You have worked hard, paid your dues, and that coveted leadership position has finally come your way. After the initial euphoria has worn off, you realize that you’re in over your head… Does this scenario sound familiar to you? It does to me, as it is a brief overview of what occurred with my first leadership role. Many of us in leadership have had positions given to us with the only direction provided was, “Make it work.” This happens for many varied reasons, which could start a whole separate blog discussion. For this edition, however, I would like to share some of the wisdom I have accrued over the years in different organizations. My goal is to help the reader aspiring to leadership or early-career leaders to better hone and develop their skills.
These Leadership Competencies are just like the technical competencies we have to assess annually: they are skills that can be learned and perfected over time. To be the best leader you have to practice and practice and practice, placing yourself in uncomfortable situations where you can best grow and develop. Some of the items I discuss here may seem to be common sense, but they are a retrospective review of the things I wish I knew (or had been trained on) when I was starting my leadership journey.
Competency 1: Develop Your Business Acumen
While this may seem antithetical to being a technical laboratory leader, the reality is that the laboratory world is an industry and requires knowledge and understanding of the laboratory business. While I’m not advocating a degree in accounting or a MBA, a basic understanding of business principles will serve you well in your leadership journey. This is not only a recommendation to be able to read and understand basic financial documents, but it is also a recommendation to become knowledgeable in areas important to the business of the laboratory. As most senior leaders don’t really know exactly what we do in the lab, they will lean on you to be a subject matter expert in histopathology. This expertise includes knowledge of current and future policies, trends, and technology that can impact your lab.
If you find that this is an area where you can look to improve, it is not too difficult to develop your business acumen. There are industry-specific periodicals you can subscribe to, or you can purchase self-help books on basic business principles. One of the best resources to becoming that subject matter expert is involvement with industry-specific organizations like the NSH. We have many excellent resources for histologists of all types.
Competency 2: Cultivate Relationships
This competency will be one of the most challenging ones if you are a natural introvert like I was. Relationships of all types will be key to your success as a leader. These include relationships up, down, internal, external, and peer-to-peer. Relationships are an investment you have to make as a leader but should never be viewed as transactional. You need to be sincere, authentic, and approachable, as well as consistent! Think back to your experience as a new tech when you had a leader who was inconsistent in how they interacted with the staff. Not knowing whether Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde would show up on any day made things a bit more difficult for the team.
One relationship I would recommend you really look to develop is peer relationships. It is often a difficult job being a leader, and having a peer who can help you – literally and figuratively – will serve you immensely. Most often, peer leaders will be experiencing the same challenges you are, and just having an understanding voice to talk with can be invaluable. If you have a hard time with cultivating these relationships, being more open and accommodating with your peers will help foster these relationships.
If you struggle connecting, it will be very uncomfortable to take the first step engaging others. I can say, from experience, that it does get easier over time. It helped me to have a sort of script in my mind of what I wanted to discuss as I was rounding on the team. The most important thing in connecting to others, however, is the time commitment. If you stop to ask someone a question, stick around to hear the answer, good or bad. Superficial attempts to engage people (especially with your direct team) will lose you much credibility and trust with your team – and there can be no relationship without trust.
Competency 3: Build a Strong Team
While this may seem like common sense, allow me to elaborate. Most organizations like to emphasize teamwork; however they usually reward individual achievement. They will also sometimes hire or promote those who refuse or resist the idea of tying their performance to that of others. How many of you have sat through performance reviews without any mention or discussion of team goals?
The key to building a successful team lies in identifying and enumerating team goals, considering the unique skills and attributes of the individuals on the team. These goals should be cascaded as close to the front lines as you can get them. If you work in a 24-hour lab with multiple shifts, then you could have separate goals for each shift team that may not be like the others. Blending those goals into a working, actionable plan for day-to-day success will be the most challenging part of leading from the front lines.
If you find that the team is confused about its direction, the best course of action is to establish a common cause and a shared mindset, using the mission and vision of your organization as a guide. A simple technique you can use is changing terminology from “I” to “We” whenever you can. If possible, letting the team be involved in the creation of the goals will be a huge plus to enhancing that shared mindset and commitment key to achieving them.
Competency 4: Set the Example
This may also sound like common sense and easy to accomplish, but it’s not so simple. As a leader, you are always “on stage,” meaning that your team will always be watching and observing you. How you conduct yourself will signal to the team the conduct you find permissible. Over time, your team will unconsciously align themselves with your values. Defensiveness, lack of composure, and insensitivity to the needs and concerns of others will be hard for you – and the team – to overcome. It is vital to understand that the behaviors you expect from your team will have to be modeled by you. If you expect your team to be on time, you need to be on time. If you expect your team to help each other, you will have to pitch in and help when needed, too. Living and embodying the values you want your team to emulate is essential! It may be difficult and frustrating sometimes to maintain that consistency in behavior, especially when you are tired and get no relief, but overall it will be worth it.
Competency 5: Own Your Leadership
This competency is one of the most difficult for first time leaders to understand. This also dovetails a bit with a competency about being a good follower. What I mean here is that often initiatives, goals, and processes are driven top-down. Sometimes these are unpopular and met with resistance by the team. You, as the leader, may also not agree or support the proposal. Because you are the front-line face of leadership to your team, this will not make you the most popular person in the room. Unfortunately, leadership is not a popularity contest. When such a situation arises, it may be tempting to communicate these unpopular proposals in such a way as to not own it. When you say, “That’s what was told to me” or “We were told to do it this way…” you are passively passing the buck and not owning it. While you may privately not support an initiative, you must own it or you risk losing credibility with the team and are guilty of not supporting your own leaders. Try to avoid these passive situations and do your best to sell change, even unpopular ones.
A Final Word
A final word on leadership is that it is often difficult. You will feel pressure from above and pressure from below, which can make the job frustrating, difficult, and sometimes lonely. By becoming good practitioners of the five competencies listed here, they will help you to become a more consistent, effective, and respected leader within and outside of your organization. While this list is a good start, these are not the only competencies that will help you. Other competencies I can recommend you studying include decision-making and decision quality, problem solving, dealing with ambiguity, organizing, planning, and time management. The Leadership Journey is never a completed saga; rather it is a process of continual growth, development, and striving to be better than you were yesterday.
Written by: Jason Molnar, BS, HT (ASCP), QIHC (ASCP)