Non-traditional Chemistry Careers: Project Manager and Team Leader

Traditionally R&D employees have been organized into work groups having similar skills. For example, all the mass spectroscopists may work in a single work group headed by a group leader, all the surfactant chemists in another, etc. These same chemists may also work, often simultaneously, on different projects each headed by a different project manager or team leader. The result is a matrix style of management in which R&D staff members are members of one or more teams in addition to reporting to a work group leader (often called a line manager).

Work groups are organized by the technical discipline of their members and are long-lasting since the technical disciplines of its members do not change greatly over time. In contrast, team membership is determined by the needs of the various projects. Projects are temporary and project teams are dissolved when the project goals are attained or are deemed unachievable. Individuals may move onto and off of the team as the work progresses and the expertise for the project changes. For example, very early in the project there may be little need for patent or government regulations specialists. However, these needs often arise later in the project. Late in the project quality assurance methods and analysis procedures have been defined and this type of work has become standardized. Hence there may be little need for analytical chemists to continue to work on the team as this work may be done as a matter of routine by one or more traditional work groups.

Project managers and team leaders organize and manage laboratory activities with the goal of creating new products and processes. They depend on the managers of traditional work groups to supply their staffing needs. However, it is the project leaders and team leaders who are responsible for meeting project objectives on schedule and within budget.

This dichotomy can lead to a major disadvantage of the matrix organization. Conflicts can arise between project managers and team leaders with group leaders over the allocation of staff members and other resources. Team members may feel a conflict of loyalties to their work group managers and their team leadership. There also may be confusion over accountability. Too many people may become involved in the decision making process, resulting in “paralysis by analysis.” Personnel costs can increase since project managers are typically paid more than work group members.

Project managers

The person responsible for planning, executing and completing a project is the project manager. Unlike team leaders, project managers seldom participate directly in the activities that produce the end result. Instead they strive to maintain progress through promoting the interaction of individuals and of work groups in ways that minimize project costs while maximizing benefits and reduce the risk of project failure.

When assembling project teams, project managers have to consider the critical roles and chemistry between team members as well as the team members’ technical skills. Incompatible team members can lead to dissention that reduces team productivity and even doom a project. Project managers are increasingly responsible for other nontechnical risk factors that require them to deal with the concerns of government regulatory agencies, citizen activist groups, and the general public.

The major professional organization for project managers is the Project Management Institute (PMI) ( PMI offers various levels of professional certification, publishes journals, and offers continuing education services.

Team leaders

The responsibilities of team leaders are less broad in scope than those of project managers. Typically others, the project manager and line managers, determine the project team membership and the responsibilities of the individual team members. It is the project team leader who converts the project plan into work and achievement. According to famed management guru Peter Drucker, “Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.” This requires strong, effective leadership that keeps team members focused on achievement of project goals.

Concerning team leadership, Walt Disney said, “Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating the talents of those who work for us and pointing them towards a certain goal.” Among the responsibilities of the team leader are:

  • Representing the team to higher level management
  • Leading team members to a consensus or making decisions in the absence of a consensus
  • Resolving conflicts between members and
  • Coordinating efforts of individual team members.

People skills are essential for team leaders since they often lack formal management authority, which resides in team members’ line managers. Instead, team leaders must persuade their team members to accept the project goals and timetable. Often they have little beyond their own persuasive skills to do so. Relying too much on the authority of line managers and project managers can reduce their own moral authority.

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. As an ACS Councilor, he serves on the Joint Board – Council Committee Patents and Related Matters.

One Response to Non-traditional Chemistry Careers: Project Manager and Team Leader

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