A Leading Lederman in Industry
By Alaina G. Levine
Looking back on a successful and intellectually-stimulating career in research management and technology development spanning more than 30 years, Frank Lederman, former chief technology officer and vice president of Alcoa, doesn’t question his decision to choose industry over academia. “After all,” he chortles, “another Lederman won the Nobel Prize in my field.” He and famed Fermilab physicist Leon Lederman are not related and have never met. But the non-collision of Leon and Frank never deterred the latter Lederman from pursuing his great love of physics.
Yet, when he graduated with his PhD in both theoretical and experimental solid state physics (he had two thesis advisors) from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1975, the future did not look so rosy.
“There were only four or five jobs in industry for physicists,” says Frank. “I assumed I would end up in academia, but I was lucky enough to get the chance to interview with industry as well.”
Although he liked both, Frank became more intrigued with industry. “The environment I saw was fast-paced and exciting,” he recalls. “Many of my interview discussions were interrupted with colleagues bringing new results or theories. They were working on real-world, practical problems, but with plenty of hard science.”
He had applied to General Electric, and they wrote to him that there were no positions available. Some time later, they invited him back for an interview and again told him at the start of the visit that there was no job for him. “But they must have liked what they saw,” says Frank, “because they called a week later with an offer. My new boss, also a physicist, said that he found room for me, thanks to his losing a government contract.”
Frank started at GE as a physicist where he conducted research in different subjects, including ultrasonic imaging. In fact, he was one of the designers of GE’s first medical ultrasonic systems. He found his work fascinating, with great physics content to it, and within a year, Frank was given the opportunity to coordinate a large study for the group vice president, who at the time was Jack Welch. The chance to play such a role so fresh out of school was “very unusual,” recalls Frank. Management must have seen something in him.
As an outcome of the study, a multi-million dollar project was formed, and Frank took a leadership role. It was his “character to be in the center of the project,” he says. Essentially, Frank was systems engineer for the project. “It was my job to make sure the whole thing was successful, with all the pieces working together.”
This melding of physics and management suited him well. “I had to play the role of the honeybee going from flower to flower cross-pollinating ideas,” Frank recalls. “I like working at the interfaces where things come together, so it is natural for me to gravitate to this kind of work.”
Like any good physicist, Frank excelled in observation, data collection, decision-making, and problem-solving. And so it was that in observing a colleague’s frustrated attempts to lead, Frank decided that a managerial career was right for him. “I went into management, partly because I didn’t want this guy to control my destiny; I wanted to do that myself,” he says.
He was eventually promoted, and Frank’s interests and skills made him an excellent leader at GE. He had a passion for pursuing the best solution for a problem. “It means change, often when others are most resistant to it,” he says. “But that’s what leaders do; they make changes. I remember one thesis advisor telling me that you can’t change the course of a river by paddling downstream.”
“Change” certainly describes Frank’s career. GE gave him lots of opportunities, and he had eight different jobs for the 12 years of his tenure. The longer he remained in industry, the more he realized this was where he wanted to stay. But he was still occasionally tempted by the sirens of academic physics. In one example, while working on the ultrasound projects, he was offered the opportunity to collaborate with a certain medical doctor and write a review article on the science of ultrasound technology. His alternative choice was to be promoted to a higher position at the company. He chose the latter, even though it took him away from ultrasound, which is now a billion dollar business for GE.
In 1988, Frank left GE for Canada-based Noranda, where he was Senior Vice President of Technology, and then for Alcoa, the world’s leading producer of aluminum and its products, where he served as the Vice President and Chief Technical Officer for six years.
Frank asserts his physics PhD was always an asset and never a liability. When you head a research group, he says, “a PhD gives you credibility with recruiting, with directing research, and with government and universities, especially when getting funding.”
And as a manager in industry, expertise in physics is almost a strategic necessity. “A physics background gives you experience in taking big complex problems and breaking them down into bite-size pieces. And you have to recognize what you have done already,” Frank says. “You need to look at the toughest parts of a project first, to see if it can be done. Physics is outstanding for that. It is systems thinking.”
As CTO, Frank was accountable for the “technical health” of the company. He was responsible for research, development, and engineering at the corporate laboratories and at the business units, which oversaw product lines. His job was to ensure that the technological strategy and the technology of the company’s products and processes were all running smoothly.
For a physicist, the job was a blast. “Physicists deal with a broad range of technologies, including biotechnology, nanotechnology, metallurgy, etc., so physics is the perfect platform for designing and leading a company’s technological strategy,” says Frank.
As a member of Alcoa’s executive team, Frank participated in the business decisions of the company. Again, his physics came in handy, as it taught him what questions to ask in order to identify the underlying problem driving a particular situation.
His greatest moment of satisfaction as CTO came when he convinced the CEO and key business managers that they had to play a bigger role in deciding which technologies get pursued and how they are managed. The technologies ranged from the design of alloys for an airplane wing to “enabling technologies” such as the physical chemistry behind production processes.
“We formed a ‘virtual technology organization’” Frank recalls, “I gave up a lot of direct control over people, and I think I was respected for putting the company first, with a structure that is more global for a global company.”
Although he is retired, Frank Lederman still stays involved in technology management as a member of the Board of Directors of Cray Inc. (a global supercomputer leader), and as an emeritus member of the Industrial Research Institute, which consists of past and present CTOs. He also volunteers his time on several university advisory boards.
For students and colleagues interested in a career in technology management, the physicist suggests “getting exposure to a lot of different things, and developing a vision for using your unique abilities to follow your passion.” And the quintessential academic subject upon which to build a triumphant technology management career? There’s no question, Frank says. “Physics is the right science. I wouldn’t pick another.”
© 2007, Alaina G. Levine
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Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff