Stretch, tackle and question: One CTO's career advice

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Dr. Darlene Solomon, CTO of Agilent, discusses taking risks, finding work that you enjoy, collaboration and compassion.

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Dr. Darlene Solomon is chief technology officer for Agilent Technologies, advancing chemical and biological measurements in the life sciences, diagnostics and applied markets. After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Stanford and a Ph.D. from MIT, she joined Hewlett-Packard Laboratories, where she held a variety of research and management positions before joining Agilent when it was spun off from HP in 1999.

Thank you for your time today. Let’s start with a bit of orientation. What does a CTO do for a multibillion-dollar life sciences technology company? 

A good portion of my time is spent on corporate long-term technical strategy, aligning short-and longer range projects with these longer-term goals. I become more personally involved in new, potentially disruptive technologies, steer Agilent’s external research collaborations with academic, government and industrial partners, as well as contribute to the company’s intellectual property and [mergers and acquisitions] strategies.

How does being a scientist fit into this? 

For the first five years of my work experience after getting my Ph.D., I was a scientist at Hewlett-Packard Laboratories on a range of assignments. After that I was interested in trying management, although I was concerned that I might not  enjoy or be any good at it. I did take that step figuring that if it didn’t work out I could always return to being a scientist. It turns out that I like management even more than being an individual contributor.

I like learning and thinking about a wide range of things and gaining a broader perspective. I frequently am involved in research that is well beyond my own scientific training. An example is when I first became CTO and oversaw [research and development] in our semiconductor and electronics businesses (now Avago and Keysight Technologies, respectively). And even now, in the life sciences, technology continues to advance rapidly but my background in chemistry is very helpful. 

It is constantly a big stretch. I appreciate learning about it. My job is not about having the technical expertise and answers, but having the right mindset and asking the right questions. The experience of earning a Ph.D. provides an approach to research that to a large extent transcends specific technical disciplines. I have been told that a strength of mine is the combination of technical depth and business acumen, and there is benefit to both.

Are there leadership principles that you follow? 

My guiding principles are:

  1. Strive to contribute to goals you care about and problems that matter.
  2. Challenge the status quo with insightful questions.
  3. Enjoy what you do. That is when we are at our best and most often successful.

How would you define your leadership style? And do you think leadership can be learned? 

Key elements of my leadership style are:

  1. Collaboration as the essential value-driver -- all ideas come to the table for discussion -- but that does not mean decision by consensus.
  2. Logical -- it is important to use logic to deal with and communicate difficult situations that do not have simple answers.
  3. Compassion/empathy -- understand that it is still about caring for people and building an environment of trust

Many can learn to be leaders and adapt leadership to their own style, but not all can. Being a great manager can be learned. Being a great leader less so, and is much easier if it comes naturally, with some intuition and self-awareness. What to emphasize or not, or when to be flexible are hard to learn, for example. It is easier if it is already inside you.

What lessons did you learn? 

I realized that strengths and weaknesses are different ends of a continuum, and one can be used to offset the other. For example, I am not good at promoting my own contributions. I do, however, love to talk about the research that is going on in my organization, and that does indirectly reflect well on me.

Another example is that I have a strength in fostering collaboration and wanting teams to have a voice to help drive to the best solution. This helps offset my weakness in not having all of the technical answers.

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