How do I manage my team of 10+ researchers without losing my mind <ahem> or otherwise having things fall apart? I’m often asked this, as I was today (10 December; I ruminated before posting this as I worried it was too boring). Whether those undesirable things have truly not transpired is perhaps debatable, but I’m still here and so is my team and their funding, so I take that as a good sign overall. But I usually give a lame answer to that question of how I do it all, like “I have no secrets, I just do it.” Which is superficially true, but…
Today was that time of year at the RVC when I conduct appraisals of the performance and development of my research staff, which is a procedure I once found horridly awkward and overly bureaucratic. But now that it focuses more on being helpful by learning from past missteps and plotting future steps in a (ideally) realistic fashion than on box-ticking or intimidation, I find the appraisals useful. The appraisals are useful at least for documenting progress and ensuring that teammates continue to develop their careers, not just crank out data and papers. By dissecting the year’s events, one comes to understand what happened, and what needs to happen in the next year.
The whole process crystalizes my own thoughts, by the end of a day of ~1 hour chats, on things like where there needs to be different coordination of team members in the coming year, or where I need to give more guidance, or where potential problems might arise. It especially helps us to sort out a timeline for the year… which inevitably still seems to go pear-shaped due to unexpected challenges, but we adapt and I think I am getting better myself at guessing how long research steps might take (pick an initial date that seems reasonable, move it back, then move it further back, then keep an eye on it).
Anyway, today the appraisals reminded me that I don’t have a good story for how I manage my team other than by doing these appraisals, which as an annual event are far from sufficient management but have become necessary. And so here I am with a post that goes through my approaches. Maybe you will find it useful or it will stimulate discussion. There are myriad styles of management. I am outlining here what facets of my style I can think of. There are parallels between this post and my earlier one on “success”, but I’ve tried to eliminate overlap.
Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10 but no photos, long-read, bullet points AND top 10 list. A different kind of gore.
Successfully managing a large (for my field) research team leaves one with fewer choices than in a smaller team– in the latter case, you can be almost anywhere on the spectrum of hands-off vs. hands-on management and things may still go fine (or not). In the case of a large (and interdisciplinary) team, there’s no possibility to be heavily hands-on, especially with so many external collaborations piled on top of it all. So a balance has to be struck somewhere. As a result, inevitably I am forced into a managerial role where, over the years, I’ve become less directly in touch with the core methods we use, in terms of many nitty-gritty details. I’ve had to adapt to being comfortable with (1) emphasizing a big picture view that keeps the concepts at the forefront, (2) taking the constraints (e.g. time, technology and methods, which I do still therefore have to keep tabs on) into account in planning, (3) cultivating a level of trust in each team member that they will do a good job (also see “loyalty” below), and (4) maintaining the right level of overall expertise within the group (including external collaborators) that enables us to get research done to our standard. To do these things, I’ve had to learn to do these other things, which happen to form a top 10 list but are in no order:
- Communicate regularly– I’m an obsessive, well-organized emailer, in particular. E-mail is how I manage most of my collaborations within and outside my team, and how I keep track of much of the details. (Indeed, collaborators that aren’t so consistent with email are difficult for me) We do regular weekly team meetings in which we go around the table and review what we’re up to, and I do in-person chats or G+/Skype sessions fairly frequently to keep the ball rolling and everyone in synch. I now keep a notebook, or “memory cane” as I call it, to document meetings and to-do lists. Old school, but it works for me whereas my mental notebook started not to at times.
- Treat each person individually- everyone responds best to different management styles, so within my range of capabilities I vary my approach from more to less hands-off, or gentler vs. firmer. If people can handle robust criticism, or even if they can’t but they need to hear it, I can modulate to deliver that, or try to avoid crushing them. While I have high expectations of myself and those I work with, I also know that I have to be flexible because everyone is different.
- Value loyalty AND autonomy– Loyalty and trust matter hugely to me as a manager/collaborator. I believe in paying people back (e.g. expending a lot of effort in helping them move their career forward) for their dedicated work on my team, but also keeping in mind that I may need to make “sacrifices” (e.g. give them time off for side-projects I’m not involved in) to help them develop their career. I seek to avoid the extremes: fawningly helpless yes-men (rare, actually) or ~100% selfish what’s-in-it-for-me’s (not as rare but uncommon). Any good outcome can benefit a research manager even if they’re not a part of it, but also on a big team it’s about more than what benefits the 1st author or the senior author, but everyone, which is a tricky balance to attain.
- Prioritize endlessly– for me this means trying to keep myself from being the rate-limiting step in research. And I try to say “no” to new priorities if they don’t seem right for me. Sometimes it means getting little things done first to clear my desk (and mind) for bigger tasks; sometimes it means focusing on big tasks to the exclusion of smaller ones. Often it depends on my whims and energy level, but I try to keep those from harming others’ research. I make prioritized to-do lists and revisit them regularly.
- Allow chaos and failure/imperfection– This is the hardest for me. My mind does not work like a stereotypical accountant’s- I like a bit of disorder, as my seemingly messy office attests to. Oddly within that disorder, I find order, as my brain is still usually good at keeping things organized. I do like a certain level of involvement in research, and I get nervous when I feel that sliding down toward “uninvolved”– loss of control in research can be scary. Some degree of detachment, stepping aside and allowing for time to pass and people to self-organize or come ask for help to avoid disaster (or celebrate success), is necessary, though, because I cannot be everywhere at once and nothing can be perfect. And of course, I myself fail sometimes, but with alertness comes recognition and learning. Furthermore, too much control is micromanagement, which hurts morale, and “disorder” allows the flexibility that can bring serendipitous results (or disaster). And speaking of disaster, one has to be mentally prepared for it, and able to take a deep breath and react in the right way when it comes. Which leads to…
- Think brutally clearly – Despite all the swirling chaos of a large research team and many other responsibilities of an academic and father and all that, I have taught myself a skill that I point to as a vital one. I can stop what I’m doing and focus very intensely on a problem when I need to. If it’s within my expertise to solve it, by clearing my head (past experience with kendo, yoga and karate has helped me to do this), I usually can do it if I enter this intensely logical, calm, objective quasi-zen-state. I set my emotions aside (especially if it is a stressful situation) and figure out what’s possible, what’s impossible, and what needs to be done, and find what I think is the best course of action quite quickly, then act on that decisively (but without dogmatic inflexibility). In such moments, I find myself thinking “What is the right thing to do here?” and I almost instinctively know when I can see that right thing. At that moment I get a charge of adrenaline to act upon it, which helps me to move on quickly. From little but hard decisions to major crises, this ability serves me very well in my whole life. I maintain a duality between that singleminded focus and juggling/anarchy, often able to quickly switch between those modes as I need to.
- Work hardest when I work best (e.g. good sleep and caffeination level, mornings)- and let myself slack off when I’m not in prime working condition. I shrug aside guilt if I am “slacking”– I can’t do everything and some things must fall by the wayside if I can’t realistically resolve them in whatever state of mind I’m in. The slacking helps me recharge and refresh– by playing a quick video game or checking social media or cranking up some classic Iron Maiden/modern Menzingers, I can return to my work with new gusto, or even inspiration, because…
- Spend a lot of time thinking while I “slack off”, in little bursts (e.g. while checking Twitter). I let my brain process things that are going on, let go of them when I’m not getting anywhere with them, and return to them later. This is harder than it sounds as I still stubbornly or anxiously get stuck on things if they are stressing me out or exciting me a lot. But I am progressively improving at this staccato-thinking skill.
- Points 7+8 relate to my view that there is no “work-life balance” for me—it is all my life, and there’s still a lot of time to enjoy the non-work parts, but it’s all a blend that lets me be who I am. I don’t draw lines in the sand. Those just tend to make one feel bad, one way or another.
- Be human– try to avoid acting like a distant, emotionless robotic manager and cultivate more of a family-like team. Being labelled with the word “boss” can turn my stomach. “Mentor” and “collaborator” are more like what I aim for. Being open about my own flaws, failures, and life helps.
Long post, yeah! 1 hour on a train commute lets the thoughts flow. I hope that if you made it this far you found it interesting.
What do you do if you manage a team, what works for you or what stories do you have of research management? Celebrations and post-mortems are equally welcome.