While there are specific skills one needs to develop in order to be an effective manager, there are also five mental attitudes or mindsets that aspiring managers need to develop. Specific proficiencies such as oral communication and time management skills are not enough without cultivating these mindsets. These mindsets will determine how you interpret or respond to situations likely to occur in laboratory management.
These mental attitudes are:
- Developing an external focus beyond your company to include your industry, your suppliers and your customers. This is necessary to identify business opportunities and competitive challenges.
- Adopting a commercial mindset. Lab managers need to be involved in identifying commercial opportunities and working back from these opportunities to develop and prioritize laboratory activities that deliver value. This means understanding how your employer makes money within and across its businesses.
- Delivering results by motivating people to succeed, tracking performance, and rewarding success.
- Providing speed in all of the above by making effective decisions in a timely manner, removing barriers to timely action, and managing risk.
- Striving for simplicity by eliminating activities that add unnecessary costs and do not deliver commercial value.
Let’s look at each of these five skills in more detail.
Lab managers need to expand their focus from internal matters and company politics in order to develop an externally informed perspective on business opportunities and challenges. By doing so, they develop an understanding of what the firm’s customers need—both immediately and in the long term—and institute projects to meet these needs. This often means instituting external partnerships that deliver value to the firm, its external partners, and its customers.
This can be accomplished by reading trade magazines and research journals to keep updated on relevant new developments. Developing a professional network of contacts within the company and among customer and supplier personnel as well as relevant people in academia and government can also make one aware of new developments and opportunities. Attending conferences to make new contacts and renew existing ones is very useful. Using e-mail and the telephone to develop and maintain these contacts can be quite helpful. Using social media to keep in touch may also be useful depending upon the confidentiality of the subject matter discussed.
An external focus can help industrial laboratory managers overcome limitations in laboratory staffing and other resources by establishing partnerships with university research groups to undertake projects the industrial lab could not undertake on its own. For example, through attending American Chemical Society national meetings, established connections with engineering professors at the University of Maine and the University of Utah, resulting in joint research projects culminating in my employer receiving several patents, developing several new commercial chemical products, and my publishing several peer-reviewed papers in research journals and trade magazines.
Another way to add value through an external focus is to license technology. This requires working closely with your firm’s patent department (if it has one) or through an external intellectual property firm. Technology licensing is a complex process and should not be undertaken without the advice of an intellectual property attorney.
Strategic thinking is a way of analyzing situations that involves developing the best possible solutions for various scenarios and events. It is proactive, not reactive, and requires one to challenge conventional thinking. It requires understanding today’s business and technology environment and extrapolating it in order to anticipate the environment of tomorrow. The goal is to develop action plans for various possible business scenarios. Then, if a critical scenario comes to pass, the company is prepared and has an action plan to implement. To do this, the team must weigh the various risks of each course of action against the rewards.
Strategic thinking is best done in teams. It requires time, and some managers even schedule a retreat to consider strategic plans. Once formulated, these plans must be articulated so everyone understands and buys into the concept.
Perhaps the most famous example of strategic business planning is Shell Oil’s response to the 1973-74 Arab oil embargo that cut off Middle Eastern crude oil supplies to the United States, Europe and Japan. Shell employees had considered this possibility in a scenarios-planning session a couple of years earlier.1 Based on their analyses, Shell modified its refineries to handle crude oil from Latin American countries and sold some of its oil tankers. (Empty, idle tankers became very cheap to charter.)