Training your new boss

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This is the next article in a continuing series chronicling the growth path of NanoScale Corporation, a growing nanotechnology company based in Manhattan, KS that is commercializing various advanced materials and compounds for improving indoor air quality, removing pollutants, and containing and neutralizing hazardous chemicals.

By Francis Moran and Leo Valiquette

When last we spoke with Vice-President and General Manager Kyle Knappenberger, NanoScale Corporation was gearing up to make the most of a busy event season that included important showings at industry tradeshows as well as its own training and education events to support retail distributors. NanoScale’s senior team, however, has found itself somewhat distracted by the process of onboarding an important hire – a new president and CEO.

“Some of the things you’d like to do from a marketing standpoint … some of those activities have to get put on hold,” Knappenberger said, adding that a new executive will also have his own input to offer, which could put a new perspective on what the company is trying to do and how it is attempting to execute from a sales and marketing standpoint.

Hiring a new chief executive comes at a crucial time for NanoScale as it works to split the business into two divisions: Services and Commercial Sales. As we outlined at the outset of this series, NanoScale was founded to develop pioneering research into nanomaterials, nanoparticles and adsorbents by Dr. Kenneth Klabunde of Kansas State University. NanoScale has since gone on to commercialize products for the defense, hazmat and disaster restoration markets. On one hand, it remains a contract R&D shop, securing new projects through standard government procurement vehicles. On the other, it is a commercial business that is building out its sales and distribution channels through retailers and agreements with third-party distributors.

What you need, rather than what you have

Pursuing these two lines of business requires quite different skill sets. Splitting the company into two distinct divisions is expected to improve operational efficiency and provide commercial sales and marketing with the dedicated focus it needs.

The two divisions, however, will not operate in silos.

“There will obviously be lots of hand offs between the two divisions,” Knappenberger said. “We realize that R&D and commercialization have to work hand in hand.”

NanoScale hopes to have the reorganization complete within the next year. While there are still plenty of logistics to be worked out, the management team knows it will have new staff positions to fill. The first step with any reorganization, however, is deciding which positions are needed.

“I think that’s a trap that companies can get into – you don’t want to create positions that fit the people you have, you want to create positions that take you where you want to go,” Knappenberger said. “Don’t get caught up in who you currently have. You have to identify what you really need.”

The circumstances which led to the hiring of James Dietz, NanoScale’s new chief executive, is a perfect example. NanoScale was in fact searching for a CFO, not a CEO, when Dietz walked in the door. At the time, the board had decided that a strong CFO was crucial to the reorganization and subsequent operation of the company as two divisions. Dietz came with such strong credentials, however, the board decided it was time to make another important move – split the role of chairman away from that of president and CEO. With a new chief executive who has a strong financial background, NanoScale has now decided that it doesn’t need a CFO at this time, and a controller will do.

Staying the course

This isn’t the first time Knappenberger has been in the position of having to bring a new boss up to speed. The key thing, he said, is to not get frustrated or discouraged when a new executive comes in and suggests things that may seem obvious, or that the organization has already tried. A new hire at any level should not be faulted for lacking institutional knowledge or a historical perspective on the organization. Instead, you have to explain and discuss why something hasn’t worked and be open-minded about fresh ideas and new perspectives; a different approach might yield a more favourable result.

Bringing his new boss up to speed required that Knappenberger trust in his team in the field to carry through on NanoScale’s tradeshow and event plans. This highlighted another important consideration—regardless of what is going on at head office, a company must maintain visibility in its marketplace.

This has been particularly important this year considering that a mild winter and a dry spring has led to a significant downturn in NanoScale’s most important commercial market – disaster restoration. But while there haven’t been as many burst water pipes and floods across the U.S. this year, the dry spring may result in an increase in brush fires. Knappenberger said NanoScale’s field staff must remain proactive in their efforts to educate the marketplace on the different applications for the company’s products in any disaster restoration scenario.

Next time, we’ll see how the company is progressing with its efforts to maintain its market momentum through the reorganization.

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