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Success as a Lab Manager: Insights from a ‘Veteran’ Leader

Winner of Lab Manager's 2024 Overall Lab Manager Excellence Award, Toriano Adarryl Bowens, discusses the challenges involved in middle management roles

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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The role of a laboratory manager is a challenging yet pivotal position within scientific organizations. Charged with overseeing operations, personnel, and resource allocation, laboratory managers must navigate a labyrinth of tasks while ensuring the smooth functioning of the lab. From coordinating experiments to maintaining equipment, managing budgets to fostering team dynamics, they wear multiple hats, making it difficult to be successful in all aspects of the job. 

Each year, Lab Manager honors individuals who demonstrate exceptional leadership and management skills through our Leadership Excellence Awards program. The 2024 Leadership Excellence Awards, sponsored by Uncountable recognized five individuals for their impressive contributions to their respective organizations. 

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Toriano Adarryl Bowens

Toriano Adarryl Bowens, laboratory manager at the Cincinnati Department of Veterans Affairs, was the recipient of the 2024 Overall Lab Manager Excellence Award, the highest honor given in this program. Toriano has left a positive impact within every role he’s had in his career thus far, with most recently reviving the VA Medical Center Laboratory from near-shut down to now delivering top-quality care to its patients. “Thank you, Toriano. Because of your outstanding leadership, diligent, experience, and your ‘never give up’ attitude, the Cincinnati VA Medical Center Laboratory is a very successful, outstanding laboratory which provides unmatched care to the veterans of the tri-state area,” shared one of Toriano’s peers who submitted a nomination on his behalf.

Managing editor Lauren Everett recently spoke with about his outstanding career, his service in the US Navy, and his passion for mentoring the next generation of lab leaders.

Q: What resources or individuals did you learn your leadership and management skills from?

A: I credit my leadership to three unique individuals—two originate from the military and one from a civilian job. My commander in the military had a unique ability to discipline while building you up. This was my first encounter with an action like that and shortly after that interaction, it made me have a sense of purpose and determination to ensure I developed the same ability.

The second was my leading petty officer at my third command who emphasized discipline, family, and whole health before there was whole health. She, too, had the leadership to work to ensure my success, and to have success in my home life.

The third person was at a civilian hospital following the military. She maintained such an interest in my success that I was often encouraged to speak up and always seek to better those that come under [my] direction.

The last part that influenced my leadership is a series of encounters with leading petty officers and civilian managers who displayed actions that I swore I would never do when I achieved supervisory status. I carefully observed the wrong ways displayed and sought to check myself if I gravitated toward that direction. It took 10 years of supervising in many different disciplines to acquire the skilled interactions with employees on all levels.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your role and/or career?

A: The chance to make a difference in the patient’s lives affected by the service. Providing more efficient testing and access to testing to enable more rapid diagnostics for our veterans. The second would be the success of my subordinates. I have mentored too many to count, and I have always emphasized the potential of growth for the employee and my willingness to always help guide them to their ultimate destination in their career. I have former employees that are now nurse practitioners, Pas, and even IT specialist.

Q: In your opinion, what are the most important qualities or skills for a laboratory leader to possess?

A: Empathy, sympathy, the ability to listen without trying to determine the answers, and the ability to acknowledge fault in themselves. No true leader can ever say they are [a leader] if they have never had to apologize for a misstep or action taken that was wrong.

I provide culture emphasis for my staff, and I always encourage them to speak up and never settle without having a clear and concise direction.   A true leader must place education and development of all their employees as a top priority for developing happiness in their lives.

Q: How do you personally manage the balance between performing managerial tasks versus your passion to be involved with the scientific work done in the lab?

A: I always keep the two separate. I’ve developed a method of setting up times specific to admin [tasks] and in doing so I have encouraged minimum interruption to ensure I can efficiently achieve success in my admin duties. At the same time, even though I am the laboratory manager, I still maintain training in testing, and I often investigate new technologies for their effectiveness in our medical center. I’ve always had a change mentality and I’ve always promised myself that when I reach the point that I no longer wish to entertain change, it is more than likely the time for retirement. I believe I have more to give.

What is one of the hardest challenges you’ve faced so far in your career? What learnings did you take from it?

A: Laboratory directors making unreasonable demands on the staff and making me deliver the bad news. It has taught me that in middle management, you often have to defend actions that you might not agree with. I’ve had to learn to balance between defending the actions and managing up to provide clarity so as to not negatively impact my staff. This has resulted in some hard times in dealing with difficult laboratory directors, but it strengthened me to always seek to do what is right even when it is extremely difficult to do so. I have often “taken one for the team” as I call it, in being the voice of reason to my supervisors.

“A true leader must place education and development of all their employees as a top priority for developing happiness in their lives.”

Q: What’s the best piece of management and/or leadership advice you can share with our readers?

A: Regardless of the actions of an employee, always seek to educate and build the employee rather than terminate. You will not always save every employee from themselves, but if you carry that mentality to all of your staff, at the end of the day you will know that you took every step necessary to guarantee the employee a psychologically safe work environment. If if s/he refuses to cooperate in being helped, you can only do so much to save one from themselves.  Out of nearly 400 employees during my tenure in leadership, I have ~96 percent success in turning bad actors and bad behavior into a positive for the service and the employee. Lastly, I would say to all leaders in the laboratory world, diversity equity, and inclusion should be a major goal for any lab that wants to exceed exceptional care for their patients.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish in the next few years in your role?

A: Succession planning. I intend to build any of my supervisors who are willing to entertain it, the ability to perform my job. I have always operated off my legacy. This is simple; if I should cease to exist this very day, the show must go on and I want to be the person remembered for ensuring success in my absence rather than preventing success by maintaining all the knowledge within myself. It serves to only destroy the very fabric of success you built in a department. At the end of the day, my patients should not see any stalling in testing and performance of the staff if I were to cease to exist.

In addition, I am working to become the center of excellence in laboratory testing. We are reducing our referrals by 80 percent and bringing a significant amount of testing in-house.

Torriano’s career journey:

I am a veteran of the United States Navy in which my primary field of work was in the laboratory. I served eight years in the armed services, most of which was spent at our president’s hospital, Walter Reed (Formerly Bethesda Naval) Military Medical Center. I achieved my AA in Medical Laboratory Technology from George Washington University and a BS in Physiology Neurobiology from University of Maryland while on active duty in the United States Navy. In addition, I achieved my MS, Thesis in genetics at Cleveland State University, following my honorable discharge from the military. While in the military; stationed at Walter Reed, my profession was an independent/unsupervised medical laboratory technologist (MLT (8506). I gained much of my work experience in blood bank, hematology, and phlebotomy. I was a vital part of ensuring the National Naval Medical Center’s blood supply in Walter Reed Military Hospital blood bank. Since leaving the military in 1999, I built an advanced career with disciplines in multiple areas of the lab. I have functioned as a generalist, phlebotomy supervisor, point of care supervisor, blood bank supervisor, and now lab manager.