How STEMers can infiltrate corporate ranks

I previously wrote about how STEMers complain that too many “imbiciles” (I’m quoting certain colleagues) are in power in their workplaces.

As a matter of fact, I like most of these so-called imbeciles. It’s just that they would better positioned not controlling difficult people like us 😄

(We think and talk critically and get overzealous on “the right way” way too often)

My hypothesis is that STEM orgs may benefit from getting more input from people with technical ability than political finesse.

I said, well, it’s our own fault for not stepping up to the plate. We can and should work towards positions where we can have a say.

But we are often ineffective because we choose not to participate (shame) or we try but fail because we are winging it (thanks for trying).

Being socially well-adjusted is bare minimum.

My preliminary research shows that you need to work on 3 areas to start increasing your influence. They are:

  1. Interpersonal skills – not just friendliness and being an all-round nice person, but ability to relate to people at a level where you relate to their motivations, emotions
  2. Productivity enhancers – because I find that a lot of true STEMers get stuck into the problem in such engrossing ways that they don’t end up producing enough work product the way your employer would want
  3. Leader mindset – this isn’t being a leader, but thinking and acting like a leader when you are going about your work. Even if you don’t have a leadership title or authority. Mandatory for ALL workers in STEM.

Complex areas to share, but maybe there’s a digestible way.

Image result for thinking emoji

Will nerds rising threaten power structure?

I don’t think people high up in existing power structures have anything to worry about.

At times, it seems like there are not enough high performers to go around. We always need more A-players and leadership material.

If nerds rise up, their natural tendency would be to create new value rather than shuffle around existing value like others might.

I gave a simple example to a scientist friend of mine whose boss relies on government grants to fund his team’s salaries.

Let’s assume a few parameters here:

  • Government assigns $100 million in grants to scientific research
  • 100 influential scientists vie for the grants
  • They get equal payout (not reality, but bear with me)
  • $1 million per science team to do their research

If we are able to increase the efficacy of 100 more scientists within these teams, there are suddenly 100 new opportunities to explore.

In the early stages, there would be competition for that limited pie of $100 million. But the government would eventually realise something.

There’s a positive effect from a visibility perspective from having much more talent doing globally-significant research in its backyard.

The grant pool should increase at this point to factor in the increase in noticeably more high-end individual contributors and leaders.

I presume the same would go for a corporation that had an increase in technically-proficient and performance-oriented staff.

There would be a reduction in false positives – people who allude that they’re great at the work or leadership when they’re not.

A stronger talent pool would also open opportunities for exploring areas of new value creation.

Survival reflex hurts the STEM ecosystem

I previously brought up the inability of many STEMers to rise up in organisations they’d benefit.

I presume they are either apathetic (“people should value my work for what it is”) or have tried and failed at influencing others.

What I missed was the fear component in the equation.

A lot of us get into jobs that reflect our natural tendencies – we like science, technology etc. But some among us see the jobs as means to an end.

A form of survival – money to pay the bills, rent. And that survival mindset guides our actions at work – a survival reflex of sorts.

We don’t want to rock the boat, so we fly under the radar.

Whether that affects your long-term employability, I don’t know. What I do know is you’re risking getting left behind.

If you are a fly-under-the-radar, do my work and clock out type, you even risk being first to be let go when times get tough.

Influence up (towards management), across (to colleagues) and down (your subordinates) or lack thereof can affect this.

So in a way, your survival reflex for today might be counter-intuitive to getting by in the long run.

I don’t mind lawyers and MBAs but…

My aim isn’t to be someone flying the STEM people’s flag high by putting down other areas of industry.

Lawyers and MBAs can provide important perspectives to scientific, high tech and engineering organisations.

But there’s a problem when shots are called solely on the weight of their expertise and importance in wider society.

When legal risk factoring and NPV guesstimates take control of the narrative that drives work practices.

I’m hoping for a balanced approach.

Like what Apple (what a well-worn example) had in its early days:

  • Making sure people collaborated in the spirit of the culture
  • Driving phenomenal levels of productivity
  • Deputising everyone to look through a leader’s lens at the work

This is in stark contrast to the legally and economically locked down approach of competitors. It’s served Apple well right up to now.

I’m aiming for something more like increasing the prominence of natural STEMers through strong individual contribution and leadership.

You could see it as analogous to how campaigners are trying to increase the number of women in tech.

When nerds don’t rise up

I recently caught up with a friend who’s a doctor by trade and, well, a bit of a nerd. He was telling me about the Theranos debacle.

Long story short – a non-scientist made audacious claims to make pathology tests as easy as DIY.

Many powerful people bought into the concept. $4 billion raised to make it come true. Only thing – it was all a fib.

He told me, “How could this happen? Some real heavyweights backed this fake venture. I bet we couldn’t get away with this!”

I saw a parallel in our discussion.

Nerds can experience these thoughts: “Why are we not pursuing this obvious goal?” “Why is this person my boss?” “Nothing’s getting done.” “How does he/she get away with that?”

It’s because we fail choose not to rise up to positions of influence.

And then others with lesser abilities, but a know how of corporate navigation, find themselves in positions where they call the shots.

Sure, some of us make it into positions of authority, but odds are shifting to people who know just enough STEM to get by.

They find a way to get the same credentials as you and I, but have the one up of relating to the right people.

We often give them an easy ride up. That can be for reasons like:

We believe in the concept of reward by merit

The utopia of a meritocracy get us all gooey inside. But we keep forgetting that the human element will often get in the way.

Have you seen someone at your work in a position of authority or power and wondered “How on earth did they get the job?”

Yup, you’re not working in a meritocracy, so stop acting like it matters!

We try to get with the culture, but fail to get on the inside

Some of us realise early on that we need to not only do the work, but influence the people around us.

We could mistake this for a pure social construct. Things like becoming besties with coworkers, your boss etc.

You might get some success from that approach, but to guarantee influence, you need to show more than just social ability.

I’ll explain later about the trifecta that each and every nerd needs to work on to rise up and make a difference in their work.

Nerd complacency will ruin our world

I have a grave concern with the state of the working world.

I have heard and read far too many stories about incompetent people wielding power in places where logical thinking should prevail.

Places like scientific institutions, high-tech corporations, engineering consultancies – the list goes on.

Aren’t these organisations the ones that will develop our future society?

The thing is that nerds – you know, we technical-minded people in these organisations – are letting this happen right under our noses.

Find the term nerd too harsh? Too bad. We need this wake up call.

In my humble opinion*, it is our obligation to develop ourselves into strong individual contributors and leadership contenders.

Otherwise, we cannot complain about the lesser skilled person successfully schmoozing their way ahead of us.

Methods to my madness

Now that I’ve laid out the why for this website, I need to work out what it will do and how I’ll achieve that.

First, what it will do. I’ve been thinking about this for a while and have come up with 2 ways to showcase my research and original thinking:

Method 1. Write blog posts on the makeup of an analytical thinker’s cognitive function (update: I’m not a psychologist, so I’ll skip making presumptions) and the problems it causes us in the working world.

I’d then explore success factors that analytical thinkers could be lacking in but all-round high performers always have:

  1. Interpersonal skills like (buzzword alert) emotional intelligence
  2. Productivity focus like balancing proactive and reactive work
  3. Leader mindset like knowing how to delegate and give feedback

Method 2. Map out team operations for specific examples of places where analytical thinkers may work.

Why would I do this? This one’s built around a huge assumption that I could visually pinpoint ways to show nifty enhancers like:

  • Prioritise activities – understand the level in which activities impact your corporate visibility and overall work product
  • Change management – model the before/after for you and the team when a new technology, process or even person is added in the mix
  • Build improvement plan – collect data about your experiences with each responsibility in a casual, work diary style
  • Continuous improvement – link learning of new information and ideas to each responsibility affected by it
  • Identify risk – what can derail your good work? Keep these in full view to prevent negative eventualities from happening

In my mind, it’s a lofty and experimental method. Pulling it off will not be as straightforward as with Method 1.

Speaking of which, I should cover the how. Maybe in the next post.

It takes more than high IQ

My name is Ash. I’ve been informally studying industrial anthropology (the study of people at work) for about 7 years.

I’ve held job titles ending in “Manager” for more than a decade now.

It’s time for me to put pen-to-paper for a topic I deeply care about – the plight of analytical thinkers like myself in the working world.

We are scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. The world looks to us to change it for the better. And we want to.

But to make a difference, you need to first reach some level of success.

My concern is that analytical thinkers place too much emphasis on IQ and not enough on other success factors.

Does this get in the way of our career success? I think so.

I’ve met influential people who aren’t overly bright. Likewise I’ve seen incredibly bright people in the dregs of corporate hierarchy.

I want to get to the bottom of how we can change that.