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Empowering Your Staff

In 2002, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) embarked on an educational project to leave no young manager behind.

by F. Key Kidder
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Training, Mentoring and Other Techniques for Raising Management Skill Levels in the Lab

In 2002, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund (BWF) embarked on an educational project to leave no young manager behind. HHMI and BWF, both in the business of career development, sought to lighten the load of novice investigators running labs without the benefit of formal management training. They convened grantees and distilled their observations into Making the Right Moves, a reference manual on lab management. Published in 2004, it was a runaway success in the scientific community. A second edition, beefed up by input from a luminous cadre of PIs and managers on human resource issues and other hot topics, was soon in the works—and in demand, as nearly 496,000 downloads in 2009-10 attest.

This managerial “how-to” clearly struck a chord and, while Making the Right Moves targeted lab-based academic institutions, its success reflects a broader-based need common among scholars who transition to industry or government labs and become leaders—formal managerial training and supervisory prowess, the lack of which is often made manifest in mediocre staff skill levels. In a 2003 Sigma Xi survey, fully half of America’s post-docs admitted to receiving no management skills training, while the remainder settled for “ad hoc” training. Just four percent had the benefit of a workshop or formal coursework.

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This reality, which perpetuates itself as staff ascend the leadership ladder, leaves something to be desired when propagating best practices, says John Boothroyd, former senior associate dean for research and training at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, who heads up a microbiology/immunology lab on campus. Boothroyd envisions a scenario wherein lab skills are transmitted to generations of scientists by “people trained on the fly by someone else trained on the fly, who was also trained on the fly.”

Critics of the current state of lab skills, while acknowledging the general technical proficiency of scientists, perceive that labs come up short when the discussion turns to the “soft skills” required to practice science within a social context—the laboratory setting, with its increased emphasis on complex collaborative endeavors and “big science” teams.

Are there any role models? The surge in team science and external collaborations notwithstanding, success in science is often measured by hitting individual marks, like numbers of publications and citations. Lab practitioners are traditionally rewarded for narrowly focused contributions to a particular lab or product.

“The word is hubris,” says Alice Sapienza, professor, industry consultant and author of “Managing Scientists: Leadership Strategies in Science.” They think, “If you’re good enough to get an MD or PhD, you’re good enough and smart enough to lead people in a laboratory … but you wouldn’t turn me loose to operate very complex equipment unless I was trained, yet we turn untrained scientists loose on even more complex human beings.”

An empowered staff enhances the laboratory research culture and potentially decreases the managerial burden; according to a 2006 study, 42 percent of a scientist’s time is consumed by administrative matters. Other benefits of improved staff skills can include decreased costs of mismanagement, misconduct and research inefficiencies—a general lowering of institutional risk.

Given the paucity of leadership training, many managers arrive, ready or not, with an incomplete education and the expectation that their continuing education in the managerial arts will only proceed on the basis of their future experiences—the very situation that HHMI and BWF sought to address.

Making the Right Moves added welcome muscle to the chapter of the scientific management oeuvre dealing with training the trainers. Notable print companions include At the Helm: A Laboratory Navigator, by Kathy Barker; Academic Scientists at Work, by Boss and Eckert; and Karyn Hede’s Managing Scientists. Customized career development courses and conferences— where supervisors exchange ideas, partake in peer review and hone leadership skills—are another option. Prominent venues include the Marine Biology Lab in Woods Hole, Mass.; The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine; Cold Springs Harbor Lab in New York; and the European Molecular Biology Organization in Germany.

HHMI/BWF’s endeavor cast a wide net, with input from a multitude of universities and professional societies that agreed to use the manual as a basis for future leadership training courses. The disinclination of leaders to deal with soft skills issues was palpable, said Maryrose Franko, HHMI senior program officer, who coordinated the project.

“If you mentioned human resources, everybody shut down,” said Franko. “They became dismissive. There was this preconceived notion that you don’t really know what it’s like to be a scientist and live under the ‘publish or perish’ knife.” Franko said they subsequently “sheepishly acknowledged that scientists have workforce challenges similar to others …. They knew they needed help.”

A study published in March 2011 (Edwards, Tramontin, Simon, Dhankar & Sheikh) points to a substantial payoff for managers attuned to the care and feeding of staff. While top-down approaches to improving productivity (new technology and reorganization) deliver “variable success … managers should focus equally on ‘bottoms-up’ approaches” to improve the skills of bench researchers.

“People-oriented behaviors,” concludes the study, “have the largest impact on performance.”

Common techniques to improve staff skills include mentoring, training/ coaching, conferences, classes and seminars, e-learning, and bringing in outside experts. But the extent to which managers use these techniques is neither readily discernable nor uniform, and is often subject to variables beyond their control, including institutional and corporate resources and assorted training and compliance regimens.

After arriving at a core set of behaviors found at both academic and industry labs—encompassing talent, collaboration, strategy/role, portfolio/project management and problem solving—the authors surveyed more than 4,300 researchers in 247 labs to determine productivity drivers.

Talent wins out, although it’s “not simply about attracting the right people, but also actively managing their careers.” The best labs, says the study, have personal development plans for all researchers, reviewed annually, and “structured mentoring” and apprenticeships. Survey results showed 36 percent of labs apprenticed newcomers, but just 23 percent offered longer-term mentoring. Overall, just 27 percent of the respondents said their labs were fully in sync with best practices.

Industry, says Sapienza, at least “has the notion they have to pay attention to training” staff, and typically brings greater resources to bear on career development, often cloaked in confidentiality. Mentoring has long been the lead dog pulling the academic skill set. Tom Sakmar, former acting president of Rockefeller University who now runs a molecular biochemistry lab there, sees more industry mentoring as biotech-academic partnerships proliferate and “big pharma reaches out to universities” for new ideas—the bottoms-up approach.

Gael McGill, CEO of Digizyme, sees a similar spillover of academic-based mentoring into the life sciences. McGill mentors by “projecting in my actions the behaviors I expect.” Industry consultant Susan Morris says organizations that identify and train mentors achieve more productive outcomes. Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine thinks its newly created Academy of Mentors, a voluntary program for faculty and students, will do just that, says Dean Jerome F. Strauss. The process can ordain a long-term emotional investment; for Sakmar, “how to be a good mentor is a very personal thing.”

So is the business of building staff skills, at least among the PIs and lab leaders who collaborated with HHMI/BWF in 2005 and were “regarded as model laboratory leaders by their peers, students or postdocs,” according to HHMI/BWF literature. Instead of adhering to any formalized skillbuilding program, these leaders are often inclined to script their own methods.

“PIs in my field,” says developmental biologist Karen Bennett of the Missouri School of Medicine, “do it ‘by the seat of their pants,’ without any training, classes, e-learning or outside help.” Bennett, who organizes boot camps for new faculty and re-boot camps for mid-career faculty through funding from the Society of Developmental Biology, availed herself of the Briggs-Myers personality test to sharpen her management skills. “Research is an all-encompassing passion for most of us, and many of us are very strong INTJs! [A personality characterized by intuition, introversion, thinking and judgment.] We don’t realize the need until we realize what a bad job we’re doing as leaders of our groups.”

“Mentoring,” said HHMI investigator Elaine Fuchs, “is an active process. You have to be mentoring someone on how to mentor. You can’t read a book.” MentorNet thinks you can do it on-line; the California-based service targets women and minorities in science and engineering fields and is partnered with 150 campuses, corporations, and professional societies and organizations, according to CEO David Porush, who says MentorNet has matched up more than 28,000 mentors and mentees. Absent faceto- face communication, the company uses logarithms to determine compatibility.

Although academic training “has traditionally been imparted in one-on-one conversations, it’s increasingly understood that it’s not very efficient,” said Boothroyd, who portends a greater shift toward group classes; Fuchs uses group presentations to drive development of critical thinking skills. Coaching is also labor intensive for managers, but in Fuchs’ lab, the best training can occur when actions are not taken. She doesn’t micromanage or “spoon feed” staff because “they won’t develop as scientists. That was uncomfortable for me at first, because individual projects would go faster if we were looking over their shoulders to catch their mistakes. But in the long run, their productivity is much greater.”

Staff skill development can require managers to maintain an arsenal of techniques, said Morris. “You may have visual learners, auditory learners or kinesthetic learners. Some need to see a skill demonstrated, or read about it, or be tested on it, or see it in a formal class. Some need a variety of approaches, or one technique in combination with another.” Retaining outside expertise is an option for equipment training and delicate interactive skills such as conflict resolution, although Sapienza is wary of “bringing in someone with an agenda.”

The March study, which notes that the best labs involve staff in the recruitment process, found that 22 percent give staff a say in selecting newcomers. Fuchs gives staff “the authority to choose the colleagues they bring into the lab through a vote, but they’re then obligated to support that person” and provide training as needed. “I made all those decisions when I started out and nearly created WWIII.”

The impact of technology on staff skills is intensifying. McGill predicts that Digizyme’s graphic visualizations and animations will become a skill-building workhorse in the life sciences, assuming major roles in communications and research. E-learning “is fantastic for things that are cut and dried,” said Boothroyd. “Open head, pour in information, close the head. But it’s not so great for the more nuanced dimensions of management that must be practiced.” Morris touts e-learning’s availability on demand. Sakmar wonders if IT might “decrease the importance of international scientific conferences sponsored by professional organizations or eliminate the need for face-to-face meetings.”

Managers unequivocally praise the skill development capability of conferences and seminars. NIH investigator Susan Gottesman values the “informal trading of advice and methods.” Staff who don’t avail themselves of such events “are probably the most in need of going,” said Morris. Conferences combat lab myopia and develop critical collaboration and communication skills. “Science,” said Sakmar, “is all about communicating.”

F. Key Kidder left journalism to pursue a career in government relations, politics and PR, but he still likes to keep one hand in writing. He can be reached at or 410-828-6529.