Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

The Pathway to Management

Step one, change your mindset.  There are five mental attitudes or mindsets that aspiring managers need to develop.  Uses this article as a walk-through.

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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While there are specific skills one needs to develop in order to be an effective manager, there are also five mental attitudes or mindsets that aspiring managers need to develop. Specific proficiencies such as oral communication and time management skills are not enough without cultivating these mindsets. These mindsets will determine how you interpret or respond to situations likely to occur in laboratory management.

These mental attitudes are:

• Developing an external focus beyond your company to include your industry, your suppliers and your customers. This is necessary to identify business opportunities and competitive challenges.

• Adopting a commercial mindset. Lab managers need to be involved in identifying commercial opportunities and working back from these opportunities to develop and prioritize laboratory activities that deliver value. This means understanding how your employer makes money within and across its businesses.

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• Delivering results by motivating people to succeed, tracking performance, and rewarding success.

• Providing speed in all of the above by making effective decisions in a timely manner, removing barriers to timely action, and managing risk.

• Striving for simplicity by eliminating activities that add unnecessary costs and do not deliver commercial value.

Let’s look at each of these five skills in more detail.

External focus

Lab managers need to expand their focus from internal matters and company politics in order to develop an externally informed perspective on business opportunities and challenges. By doing so, they develop an understanding of what the firm’s customers need—both immediately and in the long term—and institute projects to meet these needs. This often means instituting external partnerships that deliver value to the firm, its external partners, and its customers.

This can be accomplished by reading trade magazines and research journals to keep updated on relevant new developments. Developing a professional network of contacts within the company and among customer and supplier personnel as well as relevant people in academia and government can also make one aware of new developments and opportunities. Attending conferences to make new contacts and renew existing ones is very useful. Using e-mail and the telephone to develop and maintain these contacts can be quite helpful. Using social media to keep in touch may also be useful depending upon the confidentiality of the subject matter discussed.

An external focus can help industrial laboratory managers overcome limitations in laboratory staffing and other resources by establishing partnerships with university research groups to undertake projects the industrial lab could not undertake on its own. For example, through attending American Chemical Society national meetings, established connections with engineering professors at the University of Maine and the University of Utah, resulting in joint research projects culminating in my employer receiving several patents, developing several new commercial chemical products, and my publishing several peer-reviewed papers in research journals and trade magazines.

Another way to add value through an external focus is to license technology. This requires working closely with your firm’s patent department (if it has one) or through an external intellectual property firm. Technology licensing is a complex process and should not be undertaken without the advice of an intellectual property attorney.

Strategic thinking is a way of analyzing situations that involves developing the best possible solutions for various scenarios and events. It is proactive, not reactive, and requires one to challenge conventional thinking. It requires understanding today’s business and technology environment and extrapolating it in order to anticipate the environment of tomorrow. The goal is to develop action plans for various possible business scenarios. Then, if a critical scenario comes to pass, the company is prepared and has an action plan to implement. To do this, the team must weigh the various risks of each course of action against the rewards.

Strategic thinking is best done in teams. It requires time, and some managers even schedule a retreat to consider strategic plans. Once formulated, these plans must be articulated so everyone understands and buys into the concept.

Perhaps the most famous example of strategic business planning is Shell Oil’s response to the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo that cut off Middle Eastern crude oil supplies to the United States, Europe and Japan. Shell employees had considered this possibility in a scenarios-planning session a couple of years earlier.1 Based on their analyses, Shell modified its refineries to handle crude oil from Latin American countries and sold some of its oil tankers. (Empty, idle tankers became very cheap to charter.)

Commercial mindset

Developing and maintaining a commercial mindset is essential in maintaining your firm’s current business and developing new businesses. Encouraging your staff members to do the same will help your work group outperform competitors.

Understanding how your firm provides value for customers in each business within your purview helps you do this. One can work backward from commercial opportunities to design and prioritize laboratory projects and activities that deliver value.

According to Treacy and Wiersma,2 the three major sources of competitive advantage are operational excellence, product leadership and customer intimacy. In the case of chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers and instrument firms, operational excellence primarily means cost-effective, environmentally acceptable manufacturing processes. Product leadership means providing customers with superior products at a reasonable price. Customer intimacy means understanding your customers’ businesses and needs well enough to develop highly useful products for them.

Seldom can companies, even large ones, excel at all three of these sources of competitive advantage. This enables small and midsize labs to compete with the giants in their industry on more than just price. Managers and their staffs at these modestly-sized laboratories often focus on customer intimacy rather than the more expensive activities required for preeminence in operational excellence and product leadership.


Project management provides a means to ensure delivery of work product on a timely basis. “Projects are the means by which organizations adapt to changing conditions,” says Eric Verzuh, president of The Versatile Company, a training and consulting firm.3 However, laboratory project managers rarely have the formal authority they need to make all the decisions required to complete a project. Therefore, project managers must consult with managers and project stakeholders to access the resources needed for the project.

To achieve project goals on a timely basis, lab managers must persuade staff members to agree on clear accountability. This commitment often must extend beyond those staff members who report to them, to sales and marketing staff members, patent attorneys and production plant operating personnel. Lab managers must agree on clear accountability with these company employees and gain their commitment for the delivery of specific outcomes.

To obtain this commitment, managers have to motivate people to succeed and achieve their goals and to do so in a timely manner. They must require success. This means lab managers must track staff members’ performance and intervene when necessary to ensure that work product is completed and delivered on schedule.


This brings us up to speed in accomplishing goals. To meet deadlines, managers must work with staff members to make informed decisions and manage risks. They must work with the appropriate people to remove barriers to timely decision making and overcome obstructions to quick action. Sometimes this requires removing people from a project and replacing them with other individuals.

The reason for greater speed is the need to decrease time from product conception to commercial production. Advantages of decreasing time to market include earlier revenue, which improves company cash flow and decreases time to profit. Early revenue can be particularly important to startup companies. Delays in achieving substantial revenue from new products can cause investors to pull out and result in budgets being slashed, employee layoffs and even bankruptcy.

To introduce new products and services to market more quickly, companies are finding it rewarding but challenging to incorporate customer suggestions into the products they develop. This may mean including customers on product development teams. Alternatively, technical service personnel could poll customers on what they need.

Greater speed may or may not increase overall development costs. Managers must balance the cost of devoting greater resources to a project in order to more rapidly achieve goals against spending a longer time (while using fewer resources) to achieve project goals at a later date. Should the manager opt for speed, it may mean using more employees or contractors on a project or outsourcing some of the work to another firm. While outsourcing can enable goals to be achieved on a timelier basis or reduce costs, it may come at the cost of project simplicity, making projects more difficult to manage.


Over time, work processes can become bogged down by activities that do not deliver any commercial value. Often these activities are complex (such as intricate approval processes) and increase costs. Lab managers must relentlessly search out these non-value- adding activities and eliminate them.

A good time to do this is immediately after a staff reduction or reorganization. Given that fewer people are available to do the same amount of work, laboratory managers and staff members will be more open to eliminating nonproductive activities that do not contribute to the employer’s profitability.

Building skills, developing attitudes

Senior-level laboratory managers need to create ways for staff members to develop management skills. They also need to provide a clear path to management assignments. Ways to do so include training programs and assignments as team leaders or project managers.

However, doing this has become more difficult. For example, since 2008 and the beginning of the Great Recession, the middle-management level at large companies has been gutted, according to a study by the Corporate Executive Board (CEB). As a result, the remaining managers now have 50 percent more direct reports and 20 percent less time to spend with these reports, according to Brian Kropp, CEB managing director. So managers have less time to serve as mentors and to coach aspiring managers.

Managers need to encourage staff members to take charge of their own career planning and spend their own money if necessary to take short courses or evening classes. Some professional societies such as the American Chemical Society offer webinars, often free, to their members. Other organizations such as Toastmasters International can help your staff members develop specific skills at a reasonable cost.

Active participation in professional societies can help you expand your skill base as well. For example, I learned a lot about managing, first by observing the professional society teams and committees on which I served and then by managing these groups myself. The same was true early in my career for oral presentation skills.

Assignments as team leader also provide opportunities to learn and practice management and leadership skills. “The greatest challenges exist not in implementing new techniques, business practices or technology, but in overcoming the organizational barriers and the resistance to changing the way things are done,” according to management consultant Kenneth A. Crow, president of FRM Associates.


1. Pierre Wack, “Scenarios: Uncharted Waters Ahead,” Harvard Business Review 63(5), 72-89 (1985).

2. Michael Treacy and Fred Wiersma, “The Discipline of Market Leaders: Choose Your Customers, Narrow Your Focus, Dominate Your Market,” Basic Books (June 10, 1997).

3. Eric Verzuh, “The Fast Forward MBA in Project Management,” John Wiley & Sons (1999).