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A Three-Step Strategy for a Successful Leadership Transition

Applying pre-analytical, analytical, and post-analytical perspectives for new clinical lab leaders

Candice L. Freeman

Candice Freeman is the administrative laboratory director at Scotland Health Care System in Laurinburg, North Carolina. She is a medical laboratory scientist and a healthcare quality professional, having served in...

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Nearly all clinical laboratory leaders began their careers as testing personnel, progressing through various roles such as technical specialist, supervisor, and manager. Each stage offers unique tasks, responsibilities, and challenges, ultimately contributing to the development of subject matter expertise. The progression is akin to learning to walk before running, understanding that obstacles are inevitable along the journey.

This article proposes a three-phase approach to finding success as a new laboratory director or leader, modeling the pre-analytical, analytical, and post-analytical phases of laboratory testing, which may help mitigate these challenges.

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Mitigating setbacks

Before exploring the three phases of integrating into a new workplace as a lab director, it is wise to prepare strategies to aid in mitigating setbacks during the process. Rather than reacting to these setbacks, knowing they will happen, expecting their imminence, and preparing a response will help leaders work through and recover from them more quickly and with less stress. New lab directors will not know common setbacks because they are working from initial, not established, experience. These setbacks include miscommunication with staff, gaps between director experience and team experience, and change management pushback. This list is not exhaustive, but these are high-level challenges that many new lab directors encounter without possessing coping skills or contingency plans for change.

A key prevention strategy for any setback involves applying patience and critical thinking. Laboratory professionals typically work in a fast-paced environment that demands both accuracy and speed, leaving little room for calculated patience. However, recognizing when to apply patience and critically thinking through issues are crucial for overcoming challenges and fostering a more effective onboarding process.

Patience is an invaluable skill for lab directors, particularly in critical situations. When possible, taking the time to consider all options and contingencies can lead to better decision-making. Asking, "What is best for the patient?" can help guide decisions and ensure that patient care remains the top priority. This approach also shows the team that decisions are made collectively, rather than autocratically. Embracing a team-based decision-making process that values multiple perspectives, expertise, and opinions can help prevent setbacks and foster a more cohesive work environment.

Even with a collaborative approach, setbacks are inevitable. The ability to recover from them and learn from mistakes is essential for gaining the respect of the team. To do so, lab directors should admit their errors, seek feedback for improvement, and act upon suggestions. It is crucial for lab directors to prioritize the well-being and growth of their employees, as they are responsible for the work that directly impacts patient care. By focusing on employees and openly addressing mistakes, lab directors can build trust and show their commitment to both their team and their own personal growth.

Establishing rapport and trust between lab directors and staff is paramount for effective leadership. New lab directors who either micromanage or take a completely hands-off approach risk creating an environment of distrust and disdain. Trust must be the primary goal for any new leader, as it is the foundation for employee buy-in and overall success in lab leadership. To achieve this, a systematic process that fosters transparent and sincere engagement between the leader and the team is necessary.

A three-phase process can be implemented to facilitate a smooth transition, build trust, identify areas for quality improvement, and effectively manage change. This approach keeps laboratory employees at the center of each stage, emphasizing their crucial role in the process. These three phases are preparation, investigation, and action, and they can be likened to the traditional phases of testing in the clinical lab. By following this systematic approach, new lab directors can ease the stress of transition and create a more effective and collaborative work environment. 

Testing phase principles for leadership success

As testing personnel, clinical laboratory professionals often use the three phases of testing to control, perform, and investigate diagnostic performance. It is helpful to break down the entire process of testing into the pre-analytical, analytical, and post-analytic stages to determine where process improvements may be applied. This testing phase approach can also be utilized by laboratory leadership to establish and execute an effective operational environment within the workplace. Through preparation, investigation, and aligned action, lab leaders can systematically approach challenges to meet the expectations of staff and ensure excellence in diagnostic testing performance. 

The preparation phase is essentially pre-analytical and focuses on building rapport and trust with the team. This is primarily achieved by fostering open communication, understanding their perspectives, and involving them in decision-making processes. As a new lab director, focusing on relationship building during this phase and not long-term process adjustments or change is important to establish trust within the team. 

The investigation phase is analytical and serves to identify areas for quality improvement. Collaboration within the team helps develop strategies and solutions to identified opportunities for improvement. Encourage employees to take ownership of their roles during this phase and encourage collaboration in the process.

Action is the post-analytical phase and where new process implementation takes place and where change is managed. Effective change management ensures employees are well-supported and have the resources to adapt to new processes. Maintain open communication and provide feedback to reinforce trust and rapport.

The three-phase process is most effective when leadership acknowledges and addresses potential blind spots at each stage. As humans, we are inherently flawed and prone to making mistakes, often because of our biases. To mitigate these issues, leaders must first recognize their own biases and then develop the ability to identify them when they arise. Addressing these biases is crucial for preventing negative impacts on improvement efforts, and one must continually reflect on their presence to ensure they do not threaten the workplace.

Cultivating the skill of recognizing biases can be achieved by working with a diverse group of people and maintaining a diverse peer group. Encourage honest feedback from individuals and remain open to personal change and growth. By demonstrating a willingness to change and adapt, leaders can set an example for their team and foster an environment that embraces improvement and collaboration. This three-phase process is rooted in change and one’s willingness to work within and through it.