Stepping into the role of lab manager can feel daunting at first and many managers may be inclined to stay in their comfort zone of the daily activities being performed in the lab rather than the “bigger picture” responsibilities they now have. Here, two former lab managers with decades of experience offer tips on how to ease the transition from bench to manager.
Q: I am a new lab manager who has come up through positions at the lab bench. I struggle to focus on “big picture” issues and instead get caught in day-to-day activities. How can I better make this transition?
Sherri Bassner: Your problem is a common one, exemplified by Marshall Goldsmith’s book, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. In essence, the message is that the skills that made you a good contributor at the lab bench aren’t the same skills that will make you a good manager. In many ways, those skill sets are diametrically opposed. While an effective lab environment certainly requires teamwork and collaboration, lab work tends to be a very individual activity, both in task work and in thought work.
The problem you are trying to solve is clear—even if the first step is to correctly define the problem! The work is based on discreet measurement tasks and analysis of data. There is usually only one correct answer. Contrast this with management and leadership activities: there is never a complete data set and you must make decisions based on ambiguous understanding; all conditions are in a gray area and never black and white; you are dealing with people, who are all different and not entirely transparent, instead of molecules that obey the laws of thermodynamics; and, there can be many “correct” answers that lead to similarly “good” outcomes but you will rarely achieve consensus on direction.
Successfully making the transition from bench contributor to manager requires not only that you are aware of the different skills required but that you recognize the need to move out of the comfort zone of those skills with which you have become quite effective. That’s why it can be so difficult to turn your attention away from day-to-day activities—problems you know how to solve that people are used to bringing to you. Being very purposeful about how you spend your time is critical. Start with your job description and the outcomes to which you will be held accountable. Plan your day around activities that directly contribute to those goals. Difficult as it will be, you must delegate the day-to-day details that are comfortable for you. Focus instead on what new knowledge and skills you must learn to deliver upon your new objectives. It is as easy and as hard as that.
Scott Hanton: Another aspect to consider is, who else can bring focus to the big picture issues? One of the best pieces of advice I received when I first became a lab manager was to only do what only I could do (thanks to Bob Coraor). The lab manager has a different role and different responsibilities than the rest of the lab staff. That role often requires addressing broader, more strategic issues and challenges. While your technical skills may still be very valuable to the lab and the stakeholders, no one else has the broader understanding of those big picture issues, nor the responsibility to address them.
One way to provide more time to the big picture issues is to use the Eisenhower priority matrix. It is a two-by-two matrix with importance on the x-axis and urgency on the y-axis. If something is urgent and important, do it now. Many of the big picture issues are important, but not urgent. It is vital to schedule time in your calendar to address these aspects of your responsibility. Commit to working on them when the scheduled time arrives. Other keys to this prioritization system are to carefully budget the time allotted to urgent, but not important activities, and to never spend time on activities that are low importance and low urgency. Otherwise, these will steal the time and attention required for the big picture work.
Another part of big picture work is improving on your ability to tackle strategic challenges. Many successful bench scientists excel at delivering well-defined tactical work, but may not be exposed to real strategic issues until after they become a lab manager. It might be helpful to find a mentor who can help teach a successful approach to strategy work. Another tip is to ask bigger questions. To quote Simon Sinek, “Start with why.” Starting with asking why questions, and then proceeding out to how and what questions can help address big issue challenges.
Sherri L. Bassner, PhD, is a retired chemist and manager who spent 30 years developing new products and services, and then leading others in those same efforts. She is a part-time leadership coach and blogs on personal and professional development. Sherri also serves on Lab Manager’s Editorial Advisory Board.
Scott Hanton is the editorial director of Lab Manager. He spent 30 years as a research chemist, lab manager, and business leader at Air Products and Intertek. He earned a BS in chemistry from Michigan State University and a PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Scott is an active member of ACS, ASMS, and ALMA.
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This article is part of Lab Manager’s Learning to Lead Q&A series. For more expert input on management, leadership, safety, and sustainability topics affecting laboratory leaders, click here.