Supervision of people is one of the things that a chemist can look forward to on the way up the ladder. The people who report to you may be called staff or report-to’s. The term “my employee” should be reserved for use by those who sign paychecks. What ever you call them, they’re your group.

I’m not going to write about how to manage people. After many years of doing it I’m not sure I really understand it yet. All I can say is that every day some people show up and expect you to keep them busy.

Okay, I’m just kidding. But I am serious about the mysteries of management of people. I think most would agree that the best way to lead people- the way most of us would prefer to be lead- is by setting a good example. It’s pulling instead of pushing. Inspired leadership by a charismatic and talented individual is preferable but, unfortunately, rather unusual. 

There are many theories of management and more management consultants than you can count out there urgently interested in telling you how to manage your staff.  All you have to do to sample the many management theories is to stroll through the business section of the local bokstore. Every one of the authors will trot out a set of polished anecdotes that outline the path to their own professional enlightenment.

Chemists on the  management track may move in many directions in a business organization. Most obvious is management of a technical activity like R&D. But there is also management opportunity in scale-up, pilot plant, production, QA/QC, and analytical services activity. Management of the production side is sure to include inventory and warehouse control, regulatory affairs, personnel issues, engineering, and maintenance. Itis not uncommon for engineers to head the production unit.

On the less technical side is sales, procurement management, and business development.  While perhaps less technical, the chemical industry needs (requires, really) chemically savvy people to handle purchasing and sales activity. It is not uncommon for sales oriented people to ascend into the upper reaches of management generally and the chemical industry is no different.

What is perhaps different in the chemical industry is that chemists are often disfavored in the track to the CEO’s office by their lack of economic training. The ability to deliver big projects on time and on budget is a key attribute and engineers are especially well positioned to do this very thing. The bigger the scale of operations the greater the likelihood that an engineer will be in charge. Or so my experience has been.

Among those I have observed, managers who have exemplary experience in controlling the big money are often the ones groomed for executive leadership. And the big money is in big projects with lots of sales volume. It is the source of life giving cash. That which makes the corporate world go ’round. The elusive spondulix.

But back to management. One of the most vexing aspects of managing people is that you have to manage people. People are complex and prone to nonlinear behavior. Everybody knows this. But the manager is tasked with using human resources to provide some kind of work product on time and on spec. How do you compel people to do this every day?

The threat of termination is a good though heavy handed tool to compel folks to do their job. But this is a tool that can also backfire. Frequent termination of people is stressful and puts the manager in the position of having to be in a more or less constant training mode. Best to hire hard working people who are self-starters.

I have not found a simple formula for management. All I can do is to support down and fight up. I fight for resources and reasonable expectations. I treat people in the most hospitable manner I can muster and in return I expect the same.

One of the most annoying behaviors is the phenomenon of “reverse delegation”. You ask your report-to to do a particular thing. In reply you are told that they can only do the thing if you first make some arrangements. You have to get this or that ready, or perhaps you have to write an SOP or work instruction, or maybe even they will need to fly to a hotel in Vegas or Orlando to take some training course. It is all push-back: a kind of passive aggressive behavior meant to deflect your attention.

What I have found is that these reverse delegators may be very concrete in their approach to the unfamiliar. They will assert that they must possess a good deal of skill to even begin some new task. Sometimes this is true. But often it is only a matter of time on task to make some good progress.  The hard part for some of us is dealing with the simple truth of the matter. Not everyone desires being collegial and operating on the give and take level of colleague. A lot of folks only respect the brusque barking of orders by a Captain Bly figure and the sight of a**holes and elbows hustling in the plant. I would have been Captain Kangaroo, not Bly. It’s just a fact.