Moving From the Bench to Management: How to Become an Effective Leader

Pictured: Two researchers work together in a lab/g

Pictured: Two researchers work together in a lab/g

gorodenkoff/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Here are some of the skills and tools life science researchers and scientists can use to become successful managers.

Pictured: Two researchers work together in a lab/iStock, gorodenkoff

While scientists are often thought of as individual workers, being productive in a team is required for any researcher who wants to move their projects forward. A good manager can be the one to help these teams reach their goals.

Effective management is useful in many other areas across the industry as well. For example, journal articles are made up of the work and writings of multiple people, and training and mentoring new recruits is often a group effort.

How to Move Into a Management Role

If you’re thinking about moving from the bench into a management role, here are some of the skills and tools life science researchers and scientists can use to become successful managers.

Empowerment and Community

As outlined by Asana, good managers and good leaders are not always the same thing. Managers need to be able to motivate and empower their team in addition to managing their day-to-day tasks, as inspiring staff encourages productivity.

Fostering a healthy workplace also includes encouraging talented employees to stay and build knowledge and experience that in turn helps the team. While leaders are focused on the bigger picture, Asana reported, a great manager is on the ground, mentoring and problem-solving.

“If you enjoy working with people and problem-solving, then it’s definitely worth making the change” to management, Paul Xuereb, state manager of training company Create Train Achieve, told BioSpace. “You get a real sense of pride in building something with your team.”

Knowing how to work with people is key to being an effective manager. Forbes advises that understanding your staff’s career goals and providing opportunities to upskill are great ways to provide support, as well as giving regular feedback and encouragement.

“Your first manager role is about coordination,” Xuereb said. “It’s about looking after people, and how well you do that will make your job easier in the long run.”

Networking and Communication

According to research by Harvard Business Review, most leaders spend 85% or more of their time in collaborative activities, so make sure you’re attending meetings, workshops and conferences wherever possible.

While in those group settings, language specific to any specialized industry, especially the life sciences, can be lost on people from different career backgrounds, so make sure you’re telling people what they need to know in the most accessible way possible.

In other words, drop the jargon. Draw on your science communications skills and make sure your staff can understand and relate to you. Be an active listener and communicate what you need to your employees without complexity.

Project Management

Making sure employees know what their role is and what work is expected of them is part of good project management. When delegating tasks, it’s important to be clear and check in with employees so they feel supported and confident in their roles.

Budgets and resource allocation are often a constant pressure on scientific research. Experience in making sure resources are spent where they will be most effective, and keeping costs down so lab work can continue, is easily repurposed to suit management roles.

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking and logical assessment give a manager the ability to direct a project and take the next step. While long-term thinking is useful, the ability to align current goals with organizational strategies is a must. This involves understanding the context of the work involved, identifying opportunities for growth and making decisions that contribute to the overall success of the organization.

Scientists are used to applying critical thinking skills and training and excel in using their logical minds as managers.

Even so, Xuereb advised new managers to take their time before implementing any changes.

“Don’t try to reinvent the wheel when you first get there,” Xuereb said. “Say, ‘I’m here to help,’ and take a soft approach to start with, looking closely at how things are running. Learn about the project, see who’s good at what and build from there.”

Emotional Intelligence and Flexibility

As noted in Elsevier, be mindful that when you move into management, you may experience less time working solo, a drop in the complexity of tasks and different measures of success. Being able to adapt and keep an open mind will serve you well as you shift away from lab work, so try to be open to new ideas while growing alongside your team.

Additionally, deadlines can be much tighter for managers, and it’s important not to always strive for perfection. Know when your employees have done enough and move on to the next task.

Being aware of employees’ unique strengths and weaknesses is also key. Using emotional intelligence to understand others and empathize with them can make you both approachable and able to assign work to the individuals best suited for it. It can facilitate better conflict resolution and build positive relationships with your employees to create a more supportive work environment.

Knowing your staff well and who they are will serve you well in managing them. As described in Science, paraphrasing author Ken Blanchard, “a manager succeeds by the maintenance or enhancement of relationships, not specific tasks.”

As for management styles, Xuereb said that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

“Some people need more rigidity, so being a friend-like manager won’t work for them. They need a ‘traditional’ boss. The best of both attitudes is the way to go.”

It’s important to be aware of yourself as a manager. By knowing yourself and your own strengths and weaknesses, you can leverage your best qualities and find a leadership style that suits you.

As noted by the American Chemical Society, self-awareness can allow you to take on new responsibilities within the framework of who you are, making you a better manager for your employees.