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December 2005

What Do I Do Now?  Becoming a 21st Century Leader

By Ted Farrington

Becoming a 21st Century Leader compares the careers of two senior executives whose only similarities are their titles. Catherine and Marcus both leave college with advanced technical degrees and spend 20 years climbing the corporate ladder until today when they are vice presidents of R&D and CTO’s of their firms. While they had similar experiences along the way, what they learned from these experiences is very different and that can be seen in their results (as shown below). 





Annual R&D Budget



Value of New Products   Launched Annually



Number of New Products Launched Annually



Hours Worked by CTO

50 hours per week

80+ hours per week

Morale of Organization


Employees excited coming to work

Most employees counting days until they get out

Mastering their trade: As technologists Catherine and Marcus see many projects that result in successful new product launches and some that don’t. But Catherine’s postmortems of the projects often differ from the popular organizational view. Projects that ultimately failed had all the information needed to be killed early but seem to take on a life of their own and live way too long. Even with “successful” projects, she is often concerned about the time wasted due to indecision and poor communications. To her these are examples of time wasted that could have been used to accomplish even more. Catherine starts developing principles she will use later when she gets the opportunity to lead. Marcus is happy to be on projects that have launched new products.

Managing projects: After a few years as successful project team members Catherine and Marcus are promoted to project leaders. Based on her previous experiences, Catherine wants to be a project leader who does not allow wasted time and skill underutilization to occur on her projects. She wants her team to run fast and feel everyone’s skills are fully utilized. She stops to ask “What Do I Do Now?” and realizes that being a good project leader is a very different job than being a technologist. Catherine lists the causes of wasted time she has observed and adopts principles to prevent them. Most importantly she decides to always give herself a specific task as part of the team that keeps her from micromanaging her strong players. On one project she takes ownership for developing intellectual property for example. To speed up decision making she puts much effort into laying out clear project principles and broad guidelines, within which the team can make decisions without her. As a result, she rarely has people at her door waiting for her decisions. Over the next few years she experiences several very successful projects and is highly respected by both workers and bosses.

On the other hand, Marcus succeeds by using his outstanding technical skills to layout perfect project plans and design good experiments for others to run. He also experiences several years of successful projects. But he is often overwhelmed with data and his teams are oftern waiting for his decisions regarding next steps.

Managing people: Eventually both Catherine and Marcus are promoted to manager with ten direct reports. Again Catherine asks “What job should I bedoing to add value but also allow the strong players in my group to fully utilize their skills and grow?” She defines her job not in terms of project execution, but rather coaching, managing the objective setting and performance process, setting people up for success and strengthening the organization. While she is not a 'hands-on manager', her people know she is there for them 110% when they need her. She learns the difference between empowerment and leadership by abdication! Once again her model of finding herself other ways to contribute works.

Marcus continues with his formula for success also: focus on making the best project decisions possible by burying himself in the project details and handling the personnel side of the job as quickly as possible. Management is impressed with Marcus’s continued project successes. But he is putting in long hours keeping up with more projects while his people feel like simple “pairs of hands” carrying out his plans. They spend a lot of time “on hold” awaiting his decisions.

Leading organizations: A few years pass and Catherine and Marcus are promoted to research directors with about thirty employees in their departments. By this time Catherine have left technology behind and is focused on becoming the best possible leader.  This is a discipline she see as quite different from technology or project management. She asks “What do I do now?” and defines her role in terms of managing the project portfolio for her department to ensure they are on the best projects possible. She sees her role as setting the environment for her people to be successful:

What a successful organization feels like to Catherine:

• Everyone leaves work feeling their skills have been fully utilized every day.
• The business president can visit, walk up to anyone in the organization, and ask, “How is what you are doing today important to my business?” and the individual can answer!
• No one is afraid to say exactly what they are thinking.

For the next few years Catherine’s department delivers many successful projects and her people feel their skills are being stretched.

As a research director Marcus feels challenged to keep up with all the projects under his control and implements the following rules and success criteria for running his department:

• All significant project decisions must be reviewed with him.
• All project plans must be reviewed with him.
• There will be biweekly half-day staff meetings to review status of all projects.
• Every project will have a full review once each quarter.

What success looks like to Marcus:

• He is aware of every detail of every project at any time.
• All information and decisions flow through him.
• Whenever his boss calls with a project question, Marcus has the answer!

With Marcus as director, his department always delivers but his people are frustrated as their skills are hardly needed.

The same pattern continues when Catherine and Marcus are promoted to vice presidents of R&D. The differences can be summed up in terms of how people feel about their work. All levels of Catherine’s organization have uniquely defined and rewarding roles that stretch their skills. Marcus’s people feel entirely underutilized as they watch him attempt to control dozens of projects from the office of vice president.


While both have progressed through four levels of increasing responsibility, Catherine understands that each is a very different job, not just more of the previous one. She is willing to move out of her comfort zone with each new role and let her strong people continue to grow.

Catherine and the author believe “Most organizations that get into trouble today have people in organizational leadership roles who never got past mastering their trade or managing projects! The result is a severely underutilized workforce.”



Other firms recently acquired Marcus and Catherine’s companies. Both have been replaced by R&D leaders from the acquiring companies and are now interviewing for executive R&D positions. Marcus’s typical interview focuses on technology and running projects. Given his current technical knowledge, he can usually propose some new project ideas during the interview. Catherine’s typical interview focuses on leadership and interfacing with business leaders. Executives interviewing her are impressed and consider her one of the most skilled leaders and students of organizations they have met.   


After six months Marcus has several job offers and Catherine none.  Being too far removed from the technology is the usual reason for her not being hired.  Would you hire Catherine or Marcus to lead your R&D organization?  Did Catherine make a career mistake when she left her technical roots behind?


Ted Farrington is currently a Senior Director in Research, Development and Engineering with the Johnson &  Johnson Consumer Companies.  He has worked for Proctor & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, Fort James and Weherhaeuser.  Ted can be reached at or +1.908.874.1055.

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