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Inspiring leadership in young scientists

Matthias Evers, McKinsey senior partner, gave the keynote speech at GapSummit in Washington DC earlier this month.

Matthias Evers, a molecular biochemist and McKinsey senior partner, stands in front of 100 young people—promising “Leaders of Tomorrow,” who want to pursue careers in life sciences, medicine, and chemistry. He was the keynote speaker at GapSummit, an intergenerational biotech forum held earlier this month. Also represented were research institutions, bio think tanks, and pharmaceutical companies.

“Raise your hand if you are satisfied with how confident you feel in using your leadership skills in your work.” A few hands go up. Matthias repeats the directive, this time, asking those who are moderately satisfied to raise their hands. Again, a few hands go up. “Raise your hand if you are dissatisfied.” Ninety percent of the hands fly into the air.

At the GapSummit, Nora Gardner, partner, and Michelle Lyons, associate partner, helped run a workshop on ‘leading self’; Brindan Suresh, partner, hosted a panel on education.

“This is typical of what I’ve seen across academic and scientific institutions and companies around the world,” he says. “Almost 100 percent of scientists—both young and tenured—believe that leadership ability is critical to their success, yet 75 percent say they don’t have the right opportunities to develop these traits.”

While scientific innovation often requires collaborating, science education focuses on individual achievement, according to Matthias. Young scientists typically work on projects alone and are promoted based on technical accomplishment. “At the senior level then, you have strong technical experts, but few who have the ability to lead groups,” he says. “Great science leaders emerge more by luck than through talent development.”

One of Matthias’ key messages is about how much the research environment is changing—it’s volatile and ambiguous. For instance, in drug innovation, generating new disease insight is more complicated than ever, requiring coordination across different disciplines and organizations. Researchers operate in a global information environment that runs 24/7, with new specialties such as data analytics and inexact boundaries between companies, institutions, and sectors. “It’s not enough to be a great scientist today,” Matthias says, “we need science excellence combined with leadership.”

What does this mean in practical terms? Scientists need to be able to engage and lead a team of experts with diverse skills, mind-sets, and backgrounds. They need to be able to inspire a results-oriented but risk-taking culture and be resilient in the face of setbacks and failure that can be common in research. And they need to learn these skills early on.

Matthias has been working to raise awareness of this skills gap since 2014, when an impromptu survey of young scientists at an event revealed a near unanimous appetite for leadership training. The trend has remained consistent.

Since then, he has been a frequent speaker on the topic. At the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting last June, he hosted a panel with the 2011 physics Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt, industry leaders, and two young scientists to share their own stories of leadership and challenges.

Reflecting on his own academic experience, Matthias says, “A scientist’s first instinct is to design an experiment or read a paper. I would have been a more far more productive and better scientist if I knew then how to find and engage the right person on a project—at McKinsey, we are not shy about finding the right expert wherever she or he might be located—and if I knew how to structure a problem and lead a team.”

These are the basics of management consulting. “We can help our own pharma and life-sciences clients build leadership skills within their organizations,” he points out. “But there is a broader and urgent need for change at the university level around the world—in light of how fundamental science leadership is to national economies today.”

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Matthias Evers

Senior Partner, Hamburg