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The Laboratory Leadership Journey

Navigating the three stages of a lab leader's career path

Tammy Germini

The laboratory leadership journey can be grouped into three stages: peer to frontline leader, frontline leader to middle manager, and middle manager to senior leader. Aspiring leaders will face various challenges at each stage of leadership, so finding mentors and gaining the right skill set in advance will help you handle these novel challenges more efficiently. 

Since each journey is unique, leaders will experience different potholes and detours along their individual routes. As you plan for the next stage in your career, know that the general concept here is to build your skills as you progress throughout the various leadership stages, and be aware that each company will have different structures or titles. This road map for the laboratory leadership journey will provide long-term success for laboratory professionals. 

The first stop on the laboratory leadership journey is building self-awareness. Taking inventory of your strengths and weaknesses as a leader lays the foundation for consistent growth. Make it a regular exercise to document your strengths and weaknesses with the intention of focusing on self-improvement. Take some time every day to self-reflect and evaluate what went right and what did not go as planned, and identify the daily activities that you were not prepared for. This simple exercise will lend you additional insight into how to better yourself and your processes moving forward. When self-assessing, it is important to remove any emotional attachment and to focus solely on the facts so that solutions for future growth are not muffled by extra noise. Use this opportunity to strike a match on self-awareness by asking yourself these meaningful questions and write down the answers: 

  1. What are my future career goals? 
  2. What are five key strengths and weaknesses I possess in my leadership skills? 

After completing your self-reflection, develop an action plan to actively prepare yourself for further improvement.

The first stage of the leader’s journey: peer to frontline leader

The peer to frontline leader stage is the bedrock of a leader’s journey. It occurs when a person gets promoted from being a frontline employee to having frontline employees report to him or her in the organization’s structure. The peer to frontline leader stage can also include a person who does not have a direct reporting structure, but instead, becomes a technical leader for a department or section. Some organizations refer to these team members as lead techs. One of the greatest challenges in the peer to leader stage relates to the relationship between peer and friend, which ultimately will evolve into an employee and leader relationship. Learning to deal with the emotional and psychological shift that comes with ever-changing relationships is critical at this stage as coworker relationships, including friendships, will change for better or worse. Navigating these changes requires open communication, setting boundaries, a certain level of awareness to how socializing occurs differently, and building mutual respect over time. 

Your personal leadership style has not fully developed at this point, so being self-aware of your interactions with the team will be imperative in helping you establish and strengthen your leadership style. Vital skills at this stage, such as knowing the fundamentals for laboratory functions like regulatory requirements, staff education, decision making, problem solving, and quality management will lay the foundation for future growth and are excellent starting points. To prepare yourself for this stage, write down the gaps in the skills you currently possess, and begin developing an action plan to bridge that gap.

The leadership journey continues: frontline leader to middle manager

The second stage in the leadership journey—the frontline leader to middle manager phase—takes place when a person goes from being a frontline leader to managing multiple departments, shifts, or facilities, and has frontline leaders reporting to him or her. Maneuvering the challenges for a middle manager requires knowledge around broader categories like personnel and process management. These challenges require executing on a strategic vision, leading crucial conversations, and prioritizing projects. At this stage, it is important to communicate and align the laboratory team around the organization’s strategic vision to ensure everyone understands the purpose behind their daily activities, and how these affect the direction of the organization. 

Personnel management comes with its own challenges, like recruitment, personnel development, and performance appraisals. Ensuring you are prepared to have crucial conversations where the discussion involve high stakes, differing opinions, or strong emotions will allow for open and transparent dialogue with team members. While these challenges are important to be aware of, the prime obstacle lies in balancing the responsibilities between senior leadership and the lab team that reports directly or indirectly to the middle manager. Being the middle person demands insight on how to manage up and down. To overcome this unique problem, middle managers must use effective communication, set clear expectations, and articulate the required reality for success. 

Additional skills that contribute to success as a middle manager fall into four categories: project management, change management, event investigation, and mentoring. Fortunately, there are many tools and resources, like books or management classes, available to help you strengthen your skills in these areas. Sometimes, you will try a method and find it did not work as intended. In this case, circle back to self-assessment and recalculate the route to include a different avenue. 

Reaching peak leadership: middle manager to senior manager

The final stage—middle manager to senior leader—is not necessarily the last destination in a laboratory leader’s journey; but for our purposes, it is the last stop on our tour. The problems that rise to the top for a senior leader involve navigating organizational politics, delegating effectively, and prioritizing the department’s strategic vision. The most complex one at this level is navigating organizational politics because even though interdepartmental relationships occur at all stages, the most complicated situations get escalated to this role. Developing and nurturing relationships is crucial to successfully offset this challenging issue. Other major skills that contribute to the success of a senior leader include effective influencing, strategic thinking, and a strong business acumen. These three components will consistently intertwine to lead to success. For example, prioritizing the laboratory department’s needs compared to other interdepartmental needs requires the senior leader to understand the business requirements and strategy, while having the ability to effectively utilize data as a tool to influence decisions.   

Laboratory leadership requires the leader to be personally accountable, authentic, and provide a physical and emotionally safe environment for staff. Effective communication and giving your team the freedom to make decisions with appropriate guidance are key factors of success for a lab leader.

The laboratory leadership journey is a rewarding road to travel. Even during the difficult moments, remember to embrace the entire leadership journey and find value in the lessons learned. The more you can continue to grow and learn, the more support you can offer your team.

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