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While technical ability is essential to becoming a successful laboratory manager, it is not sufficient. Many outstanding scientists or engineers have failed as lab managers. It takes more than just technical ability. What is this more that outstanding lab managers have?

John K. Borchardt

Dr. Borchardt is a consultant and technical writer. The author of the book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” he writes often on career-related subjects.

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Ten Principles to Becoming a More Succesful Lab Manager

While technical ability is essential to becoming a successful laboratory manager, it is not sufficient. Many outstanding scientists or engineers have failed as lab managers. It takes more than just technical ability. What is this “more” that outstanding lab managers have?

“Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference,” according to Winston Churchill. Recent psychology research backs up the famous statesman. Attitude is critical to success, according to University of Pennsylvania psychologist Martin Seligman. In a series of studies, he has discovered that attitude is a better predictor of success than are I.Q., education and most other factors. He found that people with positive attitudes are healthier, have better relationships, go further in their careers and earn more money. There are ten attitudes laboratory managers need in order to become successful.

1. Believe that you are in charge of your destiny

This means taking charge and making good things happen, not waiting for them to happen to you. Sometimes you have to take risks. These should be carefully calculated risks, and you should take steps to reduce uncertainties, and thus risk, maximizing your chances of success. This can require courage, especially in tough economic conditions.

For example, the oil field service industry experienced very difficult economic conditions from 1982 until about 1990. Lab staffs were cut, at some companies cut repeatedly. At my then employer, a chemist (this author) developed a very promising new product. It was described in a newsletter sent to all field engineers, the engineers who worked directly with customers, the companies that operated oil and gas fields. Many field engineers pressed the company to release the product for field testing. The R&D department manager refused to do so. Finally a company vice president intervened and approved the product for field testing. The product was highly successful in field testing and was quickly released for general field use. It resulted in a significant increase in market share for the company and very welcome additional revenues. This situation contributed to the manager being moved to a staff position in which he did not supervise others.

2. Successful managers have positive attitudes

“I am an optimist. It does not seem too much use being anything else,” commented Winston Churchill. Successful managers believe anything is possible in their career advancement. However, if they believe they can’t do something, they probably won’t. Having a positive attitude motivates your staff members, improving both productivity and morale. This author clearly—and fondly— recalls manager Bill Young, whose positive attitude helped me to persevere in a difficult research project and succeed. Bill taught me that positive attitudes contribute to the determination needed to persist and bring projects to successful conclusions.

3. Do everything well

While managers should certainly prioritize their goals and activities, there is really nothing in their job requirements that they can afford to ignore. Attention to detail can be critical to achieving project success that leads to career success.

4. Networking is essential

Networking can provide a mother lode of useful advice. Successful networking is essential to career advancement. For staff members, this begins with establishing good rapport with coworkers, including those in support functions such as information scientists. Maintain these contacts when assigned to management positions. Network with peers and both higher- and lowerlevel managers. Treat everyone as a key contact. Go to lunch with fellow managers you would not otherwise see very often in your day-to-day activities.

Extend your networking beyond your own laboratory and company. In particular, join professional associations. Meetings and professional society activities are great opportunities for networking and making valuable contacts with people outside your own organization.

5. Find reasons to enjoy your job

Finding reasons to enjoy your job improves your disposition and promotes an optimistic attitude. An optimistic attitude increases your energy level, helping you to get more done. So dwell on the positive aspects of your job. Find ways to fix the negative aspects. If you can’t, then don’t dwell on the negative.

6. Ask "What else can I do?"

Always ask yourself the question, “What else can I do?” Look for ways to enhance the chances of success on your projects. Don’t do their work for them but help make your staff members’ jobs easier. Help coworkers complete their projects and achieve their goals.

7. Learn from your mistakes

There is an old saying, “Learn from your mistakes.” No one succeeds 100 percent of the time. Analyze situations when you did not succeed or did not accomplish as much as you might have. Your analysis will help you avoid repeating your mistakes.

8. Promote yourself and your accomplishments

Don’t just wait for others to recognize your talents and success. Don’t be obnoxious, but do talk about your successes. My mom called it “Toot your own horn.” Observe successful colleagues to learn how some do this without sounding boastful.

9. Seek out opportunities to succeed

It was Louis Pasteur who said “Chance favors the prepared mind.” This axiom applies to management as well as laboratory research. Stay alert for opportunities to advance your career and to succeed in your current projects.

10. Learn new skills

Learn new management and leadership skills and apply them to achieve success in your new management position. There are several ways to do this. One is independent study through reading or taking DVD or online short courses. Another is to take short courses offered by professional societies, junior colleges and other organizations. Consultants also offer some courses. Yet another approach is to take full-semester courses offered by universities during the day or as evening courses.

When taking these courses, it is important to try to incorporate the important lessons you learn into your job as soon as possible. Otherwise you tend to forget them.

Stay alert for opportunities to learn informally. Identify successful managers in your organization. Use them as role models and observe how they handle their staff members, peers and their own managers. Also observe how they handle management tasks and problems as they arise.

Embrace change

Beyond these ten principles, newly appointed managers need to recognize that their relationships with coworkers must change because they will be supervising former peers. You don’t have to abandon friendships, but you do need to put them on a somewhat different basis. Also, you can’t appear to be playing favorites with your friends. It can destroy your reputation as a fair-minded leader. Should you do so, some friends may try to take advantage of you.

In your management position, you cannot afford to criticize the performance of other employees in lunchtime or hallway discussions the way you used to do. This can give the impression of bias and is hurtful to the individuals you criticize to others. Managers should practice the adage “Praise in public; criticize in private.”

Newly appointed managers also need to manage the disappointment of former peers who did not get appointed to the position. This means finding new opportunities or challenges for them in your work group. It does not mean tolerating a decline in their performance. You may need to quickly sit down with these individuals to discuss any concerns and disappointments they may have over not being appointed to the management position.

Broaden your mental scope

Staff members are focused primarily on their own job responsibilities and relatively short-term projects and issues. This fosters dedication and hard work. However, as a manager, you have to be concerned with both the short- and long-range interests of your work group and the entire organization. Managers have to be concerned with all the projects going on in their work groups.

Newly appointed managers must fight any tendency they have to micromanage and to be overly involved with their former projects. Even though a team leader is not considered to be working in a formal management position at many laboratories, this position helps one make the transition from the mind-set of a staff member to that of a lab manager. A good team leader recognizes that progress toward achieving project goals and successfully completing the project moves only at the pace of the slowest phase of the project. Hence the team leader must be certain that each team member has the resources needed to ensure that his or her phase of the overall project is progressing satisfactorily. For example, I have observed large projects reach what was thought to be R&D completion amid much jubilation, only to have team members realize that the next phase of the project hadn’t been attended to. For example, the patent attorney on the team didn’t have the time to prepare the patent applications that must be filed in order to obtain patent protection in other countries. Consequently, commercialization had to be delayed until this was done.

Project “handoffs” are often aspects of the work that are neglected until the R&D is done. However, having the appropriate people on the team be responsible for these handoffs can reduce this problem. For example, an R&D team could include members from Sales & Marketing or an engineer from the plant where a new project will be run or a new product manufactured.

Team leader assignments can be excellent proving grounds for future lab managers.