Sunday, March 21, 2021

Rising to your full potential!


Chief Scientist of AMASE 2008--leadership role

Ford Motor Company was looking to hire a woman as president in early 2009. Somehow my name ended up on their list of potential candidates. I answered an email from a recruiting firm requesting a phone conversation about the job. I polished up my CV and sent it back to them. A week or so later, I chatted with the recruiter who dispelled any notion I might have had thinking my experience thus far qualified me for an executive position. I knew, of course, that Ford Motor Company didn’t need my skills, but the recruiter was a bit brutal.


“You have no experience as a leader. You’ve not managed a significant budget. If you expect to get anywhere, you need to do more.”


In 2008, I had been in the running for Director of the Geophysical Laboratory—a job I really wanted. I was a “collaborative” leader around the Lab, working with a wide variety of people and helping then Director Wes Huntress manage when he was out of town. It was strictly an unofficial role, one that women often take on rather than be chosen to take the real job, instead forsaking the rewards of more money and greater recognition. I didn’t get the job. [I pride myself that I didn’t cry when told by the Carnegie President that I wasn’t chosen.]


At that time, I was “managing a budget” of about $300,000-500,000 per year. I supervised 5-8 people. I was in charge of a major lab renovation of the 2nd floor of the Lab. But I was stalled.


When a position opened at the National Science Foundation as Program Director of Low Temperature Geochemistry and Geobiology, I wrote and asked if I would be a reasonable candidate for the position. I would be managing a budget of roughly $6 million dollars, deciding the research agenda in my field on a national scale, and becoming a “Director” all in one. After a quick interview, I was offered the position and accepted.


Painted my lab (and beer) 2009

After 30 years of wearing jeans, turtlenecks or tees, and sneakers to work every day, I now had to dress in “business casual”. I had some fun choosing dresses, pant suits, and nice coats to wear to the office every day. I took Washington DC’s Metro subway system to and from NSF, a trip of 1 hour and 15 minutes each way. I embraced working for the federal government and joining society at large.


While at NSF, I was shuffled around from one office to the next. I started with a nice office that had a window, but was isolated from most of the other Program Directors. I did not supervise any employees. It was a lonely job for the most part, punctuated by two weeks of excitement when colleagues from around the country came for panel meetings.


On Fridays, we could return to our regular jobs. I drove to the Geophysical Lab, picked up where I’d left off, and appreciated the challenging nature of leading a scientific enterprise. Recruiter or no recruiter—managing a major lab for 30 years is an accomplishment. I had temporarily sold myself short.


At NSF, I asked for more tasks. I could get proposal reviews done in 2-3 days per week, leaving a couple extra days with no assigned work. I worried about this for a week or two, then started to work on writing papers, continuing collaborations and filling my time with meaningful work. I ended up in a windowless room across a narrow hallway from the administrative staff that chatted like a swarm of bees all day. I kept my door shut. When my tenure there was over, I gladly left.


NSF Vision report, 2010

I did manage to accomplish a few good things while at NSF. I started a workshop on how to navigate NSF that was sponsored by the Earth Science Women’s Network, held at AGU’s Fall Meeting. I also organized a workshop for influential scientists to come together to prepare a roadmap of research that should be included in a pending National Academy report. I counseled quite a few people on how to write a winning grant proposal. Folks who had been turned down would often call, angry and complaining. My goal was to work them through their proposal and end the conversation on a positive note. Often, their next submission was successful.


I learned that I was still interested, and good at, forging on with new science. But that Leadership Deficit Disorder was getting in my way. The leadership at the Geophysical Lab had problems. When I returned to the Lab full time in 2011, my days were filled with listening to complaints and dealing with problems. I began to look elsewhere for a better position.


I interviewed for two positions in California. One was as Associate Dean of Marine Science. I would have a ship and an ocean-view office for that one. The other was as Director of an environmental institute. I’d also have a ship and a marine lab on an island to work with. Neither panned out, but I could see that the NSF experience had been helpful for my resume. People seemed impressed with that work.


NSF is one way of getting academic leadership experience, but there are others. Traditionally, becoming the department Chair is the most common one. Another route is to become the President of your scientific society. A third is to chair a National Research Council study and produce a major report influencing your field.


I was asked to run for President of the Biogeosciences Section of the American Geophysical Union in 2011—and won, starting a six-year commitment and being prominent on the national scene. A very nice offer followed from the University of California’s newest campus in Merced. With a few months, I became the “department” chair for three years in 2013. I was the head of 15 professors, 30 grad students, and 50 undergrads, hiring, promoting, and working through conflicts.


I was poised to make that leap to a deanship or vice chancellor of some sort.


Two things happened that propelled me on my way: I won a major career award (the Treibs Medal in organic geochemistry) and I was chosen to attend an executive coaching class to provide training for those seeking higher education administrative posts.


The HERS Institute (Link) held a 2-week, residential program for women on the Bryn Mawr College campus on the Philadelphia Mainline. I anticipated a quiet two weeks with a bunch of women wearing plaid, pleated skirts and sweater sets, thinking I’d be the young one of the bunch. I was wrong! I was one of the oldest and my fellow HERS women were ‘with it’ in all ways. The class flew by—classes by day, social occasions by night, networking, talking and sharing, as women who are passionate about their work are wont to do. At the age of 62, I realized I was just about past my prime time for becoming a university bigwig.


That said, as a direct relationship to my HERS project, I wrote about creating a new College of the Anthropocene, an interdisciplinary new endeavor for UC Merced. It wasn’t a Deanship that I really wanted, it was a broader, academic project that included buildings, people, science, sustainability, and education. Upon returning to UC Merced, I talked my ideas up, but only made it halfway before others took over and changed course.


I did not have the position—and the authority—needed to make big changes.


You need that to make a real difference. When the opportunity arose at UC Riverside to start the EDGE (Environmental Dynamics and Geo-Ecology) Institute (Link) I jumped. What with my health, the pandemic, and now a battered economy, what I started there is on hold, treading water. I’ve fulfilled my dream pretty much, but wish I could have had a stronger push before retiring.


So you want to be a Dean or a Director?

·      Let people know you are seeking greater responsibility

·      Ask for training that could help you out

·      Seek national recognition for your leadership skills—your professional society, grant agencies, national committees

·      Learn the ropes about finances, not just your own, but those of your department, college or university

·      Avoid, if you can, informal positions that might give you experience but without authority

·      Consider moving to a new situation or university sooner rather than later. By the time you’re 60, it’s almost too late

·      Figure out if it’s really a Deanship you lust for or something else

·      Upgrade your emotional intelligence skills

·      Put yourself out there and don’t give up if those first interviews don’t pan out


There are two Deans I’ve known who have stood out as great leaders who walk a careful balance between “command and control” and “collaborative” leadership. UCR’s College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences Dean Kathryn Uhrich (Link) is one. She began life as a 1st Generation student from North Dakota. Working several jobs, she educated herself, ending up as a professor of chemistry and Dean at Rutgers University. Although a scientific success by any metric (she has over 100 patents), Kathryn decided to use her “God given talents” to lead. I’ve watched her deal with puffed up senior male professors, give credit to those who’ve done good work, and manage a 10% budget cut during the pandemic.


Kathryn Uhrich (left) and donors, 2017

My other favorite Dean is former postdoc, now Distinguished Professor Paul Koch (Link) who has led the Deanery at UC Santa Cruz for ten years. He is decisive, pays attention, understands the nuances of people, gets the science, and has a fabulous sense of humor. Paul loves fund raising and is good at attracting alumni to events. Even after ten years in this position, he maintains an active research program.


But even Good Deans have problems. They are rarely universally appreciated or liked. The workload is extreme and troublesome issues can appear without warning. If you are lucky, you last a full five years, but what happens next? Returning to the rank-and-file professorship isn’t always comfortable. “Successful” people often move again. 

Paul Koch (center) thinking, 2017



Consider your end game along the way.


Women, especially, should be preparing for leadership roles much earlier than I did. It will mean going out of your comfort zone. Be confident and learn as much as you can about where you see yourself going in 5 years. When the right opportunity comes, jump with both feet and enjoy the ride.



1 comment:

  1. i never made it into a position of major leadership responsibility but what makes a good leader is something I've been interested in for a long time. And that is mainly because, like most of us, I've worked under some good leaders as well as some really bad managers. And it is interesting to think about why some of the people who are bad leaders ever make it into positions of authority. Think of Donald Trump, for example. While he has a lot of followers, he failed in many ways to lead this country. There are lots of reasons for that but part of it is just that he was never really a CEO of a large organizatiobn and he never had to answer to anyone else. At this point, I'm going to hit return to start a new paragraph if that is possible. If not I will continue with a new comment.

    Success! So I think it takes both people skills (obviously) and really and understanding of what you are dealing with and the systems one is trying to lead. So I"m not sure if somebody who is good at heading a tech company is really going to succeed say in leading a company doing something completely different. I may be wrong but I think it helps to understand what the heck you are dealing with.

    As far as people skills go, the best thing I've read is the Harvard Business Review book on "Emotional Intelligence" (link: This book is excellent. I also recently got a copy of the new NYT book on "Leadership" and while I haven't read it, it is based on their "Corner Office" interviews with leading CEOs and I think those columns are really good.

    Good leadership obviously takes hard work but empathy, wisdom, the ability to admit mistakes, and even a bit of humility are a big help. And I think vision is really important too. One has to have an idea of where you want to take an organization and what it is you really want to accomplish.

    So those are just a few thougts from me. Thanks Marilyn for your words here too. I enjoyed reading them.


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