The R&D Manager: Esteemed Leader or Thankless Job?

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In previous posts on Scientific Careers in the Corporate World, I discussed the relationships between R&D staff, Program Managers, Business Developers, Product Managers, and Sales. Absent from these discussions was R&D Management – what do these individuals do?

In some companies, R&D Management does some technical work, project management, business development, and product management. But, above all else, the responsibility of the R&D Manager is to organize and equip a talented pool of technical resources that can be drawn upon by the organization to meet business objectives. Some of skills required to perform this function are core managerial and leadership competencies, experience with budgeting, talent development, and a variety of other non-technical attributes.

However, in many cases, the job of R&D Manager goes to the best scientist or engineer, who may not be capable at or all that interested in the tasks and behaviors described above. This occurs most frequently in companies that lack a system for rewarding their technical talent for what they do best, and instead insert that talent into managerial roles. The net result is that these new R&D Managers no longer have time to do what they’re best at, and what they enjoy doing; plus, the company has now installed a poor manager/leader while losing their best technical resource at the same time.

Here are 5 questions to consider before pursuing a role in R&D Management:

1. Do I truly want to step away from doing hands-on technical work? If your answer is yes, then R&D Management could be good next step, but adjacent roles in business development, program management, product management, or sales may also work for you. If your answer is no, but you feel that you’ve capped out in your current position, you may eventually need to look elsewhere for employment, particular for a company that can articulate how they reward and grow their technical talent.

2. If I wasn’t doing direct technical work, would I really want to spend my time managing people and budgets? To be sure, R&D Managers don’t spend all of their time on people and budgets, but they do it a lot more than most people expect and may go through long stretches of time where they don’t touch anything at all related to technical work. If those managerial tasks seem particularly boring and mundane to you, some of the alternative career paths may be a better fit.

3. Am I comfortable sharing credit when things go good, and taking a disproportionate amount of blame when they go bad? Because organizations typically ask more of their R&D teams than what can possibly be delivered (due to budget, resource, time constraints, etc.), people often point to the R&D Manager when initiatives fail. By no means do I want to paint commercial people as backstabbers, but they are often more connected to internal politics and better at dodging bullets from senior leadership when things go bad. At the same time, they’re typically skilled at stealing a bit more spotlight than they deserve when things go good. As a result, the R&D Manager rarely gets the full share of credit they are due. Combine that with the fact that every good manager shares credit with their team, and the slice of credit that R&D Managers get for themselves can become disappearingly small.

4. Am I willing to measure my personal success in terms of the performance of my team instead of my individual contributions? With respect to the previous point, successful and fulfilled R&D Managers will derive personal satisfaction from the performance of their team, not from recognition directed personally to themselves. R&D Managers are measured less by their individual contributions than the R&D staff are.

5. Am I comfortable saying “no” to people? Again, R&D teams are typically asked to do more than their available resources can deliver. Combine this with the fact that business developers and salespeople rarely say “no” to a customer, and the R&D Manager often ends up being the one needing to say “no” when no one else wants to hear it. If you never say “no”, you’ll overextend your team, fail to meet commitments, and rightfully be out of a job.

In summary, you should pursue an R&D management job when you’re comfortable with your own individual technical achievements and ready to shift your focus to bringing out the best in other talented people by providing training, coaching, support, and leadership. If your focus is on yourself, you may be better served staying in a technical contributor role, in a company who can properly reward you for being great at that.