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Becoming a leader in the lab

Laboratory managers are often promoted to their position from technical staff. You might be a brilliant scientist, outstanding at analyzing data, excellent at writing papers and ahead of your time at directing experiments, but this doesn’t guarantee you currently have the leadership and organizational skills necessary to be a good lab manager.

Whether you work at the bench or away, the ability to organize your work and supervise those under you is critical to being a good lab manager. If leading a lab is your goal, pay close attention to the breakdown of the role below to identify the areas you should focus on in your professional development.

What does it take to manage people efficiently and effectively?

The role of management can be divided into four main categories:

  1. Planning – Knowing where the lab is going
  2. Organizing – Determining who does which project and technique, managing timelines and budgets and keeping current with research
  3. Leading – Setting the environment and pace of the lab
  4. Controlling – Evaluating progress and correcting issues as they arise

Planning: Considering the big picture

Lab managers are being forced to do more with less. With fewer staff and financial resources, lab managers find it more difficult to effectively manage conflicting priorities. The ability to see the bigger picture allows lab members to evaluate progress and determine action. Having a three- to five-year plan helps with focusing on achieving goals.

A mission statement can also help guide a lab and keep it on track. It can be hard to keep an eye on the prize with all the personnel, funding and administrative decisions that must be made daily. A mission statement helps in reminding everyone what the priorities and goals are.

Organizing: Time, people and progress

Organization takes on multiple forms in lab management. Time, people and projects must be monitored and regulated to ensure progression toward your desired end result.

Well-planned meetings are useful management tools. When objectives and desired outcomes are clearly defined, meetings can prove to be an effective way to keep a group of people organized and focused on their goals. Focused meetings can serve as a great forum for brainstorming and troubleshooting issues.

However, meetings can become an inefficient use of time if they are not properly organized. The most basic steps to conducting organized and productive meetings are to prepare an agenda and record the meeting minutes. Having a meeting agenda will keep the meeting focused and ensure progress, while recording the meeting minutes can help evaluate effectiveness and provide accountability for action items.

Leading: Leadership by example

Leaders gather information, consider alternatives and then set a clear course of action. More than text-book management or simple administration, leadership encompasses effective, timely decision-making.

Recognizing your leadership style and understanding the strengths and weaknesses of that style will help you adjust your approach to most effectively communicate with each person in your lab. You cannot motivate everyone in the same way.

Personal integrity is essential to earning and keeping the trust and respect of your staff members and peers. To be an effective manager and leader, you must always tell the truth and make the ethical choice when confronted with moral or legal situations.

It is important for the members of your staff to know that you are involved, engaged and available. Every day, make a conscious effort to walk around the lab and visit with staff members. A good leader not only directs but also actively listens. A lot can be gained by listening to your team members. In this relaxed and informal atmosphere, staff often express concerns they would not mention in a formal meeting. Having managers who are engaged in their work helps staff members feel their work is important and strengthens their engagement.

Lastly, know when to relax and have fun. Taking time to celebrate is great for morale and can act as an incentive to reach lab goals.

Controlling: Ensuring success

One of the best ways to promote successful relationships with employees is to be clear about standards and expectations from the start. Most negative issues arise from a lack of communication about expectations. Motivate your staff through rewards rather than fear. When people are doing well, tell them so. When things are slow, give encouragement along with advice. People are more likely to be productive and create high-quality work when they are happy and working toward a goal rather than when fearing punishment.

How to improve your management skills

We are all different, coming from diverse backgrounds with unique experience, education and skill levels that make us management material. Some of us exhibit excellent communication skills but cannot handle highly stressful situations. Others are great leaders who motivate teams but fail anyway due to lack of organizational skills or common sense.

Use your own manager as a mentor and advisor. Consulting with other recently promoted managers will allow you to share common problems and develop solutions. Continue learning and growing, expanding your capabilities and increasing your knowledge base. The true manager is flexible, adaptable, able to react quickly when facing any obstacle and never lets stress prevent them from making the right decision.

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