6 August 2018 – Starting out as a new group leader provides researchers with an opportunity to develop their research vision and shape their own questions, putting their scientific training to use on a topic that interests them. But new principal investigators must also get to grips with responsibilities for which they have often received little training: recruitment and management of staff, leadership, budgeting, dealing with conflicts, mentoring and many more; tasks that are also relevant for the quality of the research done in their laboratories and, ultimately, their success as leaders.
In this article, scientists who attended the EMBO Lab Leadership course talk about getting the best out of their teams and research.
Team building as priority
Members of Farah Ishtiaq’s group at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India study how malaria is introduced and spreads in bird species. Her team members spend their days monitoring seven distinct field sites at different altitudes – from the jungle up into the Himalayan mountains. The job can involve long hours, difficult conditions, intense periods together, and long times apart. “When people are spread across different sites it can be very isolating, even if they are working towards a common goal. It is important to prioritise team building and clear and inclusive communication to overcome this,” Ishtiaq explains. “In the field, sometimes we set out at 4:30 am and trek to an observation site – it might start out sunny, but two hours later we could be in the middle of a hail storm. Not everyone copes in the same way and some aspects can be stressful, especially if they did not go to plan. As a leader, it is important for me to keep a high energy and create a good atmosphere. You need to be mindful about how you are feeling as it can impact your entire team.”
Ishtiaq leads a team of seven and was a participant on one of the first ever EMBO Lab Leadership courses run in India in March this year. “You are dealing with people and it is the job of the leader to get the best out of them,” she says of her role. “The important things that I learned on the lab leadership course are the importance of giving good feedback, to communicate clear expectations, how to react to potential conflicts in the workplace, and to be assertive.”
EMBO Member Andreas Ladurner, who first took the EMBO leadership course in early 2005 as a group leader, and who is now head of the Department of Physiological Chemistry at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, Germany, says that there is always more to learn as a leader. “It’s important to seek advice; this is a strength, not a weakness. I used to think that there was a recipe to be a manager, but I have learned that you just need to be yourself.”
His group studies chromatin and the mechanisms that help to govern the function and adaptability of our genome to new environments. “I have learned that you also need to show and communicate that you care,” he says of leading a team. “This could be by prioritising opportunities to help team members excel in their careers, but is also important at the emotional level – casual conversations can help you to learn about your team members and their distinct needs and abilities.”
One of the key things about understanding and working with your team is accepting that they are not all the same and that you will need to be flexible to get the best from them. “Science is a people business: everyone comes with different ideas, skill sets, backgrounds, and needs,” Ladurner says.
“Rather than trying to get everyone to fit into your formula, it is important to recognize and support their differences. I believe everyone has an intrinsic drive and ambition: you need to manage that, meet regularly, find out who they are and what motivates them. In my group, I really want people to invent – that requires a structured freedom or an intentional defocus. There are great opportunities to be taken by going into new areas by trying to find new connections between established fields.”
Consider individual strengths
Ekaterina Shelest, Head of the Bioinformatics Unit at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) in Leipzig, Germany, has found that it can be challenging to help very creative people focus enough to finish projects. “One of my students was very talented and was always coming up with a lot of great new ideas, but I needed him to focus,” she recalls. “On the EMBO Lab Leadership course, we learned coaching techniques – breaking down tasks into manageable pieces, setting intermediate goals, monitoring progress, meeting regularly and giving feedback and guidance. I have seen a different world of leadership and this has been especially important for work with my PhD students: the outcome is remarkable.”
Shelest took the course in February of this year to support her leadership of multidisciplinary work that combines areas such as sequence analysis, -omics data integration, and the functional analysis of genomes. She says it is important for a leader not to get buried in the detail. “Our field develops very fast, and a Master’s student may be more advanced than a group leader in terms of ‘narrow’ technical aspects of the work,” she says. “This is great: it’s the leader’s role to focus on the broader scientific view, delegate tasks, help people to excel and to set ambitious, but realistic goals. My job is to provide the overarching vision that touches the interests of everyone and lay out the goals that can help our team to achieve its best work.”
One of the ways to do that, she says, is to consider the strengths and preferences of each team member. “Personal interests and inclinations are very important: select the tasks and challenges that people like to do, set them ambitious targets, and above all, be yourself and do what you are good at.”
The experiences of researchers who have attended an EMBO Lab Leadership course show that there is no rulebook for becoming a great leader. Rather, by applying models, tools and concepts to the huge range of challenges that science leaders face, it can bring out the best qualities of a team. And that, in turn, benefits science.