Monday, September 29, 2014

Becoming a Leader

Today's guest blogger is Kelly Korreck. Kelly is an Astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory part of the Harvard- Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.  She builds solar instrumentation.  She is the Head of Science Operation for the SWEAP Plasma Instrument Suite aboard NASA’s Solar Probe Plus mission to touch the Sun.  Her research interests include shock physics and space weather. In her spare time, she prefers to be on a beach or a sailboat!
As a follow on to Joan Schmelz's August 4, 2014, article “On leadership”, I volunteered to share my experience in a yearlong leadership training program, some advice on how to gain some of the experience without a formal program and some thoughts as to why this type of training matters for scientists**.
I had the amazing opportunity to spend a year learning and working with 21 other leaders at the Smithsonian ranging from educators to curators to contract specialists as part of the Russell E. Palmer Leadership Development Program (PLDP) at the Smithsonian Institution. The program was started at the Smithsonian in 2007 with the goal of developing leadership skills such as communication and conflict management while strengthening ties between the 19 museums and 9 research centers that make up the Smithsonian Institution.  The program consisted of leadership skills development, working with a mentor, a rotation project and culminated in a large management project that was pan-Institutional in nature.

Skills Development
The skills development started with getting to know ourselves through self reflection, learning about our own strengths and weaknesses, and then creating plans for improvement.  We used several tests to evaluate different styles or traits (Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Conflict style) and areas in need of development (360 Review).  Although all of the training gave useful insight, the 360 review was extremely enlightening.  The 360 review has people who are your peers, your supervisees, your boss and others who know you in a work setting give feedback through an anonymous web form.  You might be a good supervisor but lack as a peer. You might also be a great peer and employee but can't supervise. This is where all of those things can be assessed versus the Executive Core Qualifications (what is considered key leadership traits and needed for Senior Executive Service in the federal government)
.  More importantly after the review, plans were made to improve on those areas identified as needing improvement.  The insight here for me was my communication skills. 
Communication if done well could probably solve 90% of the problems in the world.   Open, honest and direct communication is key to leading people.  I have worked on trying to be more open and direct about what I am doing using several forms of communication (oral and written) so that the lines of communication can remain open and more progress can be made.  To address communication skills, we had a training course based on the book Crucial Conversations by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler.  It was a great class with practice conversations using a partner in the class (whom I still contact for advice from time to time).  One of my favorite lessons was when faced with a difficult conversation, stop and ask yourself, “Why would a reasonable rational human being do this?”  It causes you to pause, see the person as a person and more calmly assess the situation.
Much has been written about how important it is to have a mentor.  The program required us to choose mentors.  The one added stipulation was that they could not be in your unit. This is a great practice since my mentor and I didn’t have any of the political baggage we could have had if we were in the same field.  The relationship with my mentor helped me not only with institutional knowledge but also clarifying my own goals and finding an amazing role model.
Rotation Project: An Astrophysicist in a Natural History Museum
Part of learning is doing. In order to use our skills in a different context as well as learn about other units, we had a 30 day rotation outside of our home unit.  The National Museum of Natural History graciously hosted me for these 30 days and I had the pleasure of working with a staff that taught me so much in that short time.  I worked on learning about international collaborations and what makes them successful at the same time continuing to work on communication skills. Large collaborations work best when there is trust, communication, and openness/transparency.  My rotation supervisor works according to these attributes and her results are outstanding.  She runs effective meetings, trusts and is trusted by her team and openly shares information with all on the team.  Her team has a sense of purpose, clarity, and calm. She is a marvel when it comes to presenting logical solutions to complex problems, which stems from a transparent and well-communicated vision. 
The other piece of wisdom that I took away was in dealing with being a younger female leader in a room of male scientists I had to “own it”.  Self-confidence in your abilities is extremely important to getting things done.
Management Project
The last four months of the year were spent working on a management project.  The management project involved small teams (5 people) working together on a larger project.  The project itself gave me the ability to do more strategic thinking, explore how each of the different pieces of the project interacted based on history of the institution and current situation, and meet many more people at the Smithsonian to gather information for the project.  The amount of time, guidance and support that high level executives gave us was invaluable to creating a final product that got to the heart of a larger issue and came up with concrete implementation strategies…Have I mentioned that working at the Smithsonian is amazing?
Informal Leadership Training
Without a formal program, here are some suggestions on getting similar training. 
* Start with some self-reflection.  What do you love to do?  What are you good at?  What could use some improvement? What does your dream career look like in 10 years?  Then look for ways to get there. There is a website
that helps you organize your goals and sends monthly goal reminders which might be helpful in your own planning.
* Look for a mentor that is adjacent to your field.  Does your university have a mentorship program?  Perhaps a friend can recommend someone in say the biology department that can serve as your mentor.   This also helps you look up.  Although we have to be good at the job we currently have, we also need to figure out what skill set will get us to the next level in our career and actively seek out opportunities to practice those skills.
* Volunteer for positions such as a conference organizing committee. 
* Seek honest feedback. It is invaluable but hard to find.  The anonymity of the 360 got me great honest feedback but if you have suggestions please leave them in the comments.  
* Seek assignments or work with others whom you admire.  Ask them for insight into things like prime committee appointments or other advice on taking the next step.
* Explore the context of your work.  What is the history behind the project you work on?  What are the national and international policies that affect your work?

What is in it for a scientist?
Some may questions why I took on this extra job that does not specifically advance my scientific work.  Although science is about data and knowledge, it isn't just sitting in a lab or office or telescope room and writing code and papers.  Underlying all those things is communicating ideas and thoughts so as a scientific community and as a society we understand the world around us.  Especially in the current environment all scientists but especially leaders need to be able to effectively communicate not only the findings of science but its relevance to society.
The projects outside of my field also taught me to examine how my field works. Better understanding the lay of the land and how large projects come together is extremely valuable for a scientist who works on multi-national projects.
The contacts that I made through this program make me much more effective at my job.  When I have a question about a contract or use of “big data” or how to deal with a tough issue, I now have at least 21 people I can call or email that I trust and can get me reliable information or advice.
And another reason I did this:  I love people! People energize me.  The model of a lone wolf researcher is not for me. Groups of scientists when working well together can make amazing things happen- think Hubble Telescope, Hadron Collider, any satellite mission.  As my career is progressing, more of my time is spent mentoring, communicating and enabling science versus sitting for hours programming and writing papers.  Getting training in the skills that I will need for the next part of my career seem like a good idea and I got to meet a whole new bunch of interesting people. 
I hope that you too can find time for self-reflection and improvement of your skills, find a mentor, do assignments that stretch your skills and become a stronger researcher and a leader in your field.
**I didn’t write this to specifically address female versus male leadership training.  My view is that as a person, one has to find one’s most genuine self and lead from there.  The best female and male leaders I know have done just that.  If that means you are more of a collaborative leader, own it and strengthen those skills and use them.  You must be conscious of context, situation and optics but that applies to all leaders.