Academic journal article Journal of Leadership Studies

Achieving Effective Technical Leadership in Today's R&D Organizations

Academic journal article Journal of Leadership Studies

Achieving Effective Technical Leadership in Today's R&D Organizations

Article excerpt

Executive Summary

Most modern Research and Development (R&D) organizations employ a multitude of scientists and engineers who are considered technical leaders, that is technical experts, in some specialized scientific field. However, in today's climate of downsizing, restructuring, and reengineering, these same organizations need to nurture the growth of technical leaders in order to successfully manage change and survive in a fiercely competitive world market. This essay explores the differences between being a technical leader and a true technical leader in an R&D environment.


Most large industrial corporations employ a multitude of scientists and engineers in a central Research and Development (R&D) laboratory or similar setting. Many of these scientists and engineers are considered technical leaders by their peers and supervisors. These so called leaders are typically well educated and hold advanced degrees in some specialized field. They are usually long-term employees who are well known throughout their company and the scientific community at large and are the first persons consulted when a complex, technical problem arises in their particular areas of expertise. General examples of these leaders might include a world-renowned mass spectroscopist with a long list of publications and invited presentations to his or her credit, a polymer chemist with numerous patents for producing innovative materials, a chemical engineer who invents a new catalytic process that greatly increases the product yield at a chemical plant, or a simple "bench chemist" who has plied their trade and honed their skills for 20 years or more. These technical leaders are admired by younger scientists who are just beginning their careers, and they serve as excellent role models for developing employees. Technical leaders are adept at solving the day-to-day technical crises that arise in a large organization, successfully completing long term research projects, improving existing products and processes, and inventing new products and processes, thus contributing significantly to the bottom-line in today's corporations.

With the continued emphasis in today's R&D organizations on company restructuring or "reengineering," company mergers, process streamlining, and employee downsizing, many of our technical leaders have disappeared because of early retirements, "buy-outs," and layoffs. Thus, many of the younger, developing scientists and engineers in R&D organizations are faced with a shortage of technical leaders to emulate and rely on for scientific advice and career guidance. But more importantly, many of these same R&D organizations are faced with a lack of technical leaders, and there is a world of difference between technical leaders and technical leaders. Companies rely on their many technical leaders to solve complex scientific problems, but it is the scarcer technical leaders who are needed to lead these same employees through the continuous organizational changes and struggles that are necessary for "high-tech" companies to remain competitive amid fierce global competition.

The personal skills and traits necessary to succeed as a technical leader, which is the main focus of this article, are quite different than those of the typical technical leader. This is not to say that one type of technical leader is better or more valuable to a company than the other. On the contrary, both types of technical leaders are necessary for growth and prosperity in today's global economy. My point is that present day technical leaders need technical leaders to follow in order for R&D organizations to properly manage change and add increased, long-term value to their parent corporations. It is possible that certain individuals could function as both types of leaders at given times, but the two types of technical leaders described here usually function under different settings and deal with totally different types of problems. …

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