Honing Your Management and Leadership Skills in University

9 Apr 2021 2:16 PM | Manager GPDN (Administrator)

Universities are safe spaces where trainees can hone their management and leadership skills.

Universities provide opportunities to develop management and leadership skills through research. Research programs can be compared to a small business: They raise capital (grants) and produce products (intellectual property). Like any small business owner, be it a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker, a budding investigator starts as a technician with some special acumen. However, to grow their enterprise, they must learn management and they must learn leadership. In this context, Leadership is the ability to influence people to achieve a vision, while management is the ability to granularly coordinate said achievement.

In the research setting, the investigator is the entrepreneur and leader that looks to the future. They are the imagination behind the program and the catalyst for direction. However, without the manager, there would be no planning, no order, no predictability and of course no research. Meanwhile, the technician is the doer working through tasks, one at a time. Because of competing concerns, drivers, and perspectives, there is tension in the system. This can be a problem for young investigators and the reason why research trainees should be exposed to the full complement of management and leadership training. 

A young investigator needs to recognize the three competing personalities and to give them balance. One of the most common failures is the temptation to only do the technician role. Young investigators must resist this temptation and instead be prepared to be the visionary. They must also avoid the temptation to micromanage and have their hands in everything. By building trust and a clear communication of expectations, with some of the early hires, the lab will begin to run itself, leaving the professor time to not only grow their research program, but also take on the many other roles they will be expected to play inside the University. 

Unfortunately, however, research is becoming more complex as it moves away from single-investigator (Mode 1) towards multi-stakeholder (Mode 2) driven research. In addition to investigators coming from different disciplines and institutions, funding sources may also be diverse with each partner bringing different expectations to program. A similar trend also occurs in industry, which has also moved towards product-focused, multi-disciplinary teams. In this model, members of different divisions (research, marketing, finance) bring different perspectives (and vocabularies) to the product development table. Companies can also include customers who commonly bring a pragmatic view to product development. Team members must value the perspectives each member brings to the team and communicate clearly without jargon. 

Industry recognizes that management and leadership are learned through teamwork. Teamwork is a critical skill that they look for in new recruits. Recruiters will ask interviewees about their teamwork experience: how they may have helped to resolve a roadblock or a conflict within a team, for example. What they are fishing for with these questions is a picture of one’s emerging management and leadership skills. Within teams, management and leadership is often distributed meaning that individuals lead in activities toward a common set of goals. Some of these activities may be skills related, and roles may be decided upon specific acumen. However, others can be more related to team dynamics (facilitator, recorder, organizer, prodder, supporter, etc.). Each of these roles can be important to reach a point of cooperation and synergy that is expected of a team.  

In raising questions about teamwork, recruiters are enquiring about other skills central to teamwork, such as effective communication and goal orientation, which are critical to the success of their organization. Industry feels that the employee’s ability to communicate, cooperate and work efficiently in diverse environments are critical skills needed to succeed in today’s fast paced corporate environment. Industry lives and breathes “mission critical projects”, which are projects that can make or break the company. Hence, they are only interested in individuals who understand the importance of working synergistically towards goal achievement.

Figure illustrating that as individuals move from Masters to PhD to PDF roles, both leadership and management skills increase.

Considering these new complexities, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows should seek opportunities to learn management and leadership skills. Both are part of a spectrum of training that reflects the basic hierarchy of a research program from technician to manager to leader. Through research, Masters students learn basic management skills including self management, project management, stakeholder management, etc. Further into their training and possibly transitioning into PhD, trainees begin to learn rudimentary leadership, through mentoring, negotiating, and collaboration. As PhD students are expected to work independently, project management is strengthen

Universities represent a safe space where trainees can hone their management and leadership skills. There is no better time to experiment with developing these important skills. Many trainees are already sharing work with lab mates or are even collaborating with colleagues nearby or across the country. However, the structures of these teams are not formal, the roles are not defined, and the synergy is lacking. Why not suggest the idea of adding some structure around these collaborations for the sake of your training? Similarly, trainees should involve themselves in multidisciplinary projects and committee work. Finally, trainees should consider starting and leading an initiative that improves their university in some small way. Universities are often keen to support these initiatives and to help trainees to grow as managers and leaders. ed, while competitive intelligence and strategic planning begin to be learned and practised. Likewise, senior PhD students and postdocs become entrepreneurial, developing a vision for their own future research program. 


About the Author:

Derrick E. Rancourt is a professor in the Departments of Oncology, Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, and Medical Genetics at the University of Calgary. He is an entrepreneurial scientist and Director of Alberta’s Provincial Genome Engineering Centre. Derrick also teaches biotechnology business and professional development in the Cumming School of Medicine and is a Director of the Alberta Council of Technologies.

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