Working well with your sponsoring company

So you’re a new sponsored student or postdoc – you’ve not been so closely involved with industry so far – what’s the best way to work with your sponsoring company?

Philip Guildford discussed this on 8th May as part of the Transferable Skills Programme in the Engineering Department (www.eng.cam.ac.uk/graduates/current-graduate-students/professional-development).

PGFirstly, think through what might be the perspective of many people in the sponsoring company. Although your direct contacts probably understand the sponsorship and the link to your research, many others in the company won’t. The others may carry around a stereotype of a student and, for better or worse, a stereotype of a student from Cambridge! Philip described the many ways this could be unhelpful – you can imagine how pejorative such a stereotype might be.

So think hard about your first impression.

Try to understand what’s important for people in the sponsoring company – how are they measured, what are the reward systems, what leads to success, how do they get on in the company?  Think particularly how you can help people in the sponsoring company look good – and then contribute in ways that make you most useful to them. Suddenly you’ll become part of the solution for them and not just another burden – and you’ll be a lot more welcome all around the sponsoring company.

 

Adopt a generic business style that you later adapt to suit the sponsoring company’s particular culture

Begin by dressing formally and then, as you learn their dress code, adapt. Start with a suit – not with a scruffy T-shirt and trainers. It’s less embarrassing to be overdressed than underdressed.

Listen much more than you talk. You won’t know all the background and history and there’s probably a good reason for the approach they’ve adopted. And if you have ‘a better idea’, proffer it carefully as ‘a suggestion’. Less embarrassing if you get it wrong than if you began by insisting on the Cambridge answer!

Beware your language. No, not that sort of language. Beware using formal academic jargon (a ‘trivial solution’ to an equation is not the same as a ‘trivial solution’ to a long-embedded technology problem that has stumped them for years)

 

Be responsive

If someone from the company sends an email with a difficult question that will take time to answer DO NOT wait until you’ve solved it before replying. Reply immediately with an assurance that you’re on the case and with an estimate of when you’ll have an answer.

Then make sure you get back to them when you promised.

And if you’ve not then got the answer explain what’s going on. It’s better to provide a report that’s on time, perhaps with some gaps that are flagged up to be completed, than to wait until it’s all finished and deliver late. If in doubt about this, then simply check with your company sponsor.

Avoid the infamous academic habit of simply not replying to emails (unless you really don’t care what impression you’re leaving and are sure you’ll never need their help).

People in the company will be very focused on answers and actions – to pursue their careers and to keep their jobs. So stay focussed on their concerns and don’t digress, avoid long waffly emails, and generally keep it concise.

 

Be organised

Plan. Certainly plan your visits, plan your meetings and you might want to plan your phone calls. What’s the objective and what are the primary questions and/or messages? If there are several of you in a meeting then who is taking the lead? Check early how much time the company people have for a meeting or phone call and stick to the target. Agree an agenda. Manage your time. And be flexible – because if you uncover something interesting then you’ll probably be granted more time.

Communicate well and frequently about how things are going – good or bad.

Be on time, every time

Deliver on promises, turn up when you say you will. And if there’s a problem then tell the bad news early.

 

Avoiding disasters

Always seek feedback – “have I covered everything” or “is there anything else we should be discussing / doing” or “are we on the right track”. Keep checking expectations.

Create and maintain a dialogue. Don’t let long periods of silence allow the build-up of different expectations or of different and unexpected directions of work. Neither you nor the sponsoring company will appreciate the surprise.

Enrol people from the sponsoring company in your project – talk widely and explain what’s in it for them. Encourage them to comment and figure out how you can offer them some ‘quick wins’, early answers or early benefits. Build a network of allies.

 

Managing disasters

You know that network of allies you built? Now is when you need them! Try to build a team response, act quickly and keep communicating.

And if it’s a serious disaster then escalate it early and quickly – tell your PI, and maybe tell Philip Guildford. (Both would rather hear first from you than from the sponsor company!)

 

Philips’s stories and the discussions that followed then opened up many of the messages above, bringing out examples, tips and hints for particular situations, especially for the people who asked for advice in the session.

And remember, whether you aspire to a career in academia or a career in industry, knowing how to work with company sponsors is an invaluable skill. And building your understanding of the relationship with the sponsor is nearly as interesting and academically challenging as your research topic.

 

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