The Pursuit of Technical Leadership: One Victor Mills Scientist's Formula for Success

February 18, 2016 Don Bissett, Ph.D.



As a Victor Mills Society Fellow from P&G, I've been asked by aspiring scientists and R&D organizations about the secrets to my success. A complicated question. But I offer this blog in response.

To be clear, when starting at P&G, which was before the company even had much of a skin care business, I did not have a clear vision of where my career would take me. I was just a kid fresh out of grad school. Yet early on, there were some critical choices I made that mattered a lot in the long run. Upon reflection, these choices not only served me well, but they also served P&G well in developing its technology pipeline and technical leadership in skin care.

So, the list below summarizes these choices, which might be called my basic values in science. They helped me reach the top of P&G's technical career ladder, and helped P&G carve out a profitable niche in the skin care market. Perhaps there are a few nuggets of wisdom that other scientists and R&D organizations can apply to their own situations.

1) Become an expert in my technical field. At first, this involved learning the history (internal and external), reading the published literature, and talking to experts. One aspect of this is technically challenging unsupported dogma (because even experts, including me, are not always right). Over time, I pushed for external exposure (presentations & publications) to showcase our capabilities and technologies, and to convince the scientific community that we really are competent in the field, driving innovation and leaving lasting impacts. That eventually led to me being an invited speaker at conferences, an invited contributor to technical publications, and a reviewer for several journals. And the recognized expertise became a cornerstone of our "technical credentialing" with dermatologists, beauty editors, and thus consumers.

2) Always do what is right for the project and the company. As an example, I often saw others building personal empires, gobbling resources and striving to ensure their project seemingly lived forever (job security?). I made it my mission to end a project as quickly as possible: either find a practical technology and move it to market, or recommend killing the project early because of a fatal flaw. Then push ahead with the search for the next technology, or move onto the next project. That translated into more projects getting to market in a shorter period of time ("more shots on goal").

3) Leave no stone unturned. Dig deep and do whatever it takes (legally, of course) to identify meaningful practical technology. As examples, I constantly monitored the "art" (internal work, publications, patents, competitors) and never turned away a raw material supplier because I had to know immediately what new technology was coming. That led to finding 4 technologies that otherwise might not have happened. [Also note that I've used the term "practical technology" twice already. Because practical is what really matters.]

4) Learn new crucial skills and become an expert in those. The most impactful new skill for me was patent analysis, which addressed the question of "practice-able" technology: identifying "white space" opportunities (= P&G patents), recognizing freedom-to-practice (FTP) concerns, and developing approaches to create FTP space (one of which was to buy the patent rights). So, yes, I became an internal expert in the patent arts -- so much so that the P&G patent attorneys assigned me to be an instructor in their training sessions for the Beauty Sector in the company.

5) Be an inclusive team player and acknowledge team contributions. This is so critically important, because nothing happens without a committed multi-functional team. I like to cite a specific example of the level of inclusion and trust we had built within our team. On a Monday, an urgent need to run a 2-week pilot human test became apparent in preparation for a major clinical study. The pilot had to start in one week to meet the available clinical study timing -- we had never done that before. The entire team agreed without objection and committed to make it happen -- all via email! Test site scheduling, subject recruiting, formulation, packaging, protocol, methods -- everything came together for a test start on the following Monday. That takes trust and a committed, collaborative team. Bravo to all of them.

6) Do more than management expects. That way they'll let you continue to do what you do. No one ever told me to develop a formal set of specific success criteria (stability, cost, odor, color, regulatory, marketing story, etc.) for practical and practice-able technology. Yet one did not exist, and I felt there was a need for an agreed-upon list, so I created one that was used across functions for at least a couple of decades. I even shared it directly with raw material suppliers so that they would bring me technology that already had a start on being practical. And no one ever had the expectation of me doing competitor monitoring or art monitoring, or becoming a patent expert. I just did them because I knew they were critically important to the project, and ultimately to my career.

So, as I stated above, these values/choices not only served me well, but they also served P&G well in developing its technology pipeline and technical leadership in skin care. And even though I am now retired from P&G, my involvement in skin care research is far from over. I consult, publish, participate in dozens of research projects for YourEncore clients, and now blog, which is a new skill for this old guy.


About Don Bissett, Ph.D.: Dr. Bissett is one of the world's top skin care experts and member of P&G's Victor Mills Society, recognizing its top technical leaders. Since retiring from P&G in 2008, he continues his skin care research, publishes, and consults through YourEncore.

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