From boffin to boardroom

Today, more and more people go to university – according to current figures, 16% of the UK workforce holds a degree. It’s a figure that is set to increase dramatically as the government works towards its target of 50% of young people in higher education by 2010. At the same time, more graduates now go on to gain a second degree. All this means that employers today have far greater opportunity to hire exceptionally well-qualified people.

It is a truism that all chief executives are looking for the best people to employ in their companies. But does that mean the most academically qualified? I know chief executives who avoid employing very clever people. But it is not because they feel insecure surrounded by greater intellects. If anything, your average young PhD is not politically astute enough to threaten the boss’s position.

Chief executives are more concerned with the question of balance in the organisation, ensuring compatibility with other staff whose gifts may be more practical than cerebral. That’s why companies often shy away from the cleverest graduates in favour of those who ‘fit in’ – team effectiveness taking precedence over individual talent. But surely if everyone fits in, the organisation may be heading for consensual disaster. A cosy club is not what is required in today’s competitive markets.

Another common misconception is that clever people are likely to waste time arguing. Graduates have been taught to question and challenge received wisdom. There is a school of thought that says, while such an analytical approach is useful in a scientific or academic context, it is out of place in a company with deadlines to meet and targets to hit.

I disagree. Companies need to have their ideas challenged forcefully by their own people and the more able these people, the better. There is no reason why such vigorous debate should inhibit decision-making provided there is a robust regime in place.

I do, however, sympathise with the CEO who wants to preserve a balance of talent in the company, but in a small, high-growth technology business such as my own, the situation is often very different.

Millbrook Scientific was founded by two extremely clever PhDs who then recruited me (another PhD, although admittedly I have worked in general management for most of my life). When the sales director – another PhD – joined, we might have been seen as the epitome of ‘boffinsville’. At our flotation, some potential investors wryly commented how failure was inevitable given our concentration of academic backgrounds. We’ve proved them wrong, and have even grown substantially, although PhDs now comprise only half of the workforce.

Obviously the highly technical nature of our business – nanotechnology – demands this level of qualification for key positions, although arguably not my role as CEO. Our customers want to discuss in detail the capabilities of our instruments. They want to speak to scientists not salesmen, but these scientists need to be salesmen too.

Here I take issue with conventional wisdom that so-called ‘techies’ have difficulty adapting to a commercial role. There are no hard and fast rules – some do and some don’t. We have four PhDs and a BSc in key commercial positions and they all put the customer in centre stage.

And what about cashflow? Isn’t that something that a bunch of academics are likely to get badly wrong? Again, it depends on the experience they’ve had. The founders of Millbrook had to learn about cash in a much tougher school than the majority of managers in larger companies. They do not forget these lessons easily and it hardens their attitude towards wastage of money in the company.

Pricing is another area where you might expect a degree of weakness. Once again I have found our team of scientists to be extremely pragmatic – neither caving in nor losing business through unrealistic expectations. I believe this is where constructive discussion within the management team helps take the pressure off an individual, giving her confidence to make the right decision.

Nevertheless, there are inevitably weaknesses in management that is too homogeneous or too narrow in its experience. I see it as a key role of mine to broaden the experience of the team, usually by introducing them to new ideas rather than by formal training courses. Their innate intelligence means they adapt to new concepts quickly.

Needless to say it is not a one-way street, and I have learnt much more than I have taught. Our biggest single challenge has been getting people to think big: setting up a global network of distributors and going for a public flotation, to name but two examples. This global stance has had to be accompanied by other internal changes and a general lifting of eyes to wider horizons.

My experience has shown me that managing a team of highly talented and academic individuals is a pleasure and the people themselves are an invaluable asset.

They are capable of tackling complex issues with ease, rarely exaggerate the benefits or risks of a situation, and tend to avoid dangerous shortcuts. They present opportunities and threats in an objective way, thereby bringing about a better climate for decision making.

So if our experience is good, will it work for you? Apart from our industry specific factors, there are some general attributes that are desirable. The dedication and strength of character required to complete a PhD or other postgraduate qualification is considerable – quite a few fall by the wayside. At the same time, the student is managing his own project and this requires self-motivation and teaches self-sufficiency. Thirdly the intellect of the candidate is likely to be of a high order.

Managing very clever people can present a big challenge to companies, but I believe the potential benefits are huge. So the next time a PhD’s CV lands on your desk, look past any stereotype you might hold and invite them for interview. You may be pleasantly surprised.

  • Peter Stefanini is executive chairman of Millbrook Scientific Instruments.

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