Tips for Managers in Science & Technology

What do Managers in Science & Technology need to know?

Is managing Scientists, Technologists and Engineers any different than managing people in other professions?  Well first of all, we must be careful not to stereotype.  Not every scientist works in a lab and wears a white coat!  But consider that we are generally drawn to our professions due to an alignment with our own strengths and interests.  And those are further reinforced in our education and training, and through experience in our profession.  So managers in science & technology need to recognize that their employees may have ways of thinking that are unique to their profession.

Let’s look at my own example.  I began my career in Science, with an undergraduate degree in Biology.  I always liked the logic and structure of science.  My courses focused on reinforcing the scientific methodology to investigate and analyze.  And almost 35 years later, with several career changes and an MBA, I still tend to think that way.   I still use that approach in my strategic management training and consulting practice.

And so I would like to suggest that yes, managers do need to consider how people in different professions may need a different approach.  We need to align our management style in way that supports our employee’s views of the world.  While Managers don’t need to be experts in their employee’s field, they need to be able to communicate in the “language” of that profession.

Switching our role from technical to leadership

Managers in science & technology have often been promoted from technical positions within their organization.  In my own case, my career progressed through different technical positions, to supervisor and eventually manager.  Over time, I transitioned from the person who does the work, to the person that managed the people that did the work.  It is quite a shift in mindset!  And I learned some tough lessons along the way.  So I really want to help others that may be making that transition from a scientific or technical to a leadership position.  So here’s 4 tips that I learned along the way:

Focus more on the “human side”

If you came from a technical background, you are likely very good at planning, investigating and analyzing.  You probably know how to manage projects and get things done.  And so our natural tendency is to rely on these skills in management.  But we need to balance that with the human side – which may be a very new perspective for some of us.  If you are very new to this, some courses in leadership can be helpful.  But it really comes down to taking an interest in your people.  Ask questions, and involve them in the planning.  Recognize and show appreciation for what they do well.

Be aware of the temptation to “do” and/or control the work

As a manager, your role is to help your employees be successful.  And if you are managing professionals such as scientists, technologists or engineers – chances are that they are experts in their field.  Once again, it takes some awareness to let go of the mindset of DOING.  But continuing to take over the technical work limits both your capacity to manage, and your employee’s opportunities to grow.  And don’t forget to make sure they get the credit and recognition when the project is successful!

Build trust through relationships

As scientists, we often want to just jump into the technical work.  After all – that’s our comfort zone!  We may fear that science and technical people will be put off by team building exercises.  So you need to consider how you can leverage your teams’ common interests to build those relationships.  Whenever I kick off a project with a new technical team, I go around and ask each person to tell us something about themselves.   It often sparks questions and discussion.  We don’t spend too much time on it because I know that they all want to start the technical work.  But I try to incorporate in a little relationship building in each interaction.

Develop your leadership skills

While this may seem obvious, those coming from a technical background can be tempted to continue focusing on their technical skills.  After all, that’s your strength!  That’s not to say that you don’t need to keep up your professional status and accreditation.  That is very important in science, technology and engineering.  But make sure that you also balance the leadership side in your professional development.  Always be aware of whether you are just wanting to slip back into your technical comfort zone.

Balancing Leadership and Management

While I want to share what I learned about transitioning from technical to management, it’s important to remember that each case is unique.  In some cases, managers in science and technology are required to do some level of technical work and maintain their professional qualifications.  My intention here was to raise awareness that we may unconsciously resist fully accepting the leadership role.  It may be based on our own comfort zone, the way we have been trained and our self-image.  Or if we have been promoted within our own organization (as I was), others may continue to expect you to fill your former technical role.

And on the flip side, for Managers that come from other industries, you may find that you need to adapt your style to meet the needs of technical people whom are accustom to structure and analysis.  You may find that people are motivated by different things.  And you will need to learn to speak “the language”, at least enough to communicate effectively with your employees.

So the main point is to be aware of the need for balancing the “structure and control” type of management with the more progressive, open leadership style.  Good leadership always starts with self- awareness.  With an open mind, you can develop your leadership skills through training and experience.

What Management issues are you facing?

Are you a manager in  science & technology, or engineering type organization?  Or are you looking to progress into a management role?  I’m always interested in hearing about and discussing issues that managers are facing.  Please share your thoughts!

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