Learning to Lead

Last night, this tweet came across my timeline

(If you’re on Twitter and don’t follow the @realscientists account, consider changing that. It provides a great peek into the work of various scientists. This tweet is from Jehannine Austin, aka @j9_austin)

I was surprised to discover that I couldn’t really answer that question, at least not in a short tweet. I don’t lead a research team (and never did), but I did spend more than 10 years leading teams of scientists, engineers, and IT professionals to create and support tools and systems that helped other scientists do their research. How did I learn how to do that?

I have had some formal management training over the years. I was first promoted into management at a large company that provided training, and later worked at a smaller company that decided to bring in some training for its middle managers. Although I learned something from all of the trainings I took, I don’t think they taught me how to lead a team. The training courses were excellent for operational details like how to manage a budget and what to think about when planning a project. One class I took also provided a lot of useful information about how differing personalities and personal value systems create potential issues.

But the details about how to actually manage those differences, or how to get a group of people to do the work I wanted done, or how to figure out what work should be done in the first place… I don’t think I learned any of that in a class.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that those things couldn’t be taught in a class. In fact, I think they could be. But they weren’t taught in the training I’ve been offered over the course of my career.

However, I did learn those sorts of things, or at least enough about them to do my job. These are the sort of things that I think you never stop learning more about, if you’re interested.

So how did I start to learn them? It started with good mentors, even before I became a manager.

As I discovered while preparing a talk for a symposium honoring my graduate advisor, I learned a lot without realizing it from watching how he ran his lab. (The workthe outcomewas important, but people came first. From this, I learned that a large part of getting things done as a leader is matching the right work to the right people.)

Later, I had a mentor who gave me such useful performance feedback that I still refer back to some of it today, more than a decade later. (Key observation: I need to slow down and be more patient with other people. They are not in my head and cannot be expected to keep up with me if I don’t make my reasoning explicit.)

Once I became a manager, I was fortunate to have someone who could mentor me on some key operational aspects of being someone’s boss. (E.g., find out what your team is worried about and fix it. Worries slow them down.)

I also learned a lot about what not to do by watching the people around me. Don’t let problems between people fester and assume “they’ll work it out.” The solution they find may be that the one you most want to keep on your team decides to leave. Always deliver bad news in person. Disperse any credit you receive to your team, and absorb as much blame as you can. And much more. (One of the frightening things about leadership is just how many ways there are to screw up.)

And I started reading. Some of the things I’ve read and found most useful are on my resources page.  It is woefully incomplete, though. Once I realized that my main work would be management, I started reading things about management. I kept my scientific training, though. So much of what works and what doesn’t in management depends on the details of the people and the circumstances in which they work. Therefore, it is rare to come across management adviceeven advice backed by researchthat is universally applicable. This means that rather than just assuming what I read is “right,” I take it as an idea to try. I obviously could not run properly controlled experiments on my teams. But I could have a hypothesis about how something I was trying would affect our outcomes, and notice whether or not the results supported that hypothesis.

Like I said, I think that the process of learning how to lead a team is a never-ending one. That can be a bit daunting to people who would rather focus on the work the team is trying to accomplish. However, even a little bit of effort in learning how to best achieve that work is likely to pay off, so I try to think of the never-ending nature of the learning process as a feature, not a bug. It means that I can always do better, and that setbacks are only temporary!

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