Many lab managers earn their role by demonstrating their exceptional technical skills at the bench but never receive formal training in the leadership and management aspects of running a lab. Learning how to manage the business and people in your lab also involves working with other departments in the organization. A Lab Manager reader submitted the following question and two leadership and management experts have shared their insights in the responses below.
Q: I have spent my entire career working in the lab environment. As a lab manager now, how can I gain expertise in other functions like finance and manufacturing?
Sherri Bassner: First, I’m glad you recognize the importance of understanding other functions within the business! Being able “speak the language” of leaders from other parts of the company is critical in being able to gain support for the lab, understand more fully how the lab can contribute to overall business success, and open a pathway to career growth for yourself.
Begin by reaching out to your peers in those other functions that you interact with regularly. Tell them that you are interested in learning more about what they do on a day-to-day basis, what their challenges are, and what their key priorities are. Approach this as a request for mentoring. Most people are anxious to teach others about what they do if they sense that the effort will benefit them by making you a better partner. Use their time wisely, as you would any mentor. Perhaps buy them lunch. Make sure there is an agenda for the discussion and come armed with questions. It is best for this to be a continuing conversation, not a one-time discussion. Hopefully, they will also be interested in learning about the lab.
If your peers are not receptive or don’t give you the level of information that you are looking for, work with your supervisor to arrange mentoring discussions at their level. These will most likely be more formal since these are people senior to you, so the importance of using their time wisely by being prepared is even more important.
You can supplement these mentoring discussions with online courses or other learning opportunities, but remember that the most effective learning will be specific to your workplace.
Kerri Mack: Understanding the way your business functions as an enterprise is about learning how it controls its governance, organizational design, compliance, assurance, and management. By seeking to expand your knowledge into financial control or the management aspects of manufacturing, you are recognizing the advantages of understanding the strategic arrangements of your organization, which can only serve your career aspirations well. In due course, demonstrating a strategic understanding tells your colleagues that you're able to recognize, and perhaps make, judgements that might impact your organization for the future. It reminds them that you are considering how your business flexes as a general system.
To build on the advice already given, I would suggest learning about your organization as an enterprise, starting with the vision and strategic objectives. You can then see how it delivers those objectives—say through the manufacturing arm or how it governs itself through its integrated processes, governance mechanisms and committees, assurance activities and, as you suggest, its financial controls. Your financial team will, I’m sure, be happy to talk you through the idea of how the organization makes its money and how it spends it. They will then explain how, where, and why they budget spend against income and how they govern the whole process.
As already said, your function colleagues will explain all this to you, although you might also get quite a lot from your management system or from considering basic business models from the internet, which you can add flesh onto from within your organization. Ask as many strategic questions as you can of your more senior colleagues. Become the person who asks “how?” and “why?”
The way to gain practical experience is to do a secondment or other temporary arrangement for experience, to move about in your career or to adapt your role profile to include for such responsibilities. Good luck!
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.
Kerri Mack, PhD, is the safety manager of the chemical, biological, and radiological high hazards division within the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory, which is part of the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in the UK. She is also the head of profession for the lab managers and part of her role is to build and champion the profession, provide career and networking opportunities and ensure the community reaches its full potential.
Sherri and Kerri also both serve on Lab Manager’s Editorial Advisory Board.
If you have a question for one of our industry experts, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your question and we may feature it in an upcoming article!
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.