#168 - Managers with PhDs have the advanced skills, we just need help with the basics
Plus: Learning from History's Greatest R&D Labs; The Power of Proximity; Activating Peers; Dealing with Emotional Triggers
Manager, Ph.D. is a newsletter and community which helps people from the world of research reach their full potential managing teams and enacting changes. We’ve already developed the advanced skills to be exceptional managers; we just need help with the basics.
If you’re new to the community, drop me a note! Some past issues from the archive which you might be interested in include:
#111, “The Complete Intern Checklist"
#130, “Taking On A New Responsibility”
And whether you’re new to the community or not, feel free to email me, or even have a quick chat with me about problems you have, or things you’d like to see!
Hey all! Life sort of intervened and I needed a much longer holiday break from the newsletter than planned. But here at Manager, Ph.D. world headquarters things are back on track. If you have questions, or suggestions for future issues, don’t hesitate to email me (email@example.com) or schedule a call!
Help, I’m a Manger
One thing that’s absolutely clear to me after working in a variety of fields and team types and sectors is that the work that people with STEM PhDs do inside and outside academia is incredibly important.
Whether it’s advancing deep tech companies in drug discovery or disinformation monitoring or new materials or climate change mitigation or trustworthy AI, or doing and supporting fundamental research in biology, chemistry, astrophysics, or anything else, our work matters. Our teams matter. The people doing the work need encouragement and growth opportunities, and the people who have stepped up to lead and manage those teams deserve support.
Another thing that’s become absolutely clear to me is that we are almost never given any of that support.
Academic research is almost unique in having very little available in terms of positive role models for professional management. Indeed, for such an introspective and putatively thoughtful place, it stands out for giving the management and leadership of teams of people almost no thought at all. Management, after all, is for other people, not for those living the life of the mind in the monastic halls of the academy. We’re all just colleagues here, goes the thinking, selflessly advancing human knowledge.
So when we choose to stand up and take on the thankless task of leading a team and managing their work, we’re almost immediately lost at sea. We think that the transition from individual contributor to manager is like undergrad to grad student, or grad student to postdoc. It’s basically the previous job, but more so. And then reality hits.
It’s not a promotion, it’s a career change
The thing is, leading a team of humans doing work is a completely different kind of job than doing that work.
We’ve become quite used to being experts, being experienced hands with technical work, and now we’ve thrust ourselves into the situation of being a very junior, very inexperienced, manager. We’re being asked to deploy a completely different set of skills, skills academia famously doesn’t explicitly teach, to do a completely different kind of work.
But we of all people can learn and master these new skills. We’re really good at learning and applying new knowledge! Because managing teams isn’t mysterious or about personality type. It’s not even especially complex. It’s just about learning and applying a new set of skills and practices.
My argument goes even further than that. In my experience, people with research experience have already mastered the advanced skills of being a good manager. We just need some help with the basics.
Google “Discovers” Management
There’s been a tonne of research over the better part of a century into what makes a good manager. My favourite way of talking about this is to focus on Google, who completely ignored that entire body of work thinking that it didn’t apply to them, then promptly rediscovered some of it by studying themselves.
In 2009, as part of “Project Oxygen”, they looked at teams across the (already very large) company, and looked at what the managers of high performing teams did differently, and what managers of low performing teams did differently.
They found that great managers:
Are good coaches
Empower their team rather than micromanage
Express interest in their team members’ success
Have productive and results-oriented focus
Have good communications, and listen to the team
Help employees with career development
Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
Have key technical skills that help them advice the team
Scientific Collaborations Require Advanced Peopling Skills
The thing is, anyone who’s played a big role in a scientific collaboration did these things all the time. Are good coaches (1) and help employees with career development (6)? If you helped an undergrad or grad student develop their skills and get a paper out, you demonstrated you can do that. (2) Empower the team (4) have productive and results-oriented focus and (7) have and communicate a clear vision? If you helped a scientific project get done, a famously “herding cats” situation if there ever was one, you did that!
Any kind of academic collaborative project involves teasing out domain expertise from a bunch of prickly academics, getting agreement on objectives, having individuals working on their part, developing the skills of juniors, and getting those papers and talks out. These are absolutely core skills we all develop.
Management requires some more basic skills that are easy to learn
In addition to those advanced skills that great managers had, the study identified some pitfalls that struggling managers had trouble with. I’m going to list them in the opposite order they were reported:
Spending too little time managing and communicating
Lacking a consistent approach to performance management
Having trouble making a transition to manager
I see those three pitfalls come up all the time when working with researchers who have started to manage teams. In my experience they all stem from the same root - not really being sure what their job as a manager even is, and what kinds of things they should be doing.
The thing is, these are really easy to address, with incredibly time-tested and well understood approaches. There’s other ways to address these pitfalls — you don’t have to do exactly these things — but these absolutely work.
Spend more time communicating, and learn what management is needed, by having weekly, scheduled one-on-ones with your team members. This builds a data collection pipeline - it builds lines of communication, and trust, and you’ll learn things that will surprise you.
Learn to give frequent, timely, specific, feedback to calibrate expectations between you and your team members
Just doing these basic things well already puts you comfortably in the top 25% of researchers-turned-manager that I’ve seen. You’ll be less stressed and more knowledgeable about what’s going on, your team members will be more willing to raise problems before they become critical and they’ll be happier in their professional development, and the team’s results will start getting better.
The tag line for this newsletter was almost “it’s not rocket science”. That cuts both ways. We are rocket scientists, kind of. Managing a team that does rocket science isn’t the set of skills, rocketry, that we’ve already learned. It’s different. We do need to develop new muscles and learn new skills. But, well… it’s not rocket science.
We’ve Mastered Skills Way Harder Than This
There’s other things that matter, too. Once you’ve mastered the above, managing individuals, that’s Management 101. Management 201 is managing the team as a whole; then 301 is managing with larger organizations.
But the key to all of this is just to realize that performing well in these roles benefits from the same sort of systematic approach we’ve always taken to making decisions under uncertainty (#158), which you have to do when you’re at the cutting edge, or gaining knowledge with experimentation (#165). The work’s different, yes, but the skills we’ve learned translate. We can do this.
And now, on to the roundup!
Managing Teams ,
One of the things I’ve always found fascinating/frustrating is how well-versed PhDs are in the details of the work in their field, while often being unaware and uninterested in studies of how work in their field is done, how it’s organized, how priorities are set, etc. Surely we should want to know what works and what doesn’t, and why!
Partly this disconnect comes from a language gap between scholars of STS (Science and Technology Studies) or related fields and STEM researchers; but part of it is thinking that as researchers ourselves, how we do work somehow stands outside the range of topics that can be researched.
Gilliam is a a scholar of 19th and 20th century R&D labs, and this long read is his discussion of lessons learned from some of these labs as it applies to a client’s efforts, starting up an applied AI R&D lab. Some of my takeaways were:
Considering from the beginning how his work would have impact was key to Edison’s success - he made sure his lightbulb would be useful (“even in early courses of experimentation, he kept factors like manufacturability in mind. He wouldn’t commit much time to something that didn’t make commercial sense”) and once his lightbulb was patented, his lab transitioned seamlessly to electrical power distribution and generation, because his goal wasn’t a lightbulb, it was electrified cities;
Similarly, he paid close attention to how to scale his own approach and used that to shape his lab
The contemporary industrial research lab of General Electric had a single theme of work, and offered both academic and very practical scientific personalities a “long leash within a narrow fence” - there was a lot of scope for people to follow their interests as long as it contributed to advancements within that “narrow fence” of scope
Either Edison’s approach or GE’s approach can be the right one - when a field or technology is in its infancy, being laser-focussed on a single goal like Edison’s seems more likely to be fruitful, while the “long leash” approach might help refine and advance an area of study in unexpected ways. In other contexts I’ve heard this expressed as 0→1 vs 1→N.
BBN, a contractor responsible for ARPAnet, positioned itself as novel and cutting-edge compared to established industry but with more immediate real-world impact than academia, which helped it recruit. Its projects were owned by small (~8 person) generalist teams who could divide up work while still keeping most of the entire project in their heads at once.
CMU’s autonomous vehicle group carved out a more private-sector like organization within an academic institution with company-like incentives for promotion and professionally managed, again carving out a position of being both cutting-edge and whole-system real-world impact.
Bell Labs’ had a similar “circumscribed freedom” to GE, and had a corps of “systems engineers” whose role it was to identify problems that were tractable with and interesting for the people they had and would have significant impact for the company if solved.
This ~9000 word article is posted as one of Gilliam’s “shorts” - his newsletter looks like a wealth of very deep writings about topics of great interest to this newsletter, and I’ll be going through the back issues.
The Power of Proximity to Coworkers: Training for Tomorrow or Productivity Today - Natalia Emanuel, Emma Harrington & Amanda Pallais
I am unabashed in my support of remote and hybrid work — I think it’s clearly the future.
And, being the scientist that I am, I realize that there’s tradeoffs and “it depends”.
We’ve spent almost a century learning to work together in offices, and a bunch of things we’ve taken for granted we don’t know how to routinely do well yet remotely. A vital example is mentorship and coaching.
The authors here take a look at a really nice natural experiment - within one Fortune 500 company, before the pandemic, there were software development teams that were all collocated and other teams that were split between two buildings. Those split teams were basically already partly remote, in a way - there was much less personal interaction between the two sub teams. (I’ve seen this myself with a team split between adjacent floors of a building - just a short staircase jaunt away, and yet the amount of in-person interaction between the two sub-teams was way lower than you’d hope). They studied how effectiveness and career development varied between the two groups, and tracked it through going remote for the pandemic.
Basically, remote teams were more productive in the short run, but there was a reduced level of feedback and mentorship in teams that didn’t have contact, and that limited longer-term career growth and productivity.
I don’t think this is an immutable fact of remote work - I think we just haven’t learned how to systematically do mentorship and coaching yet on remote teams. But mentorship and coaching is REALLY IMPORTANT, and this needs to be thought about for remote and hybrid teams.
Managing Your Own Career
I can’t agree with this enough - look for mentorship, not The Mentor.
Vora suggests asking for help from
subject matter experts
And just looking for advice and support on individual questions. Some of those discussions will turn into longer-term helpful conversations, and some won’t, but don’t get stuck on finding The One. That’s a lot for you to put onto a relationship, and a lot of responsibility for them, and it’s not necessary to help you grow.
How to deal with negative emotional triggers - Anne-Laure Le Cunff
It may sound cheesy, but it does boil down to one belief: that even though you’re not in control of these stressful external events, you can regulate your emotions.
Even at the best of times, managing individuals or a team is a challenge.
When things aren’t the best, sometimes our own reactions interfere with what we have to do for our team members. If we can’t stay calm and thoughtful when stuff is happening, it’s going to be hard for our team members to pull together and accomplish what needs to be done.
We tend towards being cerebral, which is great, the world is a very emotion-causing place. Learning to recognize, acknowledge, and partly defuse an initial strong emotional reaction is a skill we can practice; it’s helpful everywhere but especially important when we’re leaders.
Le Cuff summarizes a practice for learning to get more aware of what’s going on in our heads and to react accordingly:
Identify the emotion - anxiety, anger, guilt, sadness, shame
Analyze the emotional trigger - there’s a really good list of 24 kinds of trigger that I won’t attempt to reproduce here, but “being in control”, “being valued”, “being right'“, “independence”, “order”, and “respect” are things I’ve seen people with our backgrounds struggle with a lot
Shift your emotional state - breath, go for a walk, stretch…
I can say from experience that this takes practice, but it gets way easier with time.
And that’s it for the week! I hope it was useful; Let me know what you thought, or if you have anything you’d like to share with me about how a newsletter or community about management for people like us might be even more valuable. Just email me, leave a comment, reply to this newsletter if you get it in your inbox, or schedule a quick Manager, Ph.D. reader input call.
Have a great weekend, and best of luck in the coming week week with your team,