Vol 8. Issue 5 / February 11, 2008

Learning to Lead

By Mika Ono and Fabian Filipp

How can you move from postdoctoral training to leadership of an effective, productive, and dynamic scientific laboratory? That's the question that some 180 participants pondered during the second annual San Diego Lab Management Course on the Torrey Pines Mesa February 1 and 2.

"Scientists rarely receive formal training [on leadership] before they are expected to head a lab or group," said executive coach and organization development leader Greg Goates, who spoke on leadership and management styles at the event. In fact, he noted, one recent survey by ScienceCareers.org showed, of the principal investigators, postdocs, and graduate students surveyed, 86.6 percent had never received formal management training. 

The two-day symposium—organized jointly by The Scripps Research Institute, Burnham Institute, the University of California, San Diego, and the Salk Institute (where the event was held)—aimed to fill this gap.

"Secret Sauce"

Goates, for his part, talked about the importance of "situational leadership"—in other words, tailoring your supervisory style to match the skill level and commitment of the person you're supervising.

"Leadership flexibility is a best practice," Goates said. "It is the 'secret sauce.'"

A brand-new technician in your lab, he pointed out, requires a different level and style of supervision than a brilliant and driven postdoctoral fellow who has a publication list as long as your arm.

Reflecting on case studies, workshop participants gathered in small groups to brainstorm what leadership flexibility might look like in practice. For a low-competence, low-commitment individual, their ideas included giving specific directions (perhaps in writing), checking work frequently, and contingency planning in the event an assigned task doesn't go as planned. For someone who is higher on both the competence and commitment spectrum, techniques could include encouraging independent thinking, supporting the individual's professional development, and offering empathy and supportive feedback.

Becoming an effective leader requires more than mastering tasks such as creating budgets, writing grants, and designing projects, emphasized Goates. Leadership also involves conceptual and people skills. A leader provides the team with a larger vision of where the work is going and why. A leader builds and protects relationships by making fair decisions, creating an environment conducive to giving and receiving feedback, and proactively managing conflict.

"Being a good leader is like being a buffer in a solution," said Goates. "You neutralize negative effects, allowing the acids and bases—the other members of your team—to do their jobs."

Goates noted that, after 20 years of executive coaching and teaching, his advice for team leaders can be boiled down to one simple insight: make the critical distinction between management and leadership.

"You manage and control things—budgets, processes," he said, "but you always lead people. Be careful not to mix the two."

A Range of Perspectives

Other workshops in the symposium addressed specific aspects of both leadership and management in more depth. Sessions focused on topics such as the academic job search, navigating the university structure and tenure process, time management, managing start-up budgets and projects, staffing your lab, and handling communication and conflict.

Speakers at the symposium included junior faculty who shared their recent experiences setting up labs. Scripps Research Assistant Professor Kerri Mowen, for example, advised seminar participants, "Start to organize your independent lab set-up in the last year of your postdoc. Recently hired people can tell you best what your needs will be."

Adding insights were senior faculty who had successfully worked their way up through the academic system. Scripps Research Professor Wendy Havran, for example, chaired a new session, added this year in response to popular demand, on finding an academic job. Speaker Tammy Dwyer, a University of San Diego professor, was another senior faculty offering advice: "During an academic job search, you look for the perfect fit," she noted.

In addition, institutional administrators expanded on how they can act as resources for scientific investigators. UCSD Ombudsperson Judith Bruner, for instance, spoke to the legal and institutional side of dealing with employee conflicts in the lab.

A scientific lecture by Nobel laureate Bengt I. Samuelsson on prostaglandin research was also part of the program.

A happy hour—hosted jointly by the postdoctoral societies of the sponsoring institutions—provided opportunities for networking. "[A multi-institutional symposium] is a good opportunity for networking," noted one participant, Cecile Loudet of the Burnham Institute, "and for exchange about common needs with other postdocs."

Positive Feedback

According to the evaluation forms collected after the event, most participants found the symposium engaging and informative. Comments included:  

  • "Very valuable course. My time was well spent. Thanks!!"

  • "A useful guide for starting an academic career—very informative and educational. [The most important component was] personal experience and practical suggestions."

  • "This course did a fantastic job at raising my awareness of fundamental issues in starting a new lab. I now have a much better understanding of what needs to be addressed and how to go about getting it done! [For me, the most important component of the course was] the increased awareness of issues related to leading people in the lab."

  • "Great course. [I] would highly recommend it to my peers… [It] has given me lots to think about and [I] feel slightly more prepared."

The second annual San Diego Lab Management Course was modeled on a seminar developed by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (which co-sponsored the recent event) and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

For more information on this and future lab management courses, contact Scripps Research Postdoctoral Services Manager Ryan Wheeler, rwheeler@scripps.edu.


Send comments to: mikaono[at]scripps.edu









Participants in the recent San Diego Lab Management Course learn what it takes to make a lab thrive. Photo by Fabian Filipp.