#155 from R&D
Innovator Volume 4, Number 5
This Job Isn't Right For You..."
Sarett, now retired, was president of
Merck, Sharp and Dohme’s R&D Division from 1969-1976,
where he was responsible for managing 2,000 research scientists.
From 1976-1982, he was corporate senior vice president for
science and technology with responsibility for strategic planning,
licensing, and R&D. Among
many awards, Dr. Sarett received The Industrial Institute Medal,
The National Medal of Science, and the Perkin Medal Award.
He lives in Viola, Idaho.
Upon joining an
organization—a newcomer encounters a mass of rules. Some are
written, many are unwritten.
The newcomer joins a group of individuals with varying
kinds and degrees of skill.
He is ordinarily evaluated in formal terms by the boss and
more searchingly by peers. The
transition from undergraduate, graduate student, or post-doc to an
industrial organization such as a pharmaceutical company isn’t
easy for most scientists.
I hope the
experiences I’m about to relate will be useful to get you
thinking further about your career plans.
Let's start with
why I joined an industrial research organization rather than
academia. The answer
is embarrassingly simple. First,
my father was a professor and I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of
becoming a “me-too” teacher.
Second, the fathers of most of my high school friends' had
commercial jobs as bankers, salesmen and executives.
They all seemed to be having a great time of life, whereas
I felt that the academics weren’t having much fun; most seemed
to take themselves too seriously.
I set out for
graduate school at Princeton, and did my thesis on steroids, and
in 1942 joined Merck as a steroid chemist.
At the time, the adrenal corticosteroid (later named
cortisone) was top priority for Allied military medical
establishment, which had heard rumors that the German air force
was taking adrenal extracts—crude cortisone—and becoming
military interest in adrenal-gland products was equaled in
intensity only by its interest in penicillin, which proved to have
much more solid military uses. In hindsight, the idea of cortisone
as a combat weapon seems naive, but at that time, animal
experiments had demonstrated that adrenal extracts could
counteract a great variety of stresses.
Expert Was Wrong!
consortium of industrial and academic steroid experts was
assembled to synthesize cortisone, since beef adrenal glands, the
original source, couldn’t supply enough.
A key difficulty was introducing oxygen at the C-11
position on the steroid molecule.
A long-time steroid expert claimed he’d solved the
problem, and our research director wanted the claim verified.
Thus my first assignment at Merck was to prove that oxygen
has, in fact, been introduced at C-11.
frustrating months went by. I
just wasn’t able to prove it, and began doubting my skills as a
chemist. One day, my
boss paid me a visit. “You
haven’t made much progress, have you?” I’ll always remember
his exact words.
isn’t the company for you,” he continued. (Here was clearly a man who valued a direct approach.)
suggestion sent me into shock, but it also jarred loose a wild
idea: maybe the
premise was wrong! I
thought the unthinkable. Perhaps
the famous authority had erred.
Perhaps the oxygen (we knew it was there somewhere, due to
elemental analysis) was not on the site I was investigating!
I spent a nerve-wracking weekend in the lab, trying to
reverse the assignment and prove the elusive oxygen was not
at C-11. By
Sunday night, I'd pinned down the errant oxygen atom.
It was, in fact, at the adjacent position C-12, so there
was a good reason why I'd failed to find it at C-11.
(Soon afterward, a member of our consortium in Switzerland
solved the problem by affixing an oxygen at C-11.)
Bench or the Office?
reading a book on secrets of administrative success, I read this
eye-popping suggestion: “One of the most successful ways for a
person to gain administrative perspective is to be fired from his
Apparently somebody else had gone through this
character-building experience, too.
But I have to believe that a footnote to this advice is
needed, that is “if he survives!”
Did that mean I lost my opportunity to become an
administrator since I had not actually been fired, just
Even if a
researcher evades being fired (or the threat), he or she will
likely face a crucial decision: whether to start climbing the
management ladder, or stay at the bench.
For a few lucky people, the decision is easy.
For the rest of us, it's important to recognize that
administration is an entirely different animal than discovery.
In administration, the mantra is “plan, organize,
delegate, motivate, and control.”
For the research scientist, the joys of discovery are
personal and direct, not experienced vicariously.
The dual ladder
(administration or research), in my experience, has been a sound
way of helping scientists find their natural preference for one
ladder or the other, but it may be a little more expensive than a
single ladder system. After
all, paying two sorts of vice presidents is bound to cost more
than paying one. Nonetheless, the system has been highly productive at Merck.
organizational device has proven itself useful in this connection.
As our research organization grew, traditional departments
with functional roles—chemistry, pharmacology, engineering, and
the like—became less efficient at interacting with each other
and with the ever-more complex regulatory world. Thus we installed a small group of product managers and
created a system of matrix management, in which departments
interacted by focusing on a product; rather than on a department
product managers had to be sure that their candidate products did
not get stalled between departments, and that they met
The system also
had an unexpected benefit, since it allowed scientists to leave
their line job for a while to try interacting with people. As product managers, they had no line authority, and the only
way they could reach their goals was to be helpful and persuasive.
This gave them the chance to decide whether to return eventually
to a research post or to try for administration.
In my case, I
accepted the chance to become department director without much of
a clue how to succeed at the new responsibilities.
I had yet to learn that a successful manager needs not just
technical proficiency, but also an appropriate blend of confidence
and humility. That a
leader requires confidence is obvious, but it’s also true that
humility is indispensable. That’s
so partly because none of us knows all the answers; but also
because arrogance severely erodes motivation.
Who wants to do the best for a boss who regards himself or
herself as infallible? In
my experience, this is a rare combination; learning it requires
patient tutelage by experienced managers.
If you're a
manager, you're going to deal with conflict, since industrial
scientists, even though they have a common goal of discovering and
developing new products, won't necessarily exhibit angelic
behavior. Just one
example I had to deal with: I
faced a conflict between two department heads who reported to me.
Each had been performing in head-of-the-class style, but
they had somehow gotten crossways with each other.
A set of manufacturing processes had to be transferred from
one of the departments to the other, and since the processes would
eventually be examined by the Food and Drug Administration, the
hand-off had to be flawless.
Predictably, the transfer got stalled amidst accusations of
incompetence (and worse). Then
the old light bulb finally illuminated in my brain, and I sat down
with each of the executives and told them, “A significant part
of your job description involves cooperation with your peers.
If you ignore that, your annual bonus is going to suffer
the problem disappeared.
idiosyncrasies (and who doesn’t have them?) can lead to
organizational inefficiency, occasionally even to conflict, since
they can be misinterpreted by coworkers and unrecognized by
these idiosyncrasies are too personal, it may help to bring in an
outside professional. One
of the wisest, in my experience, is Dr. Edwin Glasscock, who uses
the “Managerial Grid” (this is a system of review by one’s
peers with the aim of identifying management styles and
particularly any hindrances to effective communication among
who’ve been through this analysis—and there are many—will
recall the enlightenment, even astonishment that can result from
an analysis by one’s peers.
In my case, I was surprised but enlightened to hear myself
described as unduly “poker faced.” I like to think my critics were pleasantly surprised to see
me nodding and beaming the next day!
mid-career crisis arises from an offer to join a new company or
university. When this
first happens, it may seem a terribly difficult decision; with so
many pros and cons. A
perfect decision seems hopeless.
After facing this situation several times (and deciding to
spend my entire career with Merck), I’ve come to believe that a
perfect answer often is
factors seem paramount: the impact on one’s family, and the
chemistry between oneself and the prospective boss.
If these factors are favorable, the chances of a successful
move are good.
Here's one final
thought. One wall of my library is occupied with pictures of some
of those who have helped in my career.
In different ways and at different times, they provided
crucial assistance. The
lesson: that friends and mentors can be amazingly helpful; they're
a resource that's available for the asking.
And next time
around, I’ll be a little quicker about asking.