team progress and work schedule changes.
Goal 2: Finish on or under budget
Projects tend to go over budget. To prevent this requires initially preparing a realistic project budget while including a cushion to allow for unexpected costs. Develop cost estimates for each task. Include all costs: salaries, laboratory supplies, equipment, travel, etc.

Track spending so you know if your team is going over budget and if so, in which areas. If over-spending on some tasks is inevitable, determine how you can under-spend on other tasks and keep your project or work group on budget. 
Goal 3: Achieve the goals
While keeping the work on schedule and on budget, you also have to achieve project goals. Your project solutions should meet the requirements set at the beginning of the project. This means developing a detailed list of requirements at the beginning of the project. All project stakeholders must agree to these requirements.

If changes in the project goals such as product performance or price are necessary, project stakeholders must be informed as soon as possible. 
Goal 4: Meet or exceed stakeholder requirements
Stakeholders are anyone affected by or interested in the project. In an R&D project, stakeholders include higher-level R&D managers, plant engineers who will have to manufacture a new product in a plant, salespeople and marketing managers, customers, and suppliers. You have to meet the requirements of all these stakeholders. Specifically:

• Higher-level research managers need your project results to reflect creditably on the laboratory. They will if the requirements of the other stakeholders are met.
• Plant engineers need to be able to reproducibly manufacture the product, ideally with the purchase of minimum process equipment.
• Salespeople and marketing managers need a high-performance product they can sell at a reasonable price to produce a good profit margin.
• Customers need a product that solves an important problem they have and does so at a reasonable price they are willing to pay. The product must meet their performance expectations. Communication throughout the project is important because customer expectations can change. This communication must be open and honest.
• Your suppliers must be able to supply the raw materials or components you need at a reasonable price that your firm is prepared to pay.

Goal 5: Build and maintain a productive work team

Assign staff members work that complements their strengths. To accomplish all of the above you have to assemble a productive work team. Team members must have the skills they need to work on their portion of the project. Team members should be compatible so they can work well together. Often this is the most difficult part of R&D project management.

Happy team members are more productive. Interpersonal issues are fewer on a happy work team. Keeping team members happy can be difficult with reduced laboratory staffing levels and budget constraints. However, there is much that research managers can do on their own despite institutional constraints. In particular, recognize team members for their outstanding contributions. If it is not possible to give them a bonus or raise, recognize them verbally in one-on-one conversations and during team meetings. Taking the team out to lunch, recognizing achievement on a laboratory bulletin board, and bringing snacks to team meetings are all ways to build and maintain team morale.

What’s next?

Accomplish all this and you’ll have a team feeling good about their accomplishments and willing, even eager, work with you again. Senior managers will be more likely to give you challenging assignments. Your colleagues in sales, marketing, production and other functions will be pleased to see you assigned to lead work teams on which they will participate.

John Borchardt is a chemist and freelance writer who has been an ACS career consultant for 15 years. He is the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers.” He has had more than 1200 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he holds 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents and is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers.