Chemistry Firms Seek the Right Leadership Formula

A good economy is helping organizations now, but the industry needs leaders who know the science and the business sides. A new Korn Ferry report.



On the surface, the chemicals industry looks to be in great shape. With economies around the world growing at a decent pace, chemical manufacturers worldwide are profiting from the rising demand for the basic building blocks that, in turn, help produce millions of other products. Indeed, US chemical companies were expecting nearly 10% profit growth in the first three months of 2018 compared to 2017, and their European counterparts expected similar gains.

But beneath the surface, many chemical firms are searching for a new leadership formula to thrive over the next several decades. The industry is dealing with a faster pace of innovation but shorter times to market, a stricter focus on commercial value, business process transformations, and increased competition from emerging market competitors. And many in the industry don’t think they’re prepared. Through recent face-to-face interviews and surveys, Korn Ferry gathered insights from 200 senior chemical industry executives globally. Of these respondents, 42% said their workforce lacks technical talent, 36% said their workforce lacks leadership skills, and 21% say their workforce lacks both.

The next generation of leaders must not only have deep technical expertise but also possess strong business acumen to weigh the merits of research projects based on current and future demands in the market. “Research for its own sake is not enough. Rather, it must lead to a transaction; that is, a problem that can be solved with a new or adapted customer solution,” says Ron Malachuk, a principal in Korn Ferry’s Global Industrial Markets practice.

For his new paper, “Beyond the Lab,” Malachuk interviewed multiple leaders across the industry. Across the board, leaders clamored for new scientists who could finance and vice versa. As important, leaders need to be able to communicate not only with their peers within the scientific community but also non-technical stakeholders, including customers and a company’s board of directors. This next generation of leaders must have a high degree of learning agility, Malachuk says.

According to him, the most desired leaders will have such varied skills as the ability to dive deeply into complex problems and uncover strategic, longer-term solutions. Their demeanor also may be different. This group should be able to act courageously and be driven to achieve without an excessive fear of risks. They should also have empathy and be able to calmly but effectively influence people. “Technical expertise is the table stakes; business acumen and learning agility are the differentiators for the tech leaders of tomorrow,” Malachuk says.

Multiskilled leaders can not only improve the bottom line but exert their own degree of chemistry. Indeed, they can become talent magnets, Malachuk says—the best and brightest will want to work with them. 

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