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Many NIH fellows will be managers, in some capacity, during their careers. With an aim to introduce fellows to management skills, the Management Boot Camp offered by the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) prepares senior postdocs who will soon make the transition from the proverbial ivory tower to the “real world.” However, that does not mean fellows who continue in academia do not need to learn these skills too.

As a fifth-year postdoc looking to transition to a non-bench career, I signed up for the OITE Management Boot Camp and was rewarded with a wonderful two-day experience that revealed how non-academic professional lives differ from the laboratory setting. The workshop, offered twice a year, is run by OITE staff and requires a commitment of two complete days. The format of the workshop includes teamwork, role-playing, and brainstorming to explore the essential elements of managerial preparation and responsibilities.

Day One Recap

The topics covered on the first day included motivating and team-building exercises, emotional intelligence development, and diversity in the workplace. The workshop began with tips on handling the manager’s most important resource: the team.

To motivate a team, a manager wears many hats, such as those of a supervisor, a mentor, an advocate, and a coach. Each of these roles encompasses unique aspects of leadership that one draws upon in diverse situations. During the session, we learned that managers must:

  • Realize that all individuals are not motivated the same way
  • Learn to delegate tasks efficiently to get the work done effectively
  • Recognize that not everyone likes to be rewarded the same way
  • Not use fear or negative tactics as a primary motivational tool, it may work with some individuals but not all
  • Not use a lot of gratuitous praise or rewards
  • Promote collaboration, mutual respect, and integrity in the team and never set up competition within team members
  • Be prepared to support employees when they make a mistake
  • Be aware of training and support resources in the organization or institution
  • Remember that communication is the key to successful management

While most of this may sound like common sense, a key element behind a good manager is emotional intelligence (EI), that is, the ability to recognize our own feelings and those of others. The boot camp introduces five key competency areas in EI:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Self-regulation
  3. Motivation
  4. Social Awareness
  5. Social Skills

The good news about EI is that you can train yourself to excel in these areas. To learn about EI skills, you can start with freely available online assessments or buy a book (there are several good books that address EI in depth). 

The second session of day one addressed a pertinent issue: diversity and inclusion in the workplace. Most organizations are a melting pot of culture, gender, sexual identity, physical abilities, age, and other factors. Data has shown that diversity enhances the creativity of teams—fellows at the NIH can attest to that fact.

As a manager, it is important to harness the full potential of your team and to provide a supportive environment. To do so, one must be aware of unconscious biases as well as elements of stereotyping and micro aggressions. Stereotypes tend to distort our perceptions and impact our judgement about people. Micro aggressions are verbal or non-verbal behavior directed towards a certain group. Statements such as “That’s so gay” or “Your English is so good, where are you really from?” indicate assumptions about individuals and may affect decision-making. A manager committed to diversity spends time identifying diversity blind spots, uses inclusive language and images, makes the work environment accessible, designs hiring processes that minimize personal bias, and models good behavior.

Day Two Recap

Day two consisted of a panel discussion by managers from diverse areas, such as industry, academia, and administration on the best practices of management. This year the panelists unanimously agreed that communication is the key to successful management. Other pieces of management-focused advice that I gleaned from the panelists include the following:

  • Quickly learn how to manage people under and above you
  • Take opportunities to train in management issues
  • You have something to learn from everyone
  • Try to cultivate skills you will need at your next job
  • Do not stagnate

Day two also addressed hiring and interviewing practices. Although at this point in your postdoctoral training, hiring and interviewing concepts may seem to be a distant issue, it is still useful to know the process so that you are a step ahead when the time comes. The hiring process can be long and complicated, but you can adopt simple steps to make it easier:

  1. Analyze your needs and create a job description for advertising
  2. Involve the Human Resources office early to make sure you are complying with company policies
  3. Set a hiring timeline and stick to it
  4. Use phone interviews to pre-screen
  5. Conduct structured interviews—establish a screening process to maintain consistency

Finally, we tackled the most difficult topic in the entire workshop: conflict resolution. Most of us are uneasy with conflicts, but let’s face it, you will likely encounter conflicts in the workplace at some point. During conflicts, one must respond constructively by taking a practical approach, as opposed to adopting a destructive approach like yelling, being sarcastic, or threatening others. During the boot camp, small groups of workshop participants discuss seven constructive responses to conflict. These can be classified as active (perspective taking, creating solutions, expressing emotions, and reaching out) and passive (reflective thinking, delay responding, and adapting). You can become a conflict-competent manager using the above-mentioned strategies.

As a final word of advice, never shy away from opportunities (such as the OITE Boot Camp or the workshops provided by the NICHD Office of Education) to increase your management skills. Always be aware of resources that can help you and your employees (for starters, check out management-related books at the OITE library). Last but not the least, remember that communication is the key to successful management.

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Helpful Management Books and Websites

  • At the Helm: Leading Your Laboratory, by Kathy Barker
  • Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior, McGraw Hill publications
  • Manager's Toolkit: The 13 Skills Managers Need to Succeed, Harvard Business School Press
  • Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, by Brian Tracy
  • Five minute Emotional Intelligence test
  • Comprehensive, 45 minute Emotional Intelligence test