Trace Martin is the laboratory supervisor for the City of Santa Barbara’s Water Resources Laboratory in Santa Barbara, CA. Martin earned recognition in the 2022 Lab Manager Leadership Excellence Awards as the recipient of the Young Lab Manager Excellence Award, which honors an individual who exemplifies exceptional leadership and is under 40 years of age. Martin spoke with Lab Manager about his experience in a leadership role, his reaction to winning this award, and how fellow leaders can boost their skills.
Q: Can you briefly discuss your background, and what you do in your current role?
A: I currently serve as the supervisor for the City of Santa Barbara’s Water Resources Laboratory. Our municipal laboratory analyzes all things water for the city, primarily the chemical and microbiologic properties of drinking water and wastewater. We are a team of 11 people—three part-time analysts, four full-time analysts, one laboratory coordinator, one industrial waste pretreatment coordinator, one water quality superintendent, and me. Since we are a smaller laboratory, my duties span across many areas, including technical, administrative, finance and budgeting, coaching and employee development, and leadership.
Before working for the city, I studied physical geography at Santa Barbara City College and the University of California, Santa Barbara. While in college, I worked several jobs to make ends meet, one as an undergraduate research assistant collecting water samples. That experience helped me land a part-time analyst position at the Water Resources Laboratory soon after graduating. Five years later, after a rapid series of certifications and promotions, I became the laboratory’s supervisor.
Q: What was your reaction to winning this award and what does it mean to you to win?
A: I was surprised and honored to win this award! I work with an incredible group of people and it means a lot that they would nominate me. The laboratory staff have adapted to so many different changes and endured many challenges over the last several years; their dedication and flexibility constantly reminds me how fortunate I am to work with such a strong team. I work very hard to fill the needs of this supervisory role and provide support to the team; and as a problem solver, I often overlook the tasks that I’ve successfully completed. I’m constantly looking to the next mission! Being nominated for this award by the laboratory staff shows me that my hard work has been recognized, which is incredibly gratifying.
Q: What resources or individuals did you learn your leadership and management skills from?
A: My direct supervisor, water quality superintendent Gaylen Fair, has been my mentor since I started at the laboratory. She is a great source of information and guidance, and I have learned so much from her. The resources and opportunities she provides me help cultivate my skills as a leader. Additionally, I have learned many of my leadership and management skills through the laboratory staff. These high performers have a diverse range of experience and backgrounds, and they have taught me how to manage people with different communication styles more effectively. Each person I have closely worked with has offered me valuable insight into how to be a better supervisor. I have also learned management skills from other leaders, both inside and outside our organization. I analyze their successes and mistakes and pick their best qualities to embody.
Q: In your opinion and experience, what is the most important quality or trait a good leader needs to have?
A: Transparency. Openly communicating your decision-making process fosters trust between the leader and the team, and that trust is necessary in moments when situations require you to exercise discretion. In my opinion and experience, this is the most important quality because it is coupled with so many other important traits: accountability, diplomacy, and receptiveness to feedback.
Q: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
A: I enjoy going on adventures with my dog! I’m originally from Mississippi and I spent much of my time there roving about in the woods. Now in California, I love to explore the mountains, the desert, and the beaches! We tend to stay away from the more popular hikes and opt for the solitude of the rougher wildernesses instead. Back in civilization, I enjoy hanging out with my friends, journaling, drinking coffee, and relaxing with my cat.
Q: What do you think are some common misconceptions about good leadership and management?
A: It’s easy to think that good leadership and management skills are something that’s obtained and then applied throughout a career, but in actuality, leadership and management skills should constantly be evolving. It’s important to assess your leadership style regularly, and improve or adapt it when necessary. Being a great leader requires you to be flexible and emotionally intelligent. I know that my own leadership and management skills will continue to change to best fit the needs of the workgroup.
Another common misconception—a good leader should always know the answer. Knowing the answer to a question is not nearly as important as being resourceful. Showing your team how you find the answers and make decisions will empower them to do the same.
Q: What’s the best piece of management and/or leadership advice you can share with our readers?
A: My best piece of advice is to work diligently to create and maintain a healthy environment in your workgroup. This is best accomplished by sharing! Sharing resources, information, and experiences with staff and encouraging them to do the same with each other promotes psychological safety and cultivates a collaborative atmosphere. Whether you’re the giver or the recipient, sharing information with each other benefits both the team and the organization. You also create a healthy team by listening, supporting, and advocating for your direct reports. Most of the time, you are the strongest voice they have in the organization and it’s crucial that your employees know that their perspectives are acknowledged and respected. The quality of a leader is reflected by the strength and unity of their team.
Q: How have you been able to accomplish so much so early on in your career?
A: From the time I began as a part-time analyst, I focused on performing my duties to the highest standard possible and spent any spare time identifying and fulfilling the other needs of the laboratory. I wasn’t driven by the prospect of promotions; I just really wanted to contribute to the laboratory’s mission in whatever capacity I could. My workplace recognized my capabilities and my genuine willingness to help. My peers were forthcoming with support and my supervisor promoted me to roles where I could take on larger tasks with that same dedication.
In addition, I want to acknowledge that luck and timing were involved when it came to my accomplishments. There are plenty of people who work as hard as I do, who would thrive in leadership roles, who just haven’t had the right opportunity come their way yet.
Q: What goals/aspirations do you have as you continue to progress in your career?
A: My primary goal moving forward is to establish a healthier work/life balance. Over the last several years, I spent a lot of energy acquiring the skills necessary to be successful in my roles. I had to make up for my limited experience by engaging as many resources as possible, which resulted in overextending myself. Now, I would like to focus on developing a more sustainable workload so that I may continue my mission of making positive contributions to the community through my work.
Martin and fellow Leadership Excellence Awards winners 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