PhD Career Series: Finding and Developing Your Inner Leader

We often don’t think about leadership in grad school and what it means to be a true leader. Often, you are a lone ranger in the lab, and are rarely exposed to a cross-functional team environment in academia- which is typically seen in highly matrix-driven organizations when you enter industry (this of course, will depend on the size of the company).

The fact of the matter is that once you graduate and enter the workforce, you are going to have to demonstrate and develop your leadership skills in order to be successful and move forward in your career. No one helped me during my PhD, and now that I am 5 years post-PhD graduation- I wanted to share the importance of being a great leader, what this fully encompasses, and how to fully develop it.

Douglas McArthur once said, “Leadership is action, not position.” Leaders inspire, influence, and instill in others the motivation, enthusiasm and the drive to achieve and be successful. As a leader takes his or her team into the unknown (just as you’ve done during your PhD program going into uncharted territory with your research), he or she must have the confidence, courage, and compassion to be an effective leader.

When we think of traditional leaders, we may think of ‘management’ or the power and control that goes with it. However, good leadership can be exhibited regardless of whether you are a CEO with 40 years of experience, a mid-level Lab Manager, or a PhD bench Scientist with only a year or two of experience.

General comments on what makes a good leader

When a leader fully understands her purpose and role, and how this fits into the overall mission and vision of the company, this creates true value for her employer and an impact across the entire organization.

His or her goal is to breed confidence and contagiously spread inspiration throughout the team and organization, as great leaders coach, teach, and mentor their team. The leader drives team members to accomplish their own personal goals and reach new heights, accelerating the team and company forward.

In the fast-paced biopharma world, personal growth and success depends on decisive action. After all, there are clear distinctions and culture differences between academia versus industry. Leaders must remain open to adaptive change, be able to make important decisions, and yet always be held accountable. A good leader is not afraid to admit when they don’t know all the answers. A leader is hungry to become a credible expert in their field and continuously acquire knowledge. He or she is also an effective problem solver and positive motivator.

Above all, good leaders know how to listen, and they do so in a selfless, humble manner. A ‘know it all’ leader will be counterproductive for any team and will only hurt team morale. You will have to put your academic mindset and ego to the side because it isn’t really all about you anymore. Make sure you understand what matters after grad school, so you are fully prepared before graduation.

What type of leader are you?

When it comes to leadership style, one size certainly does not fit all. The style must be appropriate to the person or task(s) at hand. An effective leader should adapt their style to a team member’s strengths or experience, and apply a unique combination of styles. Knowing how to “read” others will depend on high emotional intelligence and good listening skills.

According to Dr. Daniel Goleman in his Harvard Business Review article titled, “Leadership that Gets Results,” there are six styles of workplace leadership based on data from more than 3,000 executives:

The Visionary – “Come with Me”

A visionary leader is motivated by the need for change and guiding a vision, and he or she knows how to use this to inspire. This type of leader provides clarity on the shared vision, and allows team members to find the best way to get there. The change is executed by commitment of the members within the group. More experienced peers may however, be harder to get onboard.

The Affiliate – “People Come First”

An affiliative leader is driven by building teams to make sure followers, teammates, and departments all feel connected.

The affiliate promotes unity and collaboration among followers, and is driven to solve conflicts that present themselves. Followers typically receive praise from this style of leader, but poor performance may often go unchecked.

The Coach – “Try This”

The coaching or mentoring style of leadership aims to develop people for the future, specifically to help an employee improve performance or develop strengths, with a long term focus on impact and value creation. A coach typically has high emotional intelligence, is empathetic, and is ideal for those who are early in their career. However, the downside of being a coach long-term is that it can lead to micromanagement.

The Democrat – “What do you think?”

The democratic leader creates consensus through participation and collaboration. The goal is to gain buy-in, while gathering valuable input from team members to leverage their expertise to help shape or drive decisions, giving them a ‘voice’ in the process. However, it can have the effect of slowing down projects, decision making, or overall progress.

The Commander – “Do what I tell you” (less favorable) – Your PI unfortunately may fall in this category for the most part

The commander demands immediate compliance when it comes to instructions given. He or she tends to be competitive, driven, and assertive. He or she enjoys blazing new trails, and making high impact decisions. This is typically seen during a crisis stage, such as with a pressing business issue or problem employee, where a quick turnaround is needed and immediate action is required to course-correct.

The negative side of this type of leadership is it can result in seeming cold or distant, and may fall short when it comes to team buy-in.

The Pacesetter – “Do as I do, now” (less favorable)

The pacesetting leader sets very high performance standards and exemplifies them. This style of leadership is all about doing things better and faster, and having everyone on the same page. The goal is to get quick results from a highly motivated, competent, and independent team.

This can also be a negative style of leadership as it may make team members feel is if they are falling short, and can result in fatigue or burn out.

Develop the “inner leader” in you

Now that you have a good idea of some of the leadership styles out there (which again are adaptable and unique to your situation), it is time to shift gears a bit into some self-discovery and assessment. The best leaders are the best learners, regardless of leadership style, as this all starts with a good leadership development plan and having a solid grasp on where you are now.

Acknowledge and build your unique inner strengths: A good leader is a continuous, lifelong learner, which a PhD has fully prepared you for- you have been highly trained to read the latest research papers and stay up to date in your field, learn and acquire new lab skills, etc. When you graduate this is not the end game- it’s just the beginning. You must continue this same attitude and non-stop learning process throughout your entire career.

A good leader recognizes and understands inner strengths, current limitations, and is aware of what it takes to further develop and grow. If you are not already self-aware of what your strengths and weaknesses are, a feedback process (such as a 360 degree feedback) may help these come to light.

Map out traits and actionable items to become a better leader: Think of ways that you are evolving as a leader in your current role. Did you train your team on how to use a new system or application? Maybe it was a new lab bench skill, experiment, or assay that you pioneered and passed onto others?

Make a list of these behaviors and try to come up with creative ways that will further develop them. Also think of someone who is a leader, someone you admire, and examine the traits they possess. Your professional development plan should include these as actionable items. Lastly, a mentor, ideally outside your organization, will help coach you through your career and provide a ‘reality check’ of where you can improve.

Recognize your mistakes or failures, and learn from them: Everyone is going to make mistakes, and this is actually an essential part of becoming a greater leader. Your journey here begins with being able to reflect on the feedback you get from others on those mistakes, as well as your own critical review, and then adopting new ways of thinking from these valuable lessons.

Embrace and learn to overcome your fears: Make a list of challenges that have been weighing you down. Don’t be afraid to confront issues or step out of your comfort zone. You are not on your own, so reach out to your network for guidance and support. If you give in every time, you won’t advance and the fears that you face today will continue tomorrow. Focus your energies on developing new, healthy leadership habits founded on courage.

Be proactive about the change you want to see: In many ways, we have to be the CEO of our own careers. And we need to learn to think like entrepreneurs, regardless of our role. An “Intrapreneur” is an employee of an organization who acts and thinks like an entrepreneur, and these are highly regarded staff in many organizations. Put yourself in your manager’s shoes and ask- what can we do better, and what questions haven’t we addressed already for our customers? Look for ways where you can get “small wins,” which will build over time and gain some needed visibility.

Build on your expertise and credibility: Be a leader who is curious, enthusiastic, and passionate. In the world of science, there is something new to learn every day. As you become more of an expert in your field, credibility will follow along with team buy-in and trust.

The shift from growing your career to growing others

Jack Welch in his book, Winning, hits the nail on the head: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” In other words, when you advance in your career as a PhD and grow as a leader, eventually it will be time to give back and develop others in your workplace to create more great leaders.

This is why it is so important to choose your boss, not your job, as the importance of finding and working under a good mentor cannot be overstated. After all, it will be very challenging to develop as a leader if you work for a company that does not have an ideal culture that promotes career/professional development, and/or a boss who doesn’t truly support or mentor you. So choose wisely. A PhD does not guarantee you a job, a good company fit, or even a great boss for that matter. These can make or break your career.

Developing yourself and others into leaders is a process. Don’t rush it; you will see that once you have the motivation to grow, coupled with execution, it becomes a natural part of your life as a leader.

Remember- your leadership development list does not have to be exhaustive, as there is no ‘perfect’ leader. As you go down your career path, be patient in the journey of becoming a better leader and giving back to others. The time invested and will pay huge career dividends.