Sunday, February 17, 2013

Are you a manager or a leader in the lab? What is the difference and how to make the jump

I guess that if you went to business school management jargon and strategy would become second nature, but as a scientist you are not trained either to manage or to lead people, and when you start your lab you are thrown into the lion's den to fend for yourself. You are asked to develop a nationally and internationally recognized research program which will lead to amazing breakthroughs and revolutionize your field. You are given money to hire people and buy equipment and shape your lab as you please. You have to define your identity and can finally make your voice heard to assert your opinion on scientific, administrative and policy issues. But how to navigate the transition? Apparently it is not easy for anyone, even in business, and it was the topic of feature in the Harvard Business Review in June 2012, How Managers Become Leaders (here).

The author, Michael Watkins, who's a leadership development consultant, identifies 7 behavioral shifts, which he defines as no less than "seismic". I like the word since it implies the buildup to a traumatic break followed by a slow adjustment, but I hope that the process is not as destructive as the crash of two tectonic plates. I tried to adapt the 7 seismic shifts for scientist and since they deceptively sound very similar, I pointed out what I thought he meant needed to be done to achieve them.

SPECIALIST TO GENERALIST: You have to go from knowing everything in your project to knowing a little bit of everything. As your responsibilities expand you cannot keep track of every single detail, but still have to be able to understand where everyone in the lab is going and guide multiple individual projects. Action: learn a bit of everything.

ANALYST TO INTEGRATOR: As a followup to knowing a bit of everything, you have to know where everyone's work fits in the greater scheme of things. You learned how to eviscerate a problem in detail, but now you have to teach others to do that, so that you can focus on the big stuff. Action: guide how the different projects and people in the lab fit together.

PROBLEM SOLVER TO AGENDA SETTER: Which means that you shouldn't sweat the small stuff any more, but let other people solve problems for you, while you orchestrate the direction of the lab (see a former post on unloading some of your problems). Action: delegate and spend more time on defining goals for employees to meet according to the lab priorities.

BRICKLAYER TO ARCHITECT: So what are the priorities? I like the concept of going from a bricklayer building a wall to an architect designing a building, because while you have to know the basics of construction, as an architect you have to develop a vision. A vision for what you want your building to look like, how you want it to fit in its surroundings and what it will look like in 100 years. As the lab architect the PI must assemble the parts according to a blueprint and move in the direction of her/his ideal lab. Action: develop a vision for the lab.

TACTICIAN TO STRATEGIST: This is similar to "problem solver to agenda setter" but has a much broader scope. If you have a far reaching vision, how do you get there? You have to stop thinking in term of tactics (this experiment will lead to that experiment) and develop a strategy about the direction of your field and how you want different projects in the lab to contribute to it. Action: think long term about the implications of the work and move towards your vision.

WARRIOR TO DIPLOMAT: You know how to get what you want, how to hoard the right reagents, how to put your foot down for equipment time. You have learned to navigate the quirks of your current lab and you have found your niche. If you have students/techs working for you, you know how to command them. As a professor and leader, the forces pulling you from left to right will multiply, you'll need to work with superiors, colleagues and collaborators, you'll need to manage post-docs with their own ideas and agendas, you'll need to balance the time devoted to teaching and service. Everyone above you and below you will have to work towards the goal of making your lab run smoothly and of advancing your career. Action: listen to what everyone has to say and find a good compromise.

SUPPORTING CAST MEMBER TO LEAD ROLE: Being a lead in a movie or a play may sound like a dream come true, but how many movies have you seen what the main actor had just made the big jump from TV and was not up to the task? Being the lead is not easy, because it's all on you: you're supposed to carry she show.  Being a leader also implies that you have the make the ultimate call on decisions and set the tone: you get to hire people, fire people, make though calls, and if you're wrong, take the responsibility of driving everyone into the abyss. Psychologically it's a very different ballgame. Action: find your inner star and grow into your new role.

I thought this article provided some really great food for thought. Getting all this done sounds like a Herculean task, but we can always try, right?

Image credit: Guggenheim Museum, New York City, by gomattolson, via Wikimedia Commons

1 comment:

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