As a scientist with leadership responsibilities, you face a number of unique challenges.
Success creates these challenges; the more leadership responsibility you are given, the more they become part of your life. Let’s start with four of the challenges that impact the lives of scientist leaders I’ve worked with.
1. More Leadership = Less Science
Promotions up the chain of command lead to more involvement in decision making, and more administrative responsibility. This changes the content of your calendar, and the expectations of your peers and upper management about your availability. What gets crowded out? Hands-on science.
Part of the irony, or course, is that you got promoted in part because of your proven capability with hands-on science. And the development of that capability was, for most, a labor of love. Many scientists have said that their promotion into management was a painful experience, as they felt the separation deeply.
Let’s call this issue The Ratio – what portion of your day is spent doing science, and what part doing administrative and leadership activity? One mistake organizations make is to lie to scientists about this when trying to convince them to take the promotion. They hear, “You will still be able to spend XX% of your time doing science.” from their manager or HR, but it exaggerated. This happens far too frequently, and creates long standing trust issues and resentment, and lingering productivity issues.
Leaders usually benefit from peer or professional counsel while making these decisions, and while going through the transition.
2. More Scientific Success = More Politics
When research results in marketable ideas or products, and the economic stakes get raised, political activity increases in frequency, volume, and intensity. Decisions feel critical, time feels limited, and people start jockeying for position as the playing field changes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this – it just is. It can be a positive experience for an organization if managed well.
But, it is difficult to manage well, and can be a negative experience. A new product launch can either strengthen or erode the civility of an organizational culture, for example.
Scientist leaders can find themselves in a confusing personal situation. On the one hand, they are excited about the success, and can join in the organization’s celebratory attitude. On the other, they perceive the success as being the precursor to negative politics for which they are not well prepared and generally discouraged about. This is an internal double message which is tough to reconcile, particularly while staying below their awareness.
3. I Wasn’t Trained for This!
“I didn’t go to grad school so I’d spend my day dealing with someone’s selfish motives!” This is an example of the type of honest outburst I hear from highly successful, very intelligent scientists. Underlying the frustration is a sense of incompetence scientist leaders feel when thrust into the intensity of the social systems of their organization. They have devoted their lives to being scientists, not social workers, negotiators, community organizers, ombudsmen, etc.
Scientists like to feel competent, and science holds competence as a high value. It is understandable and predictable that the demands of leadership would leave them feeling vulnerable about being there, and upset about how they got there.
4. Greater Individual Success = Greater Need for Friends
Scientists tend to see themselves as individual contributors (even the extroverts). Most enjoy group collaboration, yet see it as an enabler of their individual efforts, rather than the starting point for them.
As success accumulates and responsibilities grow, the need for organizational support increases proportionately. There’s a need for a support system, a personal network, and “people who have your back.” This is a common blind spot for scientist leaders. Even when they recognize the need, investing time in relationships often feels like (another) sacrifice of time put into science.
What To Do
If you work in a science based organization, such as a biotech or research institution, some of these challenges may be generally acknowledged as legitimate issues and understood fairly well. Even then, these challenges are often not managed well, and there is inconsistent support for you as an individual as you wrestle with them.
Some of the challenges are not acknowledged or understood at all. These remain below everyone’s consciousness and thus have the potential to be that much more troublesome and powerful.
If you are a scientist that works in an organization that is not science based, then all of these challenges are probably invisible to most of the people working there. That’s a lonely proposition.
The first task then is to make the challenges visible, understood, and a legitimate topic for conversation. The goal is to have acknowledgement at the cultural level (We talk about this stuff once in a while and it isn’t weird.), and at the management level (Making these challenges work for us, rather than against us, is one of our responsibilities as we manage this place.).