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Industry-trained engagement managers overcome ‘cultural conflict’ with universities

Excerpted from the January 2022 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. UIDP members can view the entire issue here.

A clear trend has emerged in industry engagement offices, where leadership hiring is decidedly in the direction of those coming out of industry as opposed to academia. The new industry-groomed faces bring with them a natural question for their university employers: How much of a challenge do they face in assimilating to — and perhaps altering — the clear cultural differences between university life and the faster, more cut-throat world of corporate America? How do they get their new teams on board and successfully implement programs that may be quite different than what their new staffs are accustomed to?

As a recent session during UIDP Connect 2021 titled The New Corporate Engagement Officer and additional conversations with corporate engagement managers show, those cultural differences are stark — and yet these industry-trained leaders have appeared to thrive in their new environments.

Industry, noted Cherise Kent, associate dean for industry engagement in the Rutgers University School of Arts and Sciences, “signifies command and control; they fashion performance-based goals that flow down. They focus on quarterly goals and deadlines.” Kent is one of the new breed of industry engagement execs, having held business development roles in biotech with mid-sized pharma companies and then with Johnson & Johnson.

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In academia, she continued, “there is a shared mission at research universities, but faculty is focused on projects, teaching, graduate students, and getting grant submissions. There’s not so much of a shared element [with industry engagement], which can make it challenging to move projects across schools and units; there are a lot of silos.”

“The big difference is that companies are profit-driven, versus universities, which are mission-driven,” added fellow panelist Todd Cleland, PhD, who recently retired as senior director of corporate relations at the University of Washington. “Companies try to make money for shareholders, with a short-term focus quarter to quarter. There is lots of depth, but not breadth,” he observed. Prior to 2010, Cleland worked at Hewlett-Packard for 22 years in engineering and business development.

“Academics are mission-driven, with [a focus on] education and research for the public benefit,” Cleland added. “Instead of a few projects for months or years at a time I have many, with lots of breadth but less depth. Unlike at corporations, I am not a technical expert; I have a large number of stakeholders. Universities are relatively flat, with many silos. They are run by professors; the entrepreneurial ones need to go out and raise money. They do not view the chair or dean as their real boss, and it can be hard to drive initiatives across the institution and get all the silos on the same page — whereas in a company the buck stops at the VP level.”

Despite those obvious challenges, “my preference in hiring industry-facing corporate engagement professionals is to lure them from industry,” says Mark Nolan, who at the time of the interview was associate vice president for business engagement and strategy at Carnegie Mellon University. In January, he took the position of associate vice president for corporate engagement at Georgia Tech.

“For 20 years I’ve said the same thing,” adds Nolan, who worked in industry until 1999. “I tell people, ‘Thank you for accepting this position. The skills and techniques you learned in your private sector experience are so important in your work. Over the next two years you will be frustrated that you’re not able to move as quickly as you want. You may want to quit; I hope you don’t because the skills you’ve learned will become important.’” Nolan hired both of his directors of business engagement from industry — one from Northrop Grumman, the other with experience in sales and marketing positions with start-ups.

Not without advantages

The UIDP panelists agreed that coming to academia from industry has its advantages — particularly for those with advanced degrees. “One of the most fun things, which surprised me, was being called ‘doctor’ on a daily basis,” shared Mark Schmidt, PhD, associate vice chancellor for partnerships, at North Carolina State University, and the panelist most recently welcomed into academia. “It was a nice and pleasant surprise.”

Schmidt noted that he was able to get his degree while working for John Deere, adding that “being able to understand the normal academic experience, but being able to blend that with how it worked in industry,” was definitely an advantage. “In a lot of ways, having an advanced degree in the academic environment does build that trust — a bit of kinship,” he said. “Also, being in academia after being in industry, the PhD is helpful in understanding the voice of the customer — about their level of interest in partnering and collaboration — by applying not only your technical expertise but blending in domain expertise to help craft a collaboration that makes sense. It’s good for partner recruitment as well as developing partnerships that come to us.”

“A PhD is helpful,” added Cleland. “You feel like you have a pretty good idea of what it’s like to be a faculty member…. A PhD gives you credibility with a faculty member; it’s the same degree they have.” Sometimes, he continued, it is helpful in getting conversations started and building teams. “Also, a lot of big companies have a lot of PhDs, too, which gives you credibility with those organizations,” said Cleland.

Another helpful degree is the MBA — a more common scenario when recruiting from industry. “Especially with an MBA, you feel you have a better understanding of what companies are thinking — i.e., quarterly reports, being a publicly traded company, the needs around recruiting, and being able to fill the pipeline,” noted Laura Batten, MBA, director of corporate and foundation relations with Cornell University. “That has helped me the most in having a better view for companies; if I had come up through academia, I’m not sure I’d understand them the same way.”

Nothing like experience

Terry Grant, PhD, director of corporate relations at the University of Washington, sees additional advantages of coming to academia from industry. “It’s a combination of structural things and individual capabilities,” he says. Knowing how things work in the corporate world offers insights that are invaluable in crafting industry partnerships from the university side, he stresses.

“One thing is universal: Understanding how money flows within a company, and how decisions are made,” he continues. “The cadence is very different than at universities. Also, knowing how you can ‘get to yes’ in that organization, and having a clear view of what a compelling value proposition is for a company. The other thing is being able to understand what you need to know within a company. Structures are different, individuals are different, but [it all comes down to] the type of relationship to make and what type of information is needed to make the value proposition stronger.”

“You can’t read about the [industry] organizational structure, and how the process works; you have to have the experience,” Schmidt added. “Also, there’s the function of partnering. When you think about how to collaborate, a lot of things occur that are very similar in industry or academia, but the expression is very different. Also, in industry you typically have direction given from leadership that gives the rank and file the ability to move in step with that.” The academic environment is much less top-down, he pointed out.

“At the university, [I learned] how important it was to develop internal partnerships and understand what motivates the faculty — building spheres of influence to impact external relations. I was pleased and surprise that through the university I was able to see you can have a much broader expanse of many different sectors, and a greater ability to impact those sectors through the many opportunities that are in the university.”

For Nolan, his advantage “first and foremost” was understanding that particularly with a sales and business development background, “one needed to be aggressive about pursuing new business opportunities for the universities for which I worked. That sense of urgency to meet and exceed goals came from my training in the private sector.”

However, notes Grant, it’s not all ‘sunshine and roses.’ “In advancement type roles we’re sort of an outlier; most of those people do not have advanced degrees,” he says. He tells the story of a woman who ran a university advancement effort and, addressing a small group session, told the following joke: What does an engineer call a liberal arts major? “The answer was ‘boss,’” says Grant. Still, he adds, “you see around the country some very preeminent people like Todd [Cleland] who are able to leverage their technical expertise. He realized early on that he could do things analytically that other people did not have the appetite for, or even the capability to do.”

Another challenge, he continues, is what he calls the “hierarchical system” of corporate America versus the “distributed control” system in academia. “Each PI acts as the king of their fiefdom,” he explains. “It’s a huge amount of responsibility and takes all of their time. They also hold a lot of power, so it’s hard to drive a central strategy because the faculty already there have a significant voice and no interest in following.”

Making it work

So how do these university corporate engagement managers address the cultural challenges they face? “We actually had success by looking at early career faculty,” said Kent. “They are in the position where they are still looking for additional funds to support their work — especially in early start-ups — and support their graduate students. So, I always try to surround myself with them, working in areas that seem relevant to the industry partners we work with.”

Her efforts, she added, include introduction to PI profiles, which can be pushed out to companies to give them a better understanding of who in the early career faculty are working in areas of interest. “Those matches seem to work very well when they’re looking for shorter-term, quick projects,” said Kent. “I encourage you to get to know your early career faculty.”

One additional advantage that has contributed to her success, she noted, is that she is in the same office as Alumni Relations. “That allows us to cultivate relationships with alumni and to better understand the role they play within their company,” she explained. “Eventually they could be an industry partner supporting us in collaboration, sponsored work, or partnering on grant applications, and so forth.”

“The way to think about this role in a simplistic way is that it’s dual facing,” says Grant. “You have to face and work well with [both] faculty and companies — and know more about those companies than anyone else.” This is difficult, he admits, “because you have faculty doing all different kinds of things. You have to get to a certain depth just to understand what will be compelling to the company. When you’re outside the company you may not be close to their strategic information; it’s hard information to get, but you need it to have some strategic value.”

The other key to success, Grant adds, is to be strongly motivated by the goals you have. “I was spurred by that fact that the university had not really done this before,” he shares.

Industry skills bring university success

In several cases, these experts say it was those skills and practices learned in industry that helped their universities build successful industry partnerships. “There’s always going to be a little bit of tension,” Schmidt conceded, “but part of your opportunity is to be clear about your goals upfront when structuring a partnership or collaboration. It’s listening to that voice of the customer and doing the best you can to identify factors like early career faculty, or running a leaner process, that allows the university to find the right fit — but not trying to force a more traditional process that might not work for the partner’s needs. There are a lot of universities that are attuned to partnering and will be more flexible and lean in that regard, and I am fortunate to be at one of them that has that perspective.”

“Particularly in sponsored research, if the faculty is willing and industry wants to drive things harder, you can put in more milestones and checkpoints, whether monthly or quarterly, to try to keep things moving along,” Cleland said, citing that process as coming from his industry experience. “Several years ago, we had a collaboration with Boeing where they committed a significant pot of money to fund projects in given areas. We had quarterly meetings to review progress, and annually they had meetings to decide whether to continue to fund a project or add new projects. The faculty that signed up for this signed up for a little bit of pressure from the sponsor, of course recognizing that research is not entirely predictable. If industry wants something closer to a service, we have many cost centers which do service-based activities, and those are more like vendor-supplier type relationships.”

“At Cornell we had something very similar, and we had companies come to campus for annual kickoff meetings,” said Batten. These meetings, she noted, were always powerful. “They were not just one-on-ones with the [industry] researcher and the PI, but several faculty members and the Dean or Provost, or several scientists and several faculty members; you get more cultural infusion both ways. Having faculty and their graduate students there is always refreshing for people in industry, and having someone in industry say how to use that [innovation] is always valuable. Every time you can have that osmosis and blur the lines it’s very helpful.”

Cleland adds that he has always incorporated “a fair amount of business” in academia. This includes employing things like analytics — what a company’s approach is, how their income statement looks, whether they are growing or shrinking, and who their competitors are. “I look at their annual report; what are their properties? That can influence the way we approach companies,” he adds. “Working in a matrixed organization, you do not have the power to tell people what to do; you need to lead a team through influence, and you get experience doing that in business programs.”

He also notes that “there are a couple of examples of labs on campus where several industry staff are embedded — during normal times — and mostly work in the lab side by side [with university researchers]. This has worked really well keeping things aligned with what industry is interested in and creating opportunities for students once they graduate.”

A different pace

Nolan admits that his industry background “created problems early on,” because he was not used to making decisions in committees. “I was also unaccustomed to what I refer to as ‘the speed of academia,’” he adds.

On the other hand, he says, “I was fortunate to work for leaders in the academic organizations I was employed by who wanted change, who wanted accelerated growth, and who wanted the political income that would come from the successes of strong partnerships between the academic institution and industry. [Success] would not have been possible without leadership’s desire to see that change.”

He also learned other valuable lessons along the way. “You gain an advantage by quickly understanding that faculty and university administration have certain drivers that need to be addressed,” notes Nolan. For faculty that means funding. “There’s a bond very quickly if we’re successful in helping them get funding. I think a few faculty members here have sent me ‘Thank You’ notes.”

When he and Cleland were first hired at UW, recalls Grant, “we were overseeing three people. We tried to describe what we should do; they did not have a game plan, or anything like that. It took some proving to show them.”

First, he recalls, they met with the Arts & Sciences Dean and asked about their engagement strategy. “We leave it to the departments; we do not have an overall strategy,” was the typical response.

“You can fill that gap by putting in data,” Grant notes. “One of mine was in cyber security. I went on a little crusade and got traction on a satellite campus. Everyone who went through there was successful getting a local job.”

Data is especially helpful in academia when there is an absence of a cohesive strategy, he stresses. “In companies, metrics flow up to the next higher up,” he notes. “Data is largely powerful because you are told something meaningful.

“I have some really big companies I work with,” he continues. “They come to me when they have a problem — like they can’t get research agreements through.” In his first few years, he says, he spent half his time generating dollars and the other half creating structural change. At the time “they did not have someone focusing on companies,” he recalls. “We went through a whole analysis process, tracked contracts for the Office of Sponsored Projects, and brought it to the Office of Research. We said, ‘If you want us to bring in more dollars, we have to be more industry-friendly.’ That’s why coming from a company is valuable.”

Teamwork is another key, added Kent. “In pharma you typically work with intel teams, licensing and M&A teams,” she noted. “Within the university, if you can find a coalition of the willing that establishes shared goals, it helps move a project across the university — which can be a challenge. We tend to be data driven; I like to do due diligence before starting a project, and rely on internal assessments, and I will run a lot of pilot projects.”

‘The water’s fine’

The UIDP panelists enthusiastically recommended universities make the move toward bringing in industry experience. Clearly, many already have: a quick survey of the attendees showed that half of them had come from industry. They also had suggestions for new hires looking to make a successful transition into academia.

“If you’re contemplating this move, look at several different opportunities at different universities,” Cleland recommended. “There are a lot of good job boards at UIDP and NACRO; the field seems to be growing.”

It’s important, he added, to determine if you prefer a public or private university, an R1, or a smaller institution. “Be aware of the flavor of the job involved by the structure for corporate relations; is there a business engagement center? A unit? That will color your day-to-day experiences. It makes all the difference being mission-driven versus profit-driven, and to be in the higher education environment where there’s a really loosely coordinated organization and where faculty are entrepreneurial.” At the same time, he said, there is a lot more freedom, and “positive feedback really makes the work rewarding.”

“You need to understand how the landscape works together to facilitate engagements,” added Kent. “At the end of the day it’s very gratifying; working with research scientists and students can be very inspiring.”

“If you’re in industry and thinking about going into academia, if you can find a way to connect into the company’s interface with academia, that would be a great way to get the flavor of it without fully making the leap; pursue it as a transitional step,” Schmidt advised.

“I really recommend it,” said Batten. “Working with students is really amazing it’s really inspiring in a way you can’t get in industry. Invest in the young faculty — the stars of tomorrow — and then see in the sixth year how it worked. Suddenly they got the ‘best paper’ award or ‘best of conference,’ or they received a grant and can focus on teaching — and you know your funding helped them do it.”

Focus on the 10%

Grant offers the following insight for those considering such a career — or for any corporate engagement manager, for that matter. “One really important consideration for us is that only a small percentage of the faculty really want to play this game,” he observes. “A high percentage [of faculty] expect us to be like NIH; say some flowery things, they’ll drop a bag of money and not look over their shoulders.”

But companies, he notes, are different. “It could be something in their strategic plan, but you’ve got to know what that is and [you have to] step up and meet that timing.”

Of about 4,300 faculty at his university, Grant says fewer than 10% “really want to do this.” But that should not be discouraging to a corporate engagement manager, he says. “Find out who that is; if you have 400 people who want to play, that’s a lot,” he offers.

“I would say probably the most important thing is to understand that change may be slow, but it is certainly possible,” adds Nolan. “I think that what we’re seeing at Rutgers, at Penn State, at Georgia Tech, at Virginia Tech, Purdue and other universities is that there is a desire to get this holistic approach addressed. It’s not all about philanthropic funding — not even just research funding. For us it is licensing, executive education, it could very well be real estate in corporate attraction or start-up connectivity. These are relatively new areas that universities have focused upon, but more and more we see them pursuing this holistic approach. I think our corporate side professionals are ideal for this work because they’ve worked at addressing those needs for their corporations.”

Contact Batten at 607-255-3952; Cleland at; Grant at 206-543-2072 or; Nolan at; and Schmidt at 919-215-4577 or

Posted Jan. 12, 2022