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May 25, 2021

How to Have a Seat at the Business Table as an R&D Professional

I speak to many R&D professionals who often wish theyhad a more active role in business decisions, or “a seat at the table,” so tospeak. Unfortunately, R&D associates don’t always have “equal partner”relationships with their business counterparts and are relegated to primarily execution roles with littlesay in planning other than traditional technical and safety issues. This is amissed opportunity for the business because R&D associates often haveunique and powerful insights that lead to more optimal outcomes. As with mostorganizational problems, communication is the key to success. The goal of thisarticle is to impart some tips on what you, as an R&D professional can doto have more influence in business strategy.

This article is inspired by my recent interview with aformer colleague, Menexia Tsoubeli, on the Chef-to-Shelf podcast. Menexia isone of the strongest R&D communicators I have worked with and has had a tremendousinfluence on business strategy over the years. I have outlined many of her tipsbelow, but I recommend you check out the podcast interview for even more.

The Right Underlying Motivation

Too often I see ambitious young associates afraid to strayout of their lane. This seems especially true for technical professionals. Thatis too bad because so many technical professionals can offer valuable input tothe business and the customer. Another issue is that we can get overly attachedto a new or emerging technology that may be off strategy. Sometimes what isbest for the business and customer may get in the way of the interesting newproject you had hoped would be green lit. How you handle these disappointmentsover time will develop your reputation as someone who has the right attitudeand is easy to do business with. Channel your passion and hunger through thelens of company success and you will go far. I cannot stress this enough. FoodR&D is slow and steady work. It is the long haul. Over time, those who havesacrificed short-term gains for long-term company success will rise to the top.We all know these people and they have developed their reputation over time bycontinually putting the company objectives before their own.

Know Your Stuff

Most business leaders are not technical. Your initial valueis in your ability to fill this deficit. Focus on what you were hired to studyand become an expert. Staying up to date on the latest trends and developmentsis important. Use cross-functional insights to bolster your technical insights.Don’t embellish, BS, or lie. If something does come up that you need to checkback on, say that and then follow up.

Understand the Business (it’s all about the consumer)

Companies provide goods and services to consumers. R&Dwork is very detailed, highly technical, and often experimental. It can bechallenging to see how a formulation project that decreases waste by 60 basispoints fits into the grand “consumer value” narrative. You must practice seeinghow your day-to-day is impacting the greater company objectives. A goodexercise is to rank your project, other projects, and company initiativesaccording to their score as a function of Effort X Impact. How does yours rate?Try thinking about what direction you would take the company if you were CEO,and then think about why they might not be doing that. What otherconsiderations might they have? Think about how you could be wrong. Takinginterest in the holistic function of the company will help you understand theweight and place of projects you participate in and will help you understandhow many of the business leaders think about things.  

Communicate in a Way Familiar to Your Audience

Most business unit members will have their own lingo and wayof framing issues. You should try to relate ideas in the language and contextthat they are familiar with. There are many free online resources that willgive you an overview of finance, marketing, M&A, and more. Learning how totranslate complex ideas into understandable business insights is an asset tomost business leaders who may struggle to communicate with their R&D teams.

Always Communicate with the “So What”

When asked to provide information to business leaders, yourjob is to help them make complex decisions. Ground your communication in itsimpact on the business strategy. A business leader doesn’t need to know how your new formulation works or howcool you think it is, only what impact it will have on their business strategy.That is the essence of “So What” communication.

I want to note that this can be really challenging to do,and I feel your pain. Figuring out how things work and solving complex problemsis what R&D is all about. It is genuinely exciting to discover somethingnew or deliver a key breakthrough. Just understand that not everyone will careas much. By the way, this applies in life too. I learned long ago that my wifeis only interested in so much discussion of the molecular components of ourdinner, and that sometimes she just wants to enjoy how good it tastes.

Communicate “How could we…” vs “We could not…”

Your job is often to address the technical feasibility ofbusiness initiatives. How you do this will influence your value at the businesstable. Saying “no” is only half of what the best R&D leaders do. The otherhalf is understanding what the business unit was trying to accomplish andproblem-solving to help them reach their goal with a more technically feasibleapproach. Most business leaders won’t care how their objective is accomplished,only that it is. Balance in providing technical reality with pragmaticdiplomacy is the key to success.

Show Instead of Tell

Saying your idea is worth a handful of words, a picture ofyour idea is worth a thousand words, and a physical working prototype is wortha billion. Enough said.

Be Humble, Ask Questions, Get to Know the People You areTrying to Influence

We come full circle back to underlying motives and attitude.Get to know your business team and leaders. Ask lots of questions, showinterest in learning, be honest with what you do and don’t know, and try tounderstand how you can contribute to the business team’s success. They willappreciate that you are on the same page about creating consumer value and willfight to have you included in important business decisions.