The Sciences

Management, Moms, and Old Boys

Cosmic VarianceBy Julianne DalcantonMay 4, 2009 3:39 PM


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Although popular culture likes its scientists to be lone wolves, holed up in isolated labs somewhere (preferably in a basement, cave, or top secret government facility), the majority of us are part of larger teams, working together to reach a common goal. This tendency for scientists to coagulate is most prevalent in experimentalists and observers, and in those of us who have reached scientific middle age (i.e. the Committee Era). However, scientists' education and apprenticeship includes little explicit training to prepare us for functioning within such groups -- or, gawd forbid, managing them. And thus, I read the business section of the paper. The business community is all about "working together to reach a common goal", and they have an awful lot of experience in harnessing the energies of large groups of people. It's by no means a perfect one-to-one map, as science tends to be much less hierarchical and formalized. However, there are insights to be learned. Recently I was quite taken by an interview with business leader Nell Minow, who became a parent during the time that she was transitioning to management:

When I first became a professional manager, I was pregnant for the first time, and so I grew up with both responsibilities at the same time. You have people saying the same two things to you all day long, which is, “Look what I did.” And you say: “It’s really good. Do some more.” Or they say, “He took my stuff.” And you have to say, “Tell him to give it back.” You’re constantly trying, whether you’re raising children or dealing with employees, to get them to take responsibility for their own issues. I’m not saying that in a maternalistic way, just in a way of trying to get people to take responsibility for themselves, to do the best that they can and to learn as much as they can. In both cases, you’re trying to make people more independent and bring them along.

I found this to be an incredibly succinct statement of what the best scientific mentorship looks like. However, the next week was followed by what appears to be the anti-Nell Minow. The interview begins with the CEO of Delta describing his management revelation that it wasn't all that helpful to lose your temper at work (you think?). But what got me riled up was part of his description of how he evaluates job candidates:

Q.What other questions do you ask?A. You want to know about their family. Where they grew up. What their parents did. Where they went to high school. What their avocations were. How many kids they had in their family. You know, what their whole background and history is. I learned that from a C.E.O. I worked for. The C.E.O. wouldn’t really spend that much time on the résumé, but spent most of the time wanting to know everything about the person’s life, family, what they liked, where they liked to go on vacation, what their kids were like. And it gave you a really good perspective about who they were as people.

Whooo boy. If this isn't a recipe for overlooking Talent that Doesn't Look Like You, I don't know what is. Suppose the candidate is a polyamorous gay man who was raised in a circus, but happens to be a whiz at selling widgets to the masses. Or heck, is a run of the mill single mom. Now, maybe I'm not giving him enough of a benefit of the doubt, as he may indeed be looking for a holistic view of the candidate's motivations ("Polyamorous? Raised in a circus? Sounds like he'd be flexible and good at managing change!"). But, I can't help but think his focus on intangibles over resume might reflect some attitudes that Zuska would consider worthy of shoe-puking.

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