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Four Essential Leadership Skills for Scientists

Nov 18, 2021

by Juliet Hart

“What do I need to do to get to the next level in my organization?”

“How can I effectively transition in my scientific career?”

“How do I gain support for my innovative ideas?”

These are the types of questions scientists regularly ask me. To answer them, I draw from my own experience, as well as that of others working with scientists, and the conclusions are surprisingly similar. In addition to the time and background required of a STEM professional, there are four essential skills senior leaders, hiring managers, and even investors consistently look for in a strong leader: collaboration, adaptability, communication, and the ability to create a shared vision.

These skills focus on the ability to work with others and effectively lead a team. Through experience, training, and coaching—with continuous feedback and practice—you can further develop these essential abilities to become a successful leader in science.

Collaboration

Scientists who are early in their careers are expected, independently, to develop ideas for their research projects, execute their experiments, and write their thesis or dissertation. This rigorous development of analytical and independent critical thinking is deemed crucial to the scientific endeavor. But once you step outside of the role of student, the expectations change. You quickly find that the need to collaborate, partner, and work with others is increasingly important in expanding your resources and capabilities, and advancing your work.

There are many ways in which you can become a good collaborator. Examples include effectively listening to others, fostering a supportive environment, and owning your agreed upon responsibilities. But one misconception that can get you into trouble is that good collaborators must always give in to others. Actually, learning how to productively and respectfully disagree is more important and impactful to a team’s ultimate success. Knowing how to disagree constructively is also the first crucial step in driving innovation.

Adaptability

Far too often, I have heard non-scientist managers or colleagues express their wish that their scientist report or co-worker be “coachable,” meaning that the scientist should be open to feedback and to trying different approaches. This desire usually comes from a collaborator wishing that the scientist could see the situation from another perspective or could better understand the needs of others. In my experience coaching scientists, I have found that they are absolutely “coachable.” The coaching outcome is best, however, when a very logical approach is taken to address their needs and the needs of others on their team. In other words, just appealing to emotions or intuition alone, or creating a sense of urgency, is often not enough to compel a scientist to take action. Having reasoned arguments with supporting evidence helps to drive action.

Yet, there definitely is a great urgency for scientists to enhance their adaptability. Learning to flex during ambiguity and address the needs of the people around you is an important skill for achieving your team’s goals and for finding success in the workplace. Being adaptable means that you can continually find ways to learn from challenges, learn not to repeat past mistakes, gain broader perspectives, and increase your capability to manage future needs.

Communication

The ability of scientists to communicate the value of their work is a skill particularly challenging for experts in some specialized fields. To explain the complexities of your work in a way that is clear enough for the layperson to understand requires a considerable amount of empathy for your listener, and quite often a shift in mindset. When scientists speak to fellow scientists and share data, they expect the other scientists to think critically about the information and its limitations. Through their conversations, they continually challenge the science and push it forward. But when nonscientists listen to a scientist, they are trying to comprehend the information and figure out how it applies to them and their situation.

Scientists who cannot describe their research in a meaningful context for their listeners face true limitations: how will they explain its significance and how does it translate into value in the workplace? It can take a fair amount of effort for scientists to “switch gears” and think about the perspectives of nonscientists, think about how much the public comprehends, adapt their explanations, and ultimately begin communicating in terms that resonate for laypeople. Learning how to communicate with the broader public is an active skill that I work on with many clients, helping them learn how to distill complex ideas into what is most important for their audience, while not oversimplifying or coming across as too negative and unwilling to engage.

Creating a Shared Vision

Creating and communicating a vision may feel like an uncertain and ambiguous task to many scientists, but having this shared vision is foundational to effective leadership and a successful outcome. It is important to understand the real challenges you are faced with, the changes you want to see, and then articulate this understanding and your needs. Without this clarity, it is hard to sustain your team’s motivation to achieve its research goals. Also, it is easy to get wrapped up in just making minor contributions to the bigger research picture without ever owning it. You must own your vision, commit to it, be responsible for it, and believe that it is achievable. By creating this vision and clearly expressing it, you make it possible for others to share it, align with its goals, and commit to achieving the vision with you.

Achieving Success

Enhancing these four essential skills is critical for your success as a scientist and for the success of your team. Further developing these skills can open you up to opportunities that were not accessible before and will support your journey as a leader. For me, personally, I envision a future with more influential STEM leaders. Toward that end, I will continue to create resources to support and empower scientists on their leadership journeys to create a better world and I ask you to join me.

About the author: The principal and founder of Hart & Chin Associates, LLC, AWIS member Juliet Hart is uniquely focused on providing professional development for scientists. Using the combination of her experiences in scientific research and learning and development, she delivers innovative tools and strategic solutions that address the multitude of challenges that exist for professional scientists and their organizations.

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