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Nurturing Talent

Recruiting employees with high potential is only part of the process

Lauren Everett

Lauren Everett is the managing editor for Lab Manager. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from SUNY New Paltz and has more than a decade of experience in news...

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There are countless programs and initiatives geared toward encouraging young students to pursue a degree in STEM fields. But what happens when those eager individuals enter the workforce? How can managers continue to foster talented individuals throughout their careers and ensure they are getting the most out of their team members?

In order to train the next generation of laboratory leaders, you need to be an effective leader yourself. Set a good example for your staff by acknowledging and rewarding exceptional work, consistently utilizing good listening skills, and allowing your passion to be contagious.

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“Developing leaders here is a strong suit of the lab,” says Dr. Paul Kearns, who has nearly 30 years of management experience and is currently the director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. “What I try to work on as a leader is develop[ing] opportunities for others and help[ing] them realize their talents and put[ting] them to good use.”

Early development

National facilities like Argonne, which attracts thousands of students and hundreds of postdocs each year to participate in outreach and educational programs, provide the top-notch, real-world experiences that young, talented individuals strive for to help jump-start their careers. “We work on developing skills with [the students], and get them thinking about what they want to do with their careers,” says Kearns.

Sandia National Laboratories takes a similar approach to leadership development. A new fellowship program called the Jill Hruby Fellowship will immerse postdoctoral candidates in a three-year technical leadership development program at Sandia. Not only will the fellows get to carry out high-level research projects and advance their technical skills in the lab, but they will also receive valuable guidance from an executive mentor. Susan Seestrom, chief research officer and associate laboratories director for advanced science and technology at Sandia, will be mentoring the first two fellows—Mercedes Taylor, who earned her doctorate in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, and Chen Wang, who completed her doctorate in materials science at the University of California, Irvine. “Sometimes, having a senior person committed to one’s success can make all the difference in the ultimate level achieved. I would love to make that difference in the careers of these two amazing women,” says Seestrom.

The Jill Hruby Fellowship allows the chosen honorees to challenge themselves and see exactly what they are capable of when given the resources to succeed, which is what nurturing talent is all about. “This is an excellent fellowship and a great opportunity to do your own projects—propose your own research and design and execute it yourself—all within a world-class organization,” says Taylor. She will be researching water desalination and purification while at Sandia in hopes of making materials that will improve these processes.

The Gilliam Fellowships for Advanced Study at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute is another example of how to establish leaders and foster talent early on. In July 2018, 45 doctoral student-adviser pairs from across the country were each awarded a $50,000 grant to support the development of their scientific leadership and commitment to advance diversity and inclusion in the sciences. As part of the fellowship, the students’ thesis advisers will participate in a year of mentor development activities, including online training and two in-person workshops.

Related Article: The Value of a Successful Mentorship Program

“The mentor training activity is an important and unique benefit of the award. It is a way to leverage the award to improv[e] the training environment in a sustainable and amplifying way,” says David Asai, senior director for science education at Howard Hughes. Both Kearns and Asai express the importance of mentorship throughout one’s career, and note that they both still refer to a handful of mentors when they need someone to bounce ideas off of or get advice. “I continue to benefit from dozens of persons who each, in their own way, taught or teach me something about being a scientist, or a teacher, or a leader,” adds Asai.

Creating an enriching work environment

Fellowships and similar opportunities can create a great foundation for talented individuals just starting out in their careers, but seasoned individuals with years of experience can also benefit from proper acknowledgement of their work and chances to showcase their talents in new and meaningful ways.

A high school student sets their sample at the Advanced Photon Source during Argonne National Laboratory’s Exemplary Science Research Program.Credit: Argonne National LabTo do this, managers should provide ample opportunities for their team members to excel not only in the designated role they were hired for, but also within other aspects of the organization. Individuals who exhibit leadership skills or a curiosity to train in different branches of the facility are an asset, and allowing them to learn new roles will set them up for future success within the organization.

Another effective method to managing talent is for lab managers to instruct their staff to develop annual personal development goals. Outlining and discussing these plans can keep team members motivated and encourage professional growth.

“It’s important to be intentional...certainly distractions or setbacks may come up along the way or the course of action may not go as planned, but being intentional about making good progress toward a goal is really essential,” says Kearns.

Providing a safe, welcoming environment is another key to fostering talent in the workplace. “I prefer to think about excellence as the culture of an organization. An excellent organization provides an environment in which creativity can emerge; in the case of science excellence, the creative ideas are applied to hard scientific problems,” says Asai.

And as Kearns explains, “How you do it is as important as what you do.” To emphasize this point, Argonne staff recently established a set of five core values: impact, safety, respect, integrity, and teamwork. Working with a similar set of values in mind will ensure your team is producing meaningful results.

One of the best ways to elevate your staff ’s engagement, commitment, and skill sets is to acknowledge and reward exceptional work. Because who doesn’t like feeling valued and appreciated?

Managers can recognize an individual’s success by rewarding them with more than just monetary compensation. For example, giving them the chance to speak at conferences, highlighting their efforts at meetings, or providing them with a leadership role over a project of their choice will be all-around beneficial.

When asked about the best ways to reward excellent work within the lab, Asai says, “Give them more. Encourage the person to engage in more work on an important problem. The greatest compliment is to be entrusted with carrying out an important job. That means you are trusted and valued.”