Julia Barkans is head of laboratory facilities at Open University in Milton Keynes, UK. Barkans was nominated by her peers for the 2022 Leadership Excellence Awards and received recognition as the recipient of the Excellence in Lab Leadership Award. This award focuses on the “people” side of laboratory leadership—how to manage lab staff effectively, how to improve employee engagement and satisfaction, and how to develop rising leaders among one’s staff
Barkans shared with Lab Manager insight into her background as a lab leader, how she acquired her leadership and management skills, and the difference between ‘leadership’ and ‘management.’
Q: Can you briefly discuss your background, and what you do in your current role?
A: I started my career as a medical laboratory scientific officer, specializing first in histology and later immunology. This provided excellent training for me to apply and gain a research post in immunology at the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London. I was then invited to join a group in the Department of Allergy and Clinical Immunology at the National Heart & Lung Institute to develop a panel of antibodies to the eosinophil—a project that I was quite good at! I later transferred to Imperial College and then sort of drifted into lab management and health and safety as I wanted to help introduce and embed good laboratory practice alongside my technical work.
I am currently head of laboratory facilities at the Open University, a job I fortunately really enjoy. We have about 190 labs located throughout various buildings across the campus at Walton Hall based in Milton Keynes, all underpinned by a great EM and imaging suite plus electrical and mechanical workshops. In addition to the research facilities, we have teaching laboratories for onsite and remote experimentation including a mars yard, wind tunnels, radio telescope, and two optical robotic telescopes based on Mount Teide, Tenerife [Canary Islands, Spain].
I am responsible for the lab infrastructure, managing the overall budget, overseeing the all-important health and safety, and last but no means least, supporting the fabulous technical staff.
Q: What was your reaction to winning this award/what does it mean to you to win?
A: I was absolutely delighted. I am so proud to have been nominated for this award by my team.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Lab Manager for presenting me with such a prestigious award; it is a great honor for me.
Q: What do you value the most about Lab Manager’s offerings/content?
A: I am ashamed to admit that I am new to Lab Manager; however, [I] have instantly become a fan. What an amazing resource.
Currently high on our agenda is a sustainable lab policy. The resources made available on this forum are invaluable to support its development.
Q: What resources or individuals did you learn your leadership and management skills from?
A: Oh, this is a tricky one. My organizational and management skills came initially from both of my parents, the skills were then consolidated in the hospital path labs. At that time the chief technicians were not to be messed with. They instilled a professional work ethic, discipline, and good laboratory practice. To this day I could never leave a bench without it being spotless with all reagents and consumables fully replenished!
I guess my leadership skills developed from experiencing and observing the kind of leaders which I certainly did not wish to emulate.
Q: In your opinion and experience, what is the most important quality or trait a good leader needs to have?
A: A good leader should be a role model and lead by example. They should be enthusiastic, have integrity [and] empathy, and always be inclusive. They should review the process; however, not make changes for the sake of change. They will seek advice from the team and admit if they get something wrong. They will notice talent and nurture it. They will continually motivate and have pride in the team they have developed or are in the process of developing.
In adopting this practice, a good leader can direct, guide, and influence the behaviors they expect of the managers and subsequently the managers own team. But the key, I believe, is good, clear communication that is anything but ambiguous.
Q: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
A: I love working in and enjoy my home laboratory, which some call the ‘garden.’ A lab manager is never really off-duty. Even during the holiday season, we may be alerted to a power outage, flood, alarms etc. We are constantly thinking if we have all bases covered. However, when immersed in my garden, I am fully focused on the job in hand. It is mindfulness at its very best.
Q: What do you think are some common misconceptions about good leadership and management?
A: Good leadership is not the same as good management. A good leader is all about getting the right people in the right place, building their confidence, and giving them the tools and development opportunities to successfully manage the smooth day-to-day running of the labs.
A good leader is not an autocrat and should avoid micromanaging. It’s all about mutual respect and trust.
A good leader should not distance themselves from the team—they should be visible and approachable. You can learn a lot by simply walking around the labs or dropping in during a tea break. In doing this, many issues can be nipped in the bud before getting out of hand.
Q: What’s the best piece of management and/or leadership advice you can share with our readers?
A: Recruit the very best candidate for the role. Never onboard if you have the slightest reservation. It’s always better not to recruit at that time and take a step back to review the JD and advert. If you get recruitment wrong, you have created a rocky road ahead of you.
Empower your team to share their knowledge and skills to progress and find solutions.
When delegating, let individuals take full ownership of the task. Don’t be tempted to interfere.
Q: What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years in your role?
A: In the short-term, to secure another cohort of apprentices. We have had a huge success as far as this initiative is concerned. Our apprentices learn the nuts and bolts of laboratory operation and develop an understanding of the importance of every stage. They are mentored by technicians who all have a wealth of experience and knowledge and can instill expected behaviors and good work ethic. Health and safety is introduced from day one and soon becomes second nature. I am convinced that this is the way to develop the next generation of lab leaders.
In the medium-term, I am approaching the end of a long and enjoyable career. I hope that I have enthused all that I have worked with. I know that together we have certainly achieved good results. It is now time for me to accelerate succession planning and I am absolutely delighted to report that I have some amazing candidates standing in the wings ready and waiting.
The winners of the Leadership Excellence Awards will accept their award plaques during the Lab Manager Leadership Summit, taking place in Baltimore, MD, May 16-18. To learn more about this valuable event and to register to attend, visit: summit.labmanager.com/leadership