10 Skills You Need to Become a Successful Lab Manager
Over the past 35 years that Formaspace has been working directly with Lab Managers, we’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry. Indeed, today’s lab managers wear multiple hats that require them to develop a broad set of effective management skills — ranging from chief problem solver to team facilitator.
If you are contemplating a career move into laboratory management or know someone that is, we’ve compiled a list of the top 10 effective management skills that every laboratory manager should master.
Let’s get started:
1. Laboratory Managers Need to Be Good Business and Project Managers
Overview: Don’t get us wrong. We’re not saying scientific research has to be all business (some of the best discoveries have been made in unorthodox ways). Instead, we’re saying that the role of laboratory management is to provide services to the investigators in a reliable businesslike manner, in order to provide seamless support for scientific research (or related services functions, such as in the case of IT labs).
Scope of Activities: Establish a vision and mission with both detailed short-term plans as well as long-term plans (5+ years out) that track progress on specific project goals, time management, and budgetary issues, such as income sources, spending, salaries.
Recommendations: Lab Managers overseeing large laboratory settings (in universities, government or healthcare / pharma) might benefit from business classes or an MBA in order to manage complex budgets and other requirements. Certification from PMI as a Project Management Professional (PMP) could also be helpful. Countless books, seminars, and online classes teach business management skills. If you are new to all this, then The One Minute Manager and Putting First Things First are two resources to look into.
2. Laboratory Management Typically Oversees Acquisition of Capital Equipment, Purchasing of Supplies and Services, and Inventory Control
Overview: In a small laboratory environment, much of this work will fall directly on the lab manager, who may be directly responsible for allocating budgetary funds (from a research grant for example). In larger organizations, the lab manager may have to interface with dedicated purchasing staff members. In either case, it’s important to adhere to rigorous government* policies that regulate service contracts as well as asset acquisition, use, and disposition activities.
(*Government contracts may require sourcing from vendors, like Formaspace, that are listed on GSA purchasing schedules.)
Scope of Activities: Set spending priorities during each budgetary cycle; identify requirements for capital equipment; investigate vendor options; ensure timely ordering procedures for consumable supplies (including bidding out if required); establish service contracts (such as for disposing of hazardous wastes); negotiate with the company or institution hosting the lab over assigned overhead costs to be borne by your budget; set up inventory tracking and control system as well as establish procedures to protect valuable or potentially dangerous assets from misuse or theft.
Recommendations: In addition to the recommendations for business and project management, new laboratory managers might look into taking classes in purchasing management. If you are working with the government or military, look for online seminars and guides (from the GAO, GSA, etc.). Establishing friendly contacts with the purchasing department of your company or institution early on is also a good idea (rather than waiting until there is a confrontational issue at hand). Ideally, you will be able to find a mentor who can help you understand the ins and outs of rules and procedures already in use at your institution or company.
3. Laboratory Managers Need to Develop Effective Management Skills in Public Relations and Internal Communications
Overview: Do you wonder why some laboratories always seem to be promoted in the news, or they have widespread support throughout the entire organization? Conversely, have you witnessed reports of laboratory errors or accidents that made the news and put the lab in the worst possible light? These are just two examples of how good (and bad) public relations and internal communications programs can affect your laboratory workplace.
Scope of Activities: Public Relations generally refers to a wide range of communication programs directed outside the organization (from community relations, to press coverage, to trade fairs), while internal communications programs are directed at internal audiences (to educate and promote positive awareness of your activities). Depending on the size of your organization, you may need to liaise with existing communications teams (or external agencies), or you may need to develop these resources yourself.
Recommendations: Generally speaking, having a robust external and internal communications program (assuming your work is not classified or a trade secret) will help win over support for activities taking place in your lab (which can be very useful at budget allocation negotiations). Working with your existing communications team (if any), you should consider hosting press events, public tours (if appropriate), provide useful press releases and social media postings to gain local (if not national) coverage. Consider providing media training to lab researchers (such as lead investigators) to improve their ability to communicate in language that targeted audiences can understand — using video recordings for feedback sessions can be very useful. Practice in advance how you would respond to a crisis (such as an accident or another adverse incident) by conducting realistic dry runs on how to communication with the press during that time. Make sure you know the private cell numbers of key administration staff who will need to be looped in at short notice.
4. Laboratory Management is Often in Charge of Education and Staff Development Programs for the Lab Team
Overview: Face-to-face meetings at scientific conferences, scientific journal subscriptions, and training classes are a few examples of education and staff development programs that will help lab team members grow in their field while improving morale at the same time.
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