Organizations value leadership skills immensely. Leadership ability is usually a hiring criterion. Including this trait in your resume and describing it during interviews will indicate that you can bring leadership qualities to an organization to make things better. But is holding an official leadership title, such as director of a postdoctoral association, the only way to obtain leadership experience? No, in fact, far from it.
In ASCB’s recent webinar on Developing Leadership Skills, Lauren Celano (CEO, Propel Careers) explored many important characteristics of a leader that can be learned and practiced by anyone. Lauren’s take-home message was that, by being aware of the characteristics of a leader and actively practicing to build these skill sets, everybody can develop leadership skills over time.
Below is a summary of four such leadership skills and how to practice them. ASCB members can watch Lauren’s archived webinar here.
Innovation helps set the direction for projects and helps move research forward. You are likely already practicing your innovation skill set. You may be thinking of hypotheses that give direction to your project. During group meetings, you may be steering technical discussions to help your presenting colleagues with their research. You may also be developing new research tools with vendors to enable or optimize your research. Bringing innovative ideas to the table is a valued asset for any organization.
Effective communication is a crucial aspect of leadership. Whether communicating your vision for a project to your team, communicating updates on timelines and deliverables to investors or managers, or communicating science in nontechnical ways to the general public—effective communication is a key leadership skill.
Effective communication is best learned by communicating your thoughts, your vision, and your science to different audiences. Most PhD students or postdocs have likely practiced communication by giving technical presentations of their work, either at lab meetings or at a conference.
Communicating to nonexpert audiences is an equally important skill. Jobs such as teaching, consulting or working as a medical science liaison require the ability to communicate various levels of detail depending on the audience. To practice communicating with nonexperts, you could speak at fundraising events or informational meetings organized by disease nonprofits, engage with your institution’s communications office and write nontechnical summaries of your lab’s latest published discovery, engage with community members at outreach events, or write blog articles (such as for the ASCB Post!)
Get comfortable with the uncomfortable nature of communicating difficult news, such as updates for projects that did not go as planned. This is an essential leadership skill. You can practice this early in your career by communicating the news about a delayed experiment to your supervisor or your collaborator. When communicating difficult news, suggest a solution to ameliorate the problem.
When leading a team to drive a project forward, it is important to know how to inspire and motivate your talented team members. This skill can also be practiced early in one’s career by mentoring a rotating student or a summer intern in the lab. Find out what drives the people who you work with. Is it publication potential? Money? Trying to solve hard problems? A recommendation letter for grad school? Making a difference in the lives of patients? Keep this in mind as you engage each individual.
Set expectations at the start of the project. As the project goes on, provide constructive criticism and address issues quickly. Also, provide opportunities for your team members to grow. Give them opportunities to delegate and take on leadership roles in your projects. This will increase your capacity and will develop trust in your team.
Importantly, obtain feedback on your leadership and management skills from your team. You only learn through practice. Don’t get mad at the constructive criticism your team members may give you—appreciate that they are trying to help you also.
As you practice your leadership skills, it is crucial to pause and reflect on your past day’s or week’s activities. What worked well in your conversation with your collaborator? What would you change? What could you have optimized when you communicated your science to a nonexpert? What skills could you learn to manage a future difficult situation better? Continuously implement improvements. We are always evolving.
About the Author:
Vladimir Botchkarev is the current co-chair of the ASCB Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS) Outreach Subcommittee. He is also a postdoctoral fellow in David Livingston’s lab at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute/Harvard Medical School. Vladimir has established the science outreach program Sharon STEM Talks with help from ASCB COMPASS Outreach funding (https://www.sharonstemtalks.com/) at Sharon High School with help from ASCB COMPASS Outreach funding.