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Movin' Up

With a good strategy and excellent execution, lab managers can take their careers to the next level, increasing their job satisfaction and fattening their wallets as well.

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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How Strategic Planning Can Take Your Career to the Next Level

What is the next level for your career? The answer to this question will vary for different laboratory managers. For those who are happy where they are, it may mean becoming virtually indispensable in their current job assignments. For others, it’s the next step up the laboratory management promotion ladder. This may or may not involve a transfer to another laboratory or a different department. Some lab managers may decide they need to change employers to take their careers to the next level.

Successfully taking your career to the next level is often like using a road map. You have to know where you’re going in order to plan a route to get there. Your goals may be unchanged—to become vice president of research, for example. Or your goals may have changed, perhaps due to changes in life circumstances, such as getting married or having children. The need for change can arise from something as simple as boredom with your current job assignment. As a result, people’s career goals tend to evolve throughout their lives. For example, the lab manager promoted from group leader to department manager may for the first time seriously consider becoming manager of the entire laboratory or vice president of research.

Skills assessment
To take your career to the next level, you can rely on luck or you can engage in strategic career planning.1 The first approach doesn’t often work well; the second does. The first step in career planning is for lab managers to assess their skills and determine how best to capitalize on them. They should also do a skills gap analysis to determine what skills they need to acquire to take their careers to their chosen next level. The same approach is useful in becoming indispensable in one’s current assignment. Lab managers should not rely only on self-assessment. Performance reviews with their supervisors can help them collect the skills information they need, as can discussions with mentors and highly trusted colleagues.

Another approach is to contact a career coach, though a coach’s services are usually expensive and his or her advice can be of limited effectiveness if the coach is not a veteran of the laboratory environment. Laboratory managers taking this approach should be very careful in selecting a career coach. Some universities offer inexpensive career coaching services to their alumni. One’s professional society may offer free career coaching to members. For example, the American Chemical Society does this. The more than 70 ACS volunteer career consultants also offer career advice, such as how to achieve that coveted promotion or increase job security. These career consultants come from a variety of technical fields and include current and former lab managers.

Indeed, becoming a volunteer career consultant for others can be a step in taking your own career to the next level. Some companies have positions in their human resources departments that focus on professional recruitment and serving the needs of current laboratory employees. Moving into management assignments in human resources can be a fulfilling career for lab managers with excellent interpersonal skills and an interest in this career direction. The ranks of ACS career consultants have included some who have chosen this direction in their own careers, including Dr. Joel Shulman (Procter & Gamble) and Dr. James Burke (Rohm and Haas).

Strategy development
After deciding the next career level they want to achieve, and armed with a skills assessment, lab managers should develop a strategy to gain the skills they need while more effectively utilizing current skills. Acquiring needed skills may require taking courses or a temporary assignment in which they can develop these skills. When they feel they have the expertise, they should have a discussion with their own manager to develop a strategy for reaching their next career level. Ideally, this discussion will result in an action plan. Mentors or professional society career consultants can also help lab managers develop this plan.

Executing the plan Executing your plan comes next. Whatever one’s current situation and career goals, the objective is to create opportunities to demonstrate that they have the skills needed to exhibit exceptional performance at the next career level. For example, should the manager desire to transfer to a business function, serving on one or more multidisciplinary work teams that include business managers can be an effective strategy. Discussions with one of your professional society’s career consultants can also be useful in this regard. Focusing only on routine assignments is not the way to get ahead. There is no better way to gain visibility within a company or organization than to undertake a high-risk assignment, complete it successfully and inform the appropriate people of your accomplishment. Of course, do your best to minimize the risks associated with these assignments. Carefully designing and staffing projects with motivated people who can get the job done is the best way to do this. Also, work through appropriate company channels. Don’t be a loose cannon by taking on major assignments on your own without appropriate authorization.

Should a high-risk project fail, others must see that you performed in a highly competent manner, doing everything possible to ensure project success. Monitor progress closely during the course of the project and keep all concerned parties informed. This way people will know about problems as your team encounters them. They can offer help and resources and won’t have unreasonably high expectations of success. You should also recognize the signs of impending failure and take steps to terminate a failing project in a way that minimizes the time, effort and money spent on it.

If your high-risk project does fail, ask yourself the following

  • What aspects of the project worked well? How • can these successes be incorporated into future projects?
  • Was the initial project timetable reasonable?
  • Could the initial assessment of the probability of success have been done more accurately?
  • What caused the project to fail? How can I recognize and respond to these warning signs in the future?

Dont try to sweep failure under the rug. Prepare a timely report analyzing the reasons for failure. Addressing the above questions can limit or even eliminate any stigma of being associated with a failed project.

Gain exposure for your efforts
Raise your professional profile both within your own organization and outside of it. However, never appear to be doing something only to gain exposure. Remember, people can die of exposure. Their careers can, too, if self-promotion is done ineffectively.

The basic premise of your campaign must be high performance, being the best at what you do. However, experts agree that being the best is not enough alone to achieve career success and position you for the next step in your career. Your efforts to gain exposure will matter little without this key element. Whatever assignments you undertake for your company or for professional organizations must be completed competently and in a timely fashion.

Timely, readable reports and effective presentations are essential to gaining visibility for your efforts and those of your project teams. Writing timely memos and presenting oral reports to your supervisor are also highly useful and could result in you and your team being nominated for a company achievement award.

Of course, demonstrating that you have the skills needed to take the next step in your career is best done in the confines of your own company and laboratory. However, if there are few opportunities to do so, demonstrating them outside these confines can be effective.

Dont overdo your efforts to increase your professional visibility. Remember that your primary goal remains doing an outstanding job in your current management assignment. Your efforts to increase your professional visibility shouldnt compromise your job performance.

Networking-both internally and externally Developing a professional network both inside your organization and outside of it can provide sources of advice on your career and on your projects that will help you succeed at both. Your professional network can result in opportunities to help you gain new skills and demonstrate your abilities. For example, an internal networking contact may know of your interest in an eventual business management assignment as the next step in your career. This person could appoint you or recommend you for an assignment to a multidisciplinary team that includes members from one or more business operations. Demonstrating your competencies to these individuals may facilitate a later reassignment to one of these business functions. Conversely, as you learn more about the business in question, you may decide that such an assignment isnt for you and avoid derailing your lab management career for months or even years.

Other opportunities to demonstrate skills
There are other ways to demonstrate your skills while helping others. Some, such as teaching internal workshops or short courses, occur most frequently in large organizations. However, lab managers in small organizations can seek out similar opportunities outside their own laboratory or organization. Such opportunities include teaching a short course or workshop for a professional society. Teaching an advanced course as an adjunct professor at a local university is another option. You can also demonstrate new skills by writing articles or research papers and by participating in professional society activities.

Hidden opportunities
Sometimes hidden opportunities lurk within apparently routine management activities. For example, consider hiring. Developing the ability to identify very high achievers when perusing their rsums and interviewing them can result in your developing a reputation for hiring outstanding staff members who make major contributions and do so quickly.

Working closely with patent attorneys can result in more effective and timely protection of intellectual property developed by your work group. Developing the ability to see potential commercial applications of curious laboratory results and encouraging your staff members to do the same can result in you and your work group becoming well-known for being innovative. Developing the ability to turn an adverse outcome to your companys advantage can serve the same purpose.

Beyond your current employer
Sometimes advancement to the next career level isnt available with ones current employer, or such advancement must wait for someones retirement and may not be available for years. Developing recognition of your abilities in your industry or profession through trade associations and professional society activities outside your current employer can serve two purposes. First, it may result in employment opportunities at other organizations. Second, the professional recognition you acquire through these activities may persuade your own manager to take a closer look at your abilities and achievements and promote you accordingly.

With a good strategy and excellent execution, lab managers can take their careers to the next level, increasing their job satisfaction and fattening their wallets as well.

1. J.K. Borchardt, Career Management for Scientists and Engineers, ACS/ Oxford University Press (2000).