James McKenzie is vice-president of business at the Institute of Physics, and chief executive of Crossfield Fusion. McKenzie is one of 10 physicists profiled in the March issue of Physics World to launch our new Ask Me Anything careers advice column
Communication of ideas is one of the main skills I am using at the moment. The challenge is to communicate complex ideas simply without them becoming misleading. Given I work in a physics-based business that has rather complex markets and technology, this is a challenge – keeping it to a level that doesn’t baffle the audience, bore them or patronize them is difficult. I think I have learnt this from explaining to my mother, who is very smart but is a historian, what I am doing over a number of years.
In the past I have run some large and diverse teams as chief executive and in this role you need to know enough about everything to be respected, or have people around you whom you trust and are able to cover the gaps. Communication skills therefore include asking the right questions. The skills and knowledge gained from studying physics represent a solid foundation to build on. Much of the detail of the physics I learnt at university is gone, but the logic and framework remains and that’s key to your view of the world. When working in industry, rapid problem-solving is about knowing what to focus on and how to eliminate dead ends. People management is by far the biggest challenge in my job: how to motivate and encourage is tricky and something that comes with practice.
What do you like best and least about your job?
One of the things I like most is taking scientific ideas and turning them into business ideas in the form of products or services. To do this, you need to do an in-depth study and weigh the pros and cons of any idea, to build confidence in it. That’s the fun part for me, but there are a number of necessary evils – paperwork, documentation, referencing and report writing – which are less fun but need to be done.
Travelling to meet customers, investors and suppliers is part of the job. In my early career I liked it – it gave me a chance to see the world – but now I am less bothered about it, as it’s easier to communicate via e-mail and video conferencing. Legal paperwork is my least favourite thing in the world. I used to run a public company that was AIM listed and on the London stock exchange. This sounded impressive but the amount of paperwork and regulation was overwhelming. Everything was audited, annual reports were 100 pages long. One investment I was involved in had five legal teams working on it and took five months to finalize from the offer of money to getting the money in the bank, and the legal fees were £250,000.
Being at the top of a company is a really lonely place – everything you say has consequences. You are never really able to have many friends in the businesses you work in – it’s best to build a network of peers and mentors you can talk to about challenges and issues.
What do you know today that you wish you knew when you were starting out in your career?
Have confidence in your abilities – you are probably better equipped to deal with things than you think. There are plenty of options out there – you may as well do something you enjoy (rather than do it for just the money). Getting out of bed every day with a love of what you do is the secret to a happy life and you are more likely to be successful doing what you love.