If you’re like most lab managers today, you need to work with your employees to define professional growth opportunities beyond promotions and pay increases. If you’re successful, your employees and your organization as a whole will benefit.
Research organizations typically have relatively flat organization charts, with few intermediate levels between hands-on laboratory staff and executive management. As a result, few lab managers can offer their employees career growth in the form of regular promotions. Competition for funds and the need to keep research costs low also mean that pay increases may be hard to come by. How can a lab manager provide employees with professional development in these circumstances? The answer lies in broadening the traditional definition of growth, drawing on the initiative of the employee, and elevating professional development goals above the personal level.
Grow or Die?
There’s a very old concept in the business world that takes many forms. The core belief is that a business must grow or it will die—expand or liquidate. In commercial companies, this means that maintaining excellence is not sufficient. If shareholders don’t see growth in the financial fortunes of the company they’re investing in, they’ll move their money. In a fast-moving world, maintenance is not enough.
At the company level, there are objective ways to measure growth: market share, revenue, profit, stock prices. For individuals, measuring growth is more subjective. In the laboratory management industry, where there are fewer explosively growing employers and many laboratories are funded on a competitive cost basis, managers and employees may need to look for growth opportunities beyond traditional promotions and pay increases.
Measures of Personal Growth
Pay increases and promotions
In the traditional corporate model, career growth is measured in promotions and pay increases. There is an obvious limit to the number of positions at the top of any organization. Likewise, businesses cannot have continually increasing labor costs. The forces of the organization structure and cost containment directly compete with each employee’s desire for promotion, even in successful commercial corporations. As a result, true corporate climbers often find it necessary to “job hop” between companies, taking increasingly responsible positions with each job change. As a lab manager, losing experienced employees is likely to disrupt your operations.
In addition to the macroeconomic and structural limitations on the number of promotional opportunities, even in good financial times, the organization should base promotions on at least three criteria:
1. The new position must include increased responsibility (and potentially authority) for the individual. The simple question is, “What will the employee bring to the new position that is currently outside his or her job description?”
2. The organization must have a true need for this increased responsibility.
3. The incremental cost associated with the pay increase must be consistent with the overall cost constraints on the organization.
These are not low hurdles to cross. It should be apparent that if all employees measure their professional growth by pay and promotion alone, there are going to be a lot of dissatisfied individuals.
Alternative avenues for professional growth
So are your employees destined for unhappy professional futures or frequent job changes? Absolutely not! The challenge for you as a lab manager is to help employees broaden the definition of professional growth and take advantage of development opportunities beyond pay and promotion.
One of the things many feel is missing from today’s world is job security. How can you help your employees increase their value to your organization? What differentiates each of them as individuals, making them uniquely important to the organization’s future? By developing those strengths that define their roles in the organization, you can help them to ensure that any rational long-range plan for the organization will include them.
Another possibility for professional growth comes from training and education that may be available to your employees. What better benefit can an organization provide than educational assistance for those who want to pursue a degree? Ensuring that the area of study aligns well with the overall goals of the organization will enhance the benefit of the investment.
Formal education is one avenue to personal growth. Another way to develop your employees is by providing them with challenging assignments but with adequate support. One excellent way to achieve this is by setting up mentoring relationships—pairing junior employees with those with the most experience. Mentoring frequently benefits and re-engages both the mentor and mentee. Mentors can also come from external sources—suppliers, organizational partners, or industry groups.
Another potential opportunity is assigning exploratory work to junior employees. For example, being assigned to evaluate equipment options for the laboratory is typically an educational experience. Although it may take more effort on the manager’s part to assist the employee the first time, think of the next time a similar project comes up. By putting in the effort to support the employee through this experience, you’ll gain a trained, enthusiastic staff member who can operate more independently in the future.
Traditionally, fostering professional growth has meant helping employees to develop specialized expertise. There may be opportunities to help employees go broader, rather than deeper. Generalists—those people who can perform in a wide variety of circumstances and assignments— are incredibly valuable to organizations in the midst of change, which includes most. Cross-training and developing knowledge in areas related to their specialty are excellent ways to enhance employees’ flexibility and value. One way to uncover cross-training opportunities is to think about where an employee’s product goes next in the process. Would the employee benefit from seeing the impact of his or her work in the larger scheme of how it is used?
The employee’s role in professional development
As a manager, you should remember that although you have some responsibility in helping employees plan their professional careers, in the end, most development opportunities require some level of commitment from the individual. As William Shakespeare so eloquently expressed, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”
Your role as manager should be to help find, navigate, and evaluate potential career paths for your employees, provide honest advice, and do your best to ensure that professional development benefits the organization as well as the individual.
There may be times when an employee’s career aspirations do not fit within your organization; in those cases, it is your responsibility to provide that feedback to the employee. Although you may be able to help identify some common ground to move forward, honesty is the best policy when common ground cannot be found. Flexibility and a willingness to tailor their development path are hallmarks of stellar, dedicated employees—the type of employees that you as a manager should be willing to invest in developing.
Growth in one form or another is important to nearly every employee. However, real-world constraints limit the number of individuals who can advance up the corporate ladder. Adopting the perspectives presented here will allow you to help employees elevate their professional development goals and plans to serve more than just the employees personally; careful guidance will ensure that what’s good for them is also good for the organization.
If your employees truly want to grow as people, and not just in terms of a figure on a paycheck or a title on an organization chart, they will be much more likely to be fulfilled by the opportunities available to them. By exhibiting the flexibility to think beyond pay and promotion, elevate their development goals to align with your organization’s mission and goals, and commit to a course of action, employees further demonstrate their value to your team and their worthiness of your investment in their professional future.
The author would like to acknowledge Wendye Quaye and Susan Click for their contribution to this article.