The ABCs of Transitioning to Leadership

Let’s face it: Leadership ability isn’t conferred by a technical degree, and it is a rare fellowship that offers training in management or even interpersonal skills. Consequently, one of the biggest hurdles to success for many companies is the ability to transform scientists and engineers into leaders. One human resources manager-client of mine bemoans this fact. “We have Ph.D.s who have invested 6 to 8 years in their graduate education supervising two or three technicians right out of school,” he says. “Unfortunately, these same well-trained scientists received absolutely no guidance in their school years on how to deal with people at work.”

In this month’s Tooling Up column, I am going to pass along some advice from Ken Blanchard, author of more than 30 books, including the groundbreaking One Minute Manager series. Blanchard advised me a few years back on the transition to management, and I believe you will find value in his comments for your own career.

A matter of precision

I had the chance to share the podium with Blanchard at a biotech conference, for which he had accepted my invitation to speak to young scientists. After the event, I asked him why so many technical people stumble on the road to management. “Things are not as precise in the human world as they are in the world of science. Your readers are dealing with formulas of nature or chemistry that are often 100% predictable,” Blanchard says.”You’re dealing with a human element here. … The scientist won’t find the precision she’s looking for, which can be frustrating. But he or she will be able to improve their batting average if they know the basics.”

Blanchard also pointed out that for many scientists, becoming a leader requires a very distinct shift in how success is defined. A scientist uses resources that are “things”–laboratory equipment, computers, and scientific principles–in a field in which success tends to be task-oriented. It’s this task orientation that Blanchard believes makes for a tough transition to manager, because a manager succeeds by the maintenance or enhancement of relationships, not specific tasks. Although the completion of tasks is important to everyone in an organization, managers get things done by the ongoing job of relationship-building.

“In a company, [a manager’s] most vital resources are the people who move the agenda forward,” Blanchard says. As I mentioned in an earlier Tooling Up column on management skills, leadership is not just another skill that the scientist adds to the professional toolbox. It is an entirely different way of thinking about the people around you.

Activators and behaviors

One important lesson from Blanchard is contained in what he calls his “ABCs.” For Blanchard, A indicates ”activator,” B is for ”behavior,” and C is for ”consequence.” Read these through, and if you are not currently a supervisor, think about others who are supervising you. The ABCs provide a key lesson for the would-be manager.

Activators are things that you have to do before you can expect employees to perform well, such as setting goals, providing training, and giving them the tools to do the job. All of this might be called the “performance planning” part of the process. According to Blanchard, one of the areas in which technical supervisors fail most often is in giving clear instructions–a key activator.

“All top performance starts with clear goals,” he told me in our interview. “Scientist-managers tend to assume too much. They have in their minds what they want people to do, and they assume that this person knows it as well. But they don’t communicate it.” Perhaps this sounds familiar: You press forward in the lab with what you’re pretty sure your supervisor wants you to do only to have him swoop in when you’re almost done, get angry, and set you on a different course. Blanchard calls this type of management style the “leave alone zap”: The supervisor leaves you alone until a problem occurs, then steps in with the zap.

To avoid this scenario when you become a manager, work with employees to set clear goals up front. Be sure that they know what they are being held accountable for, Blanchard says.

The second part of Blanchard’s ABCs is the behavior, or the actual performance of the task. One of the biggest mistakes that technical managers make after they get their “activating” accomplished is that they don’t observe performance. If you don’t observe the behavior, you can’t manage effectively.

“A lot of people, even those who do a good job of goal-setting, will disappear and not return to manage until their people screw up enough to bring it to their attention,” Blanchard says. “Suddenly, the manager is managing again.” In the sciences, many people in new supervisor roles will still work at the bench. This means that you need to deal with your own work at the bench and also monitor how your people perform. This can be tricky!


The third and final ingredient of the ABCs is the consequence, or what happens when someone performs. Blanchard believes there are four possible consequences after the person you are managing has completed his or her task:

– The Positive Consequence: This is the pat on the back, verbal praise, or lunch with the big boss. Any type of positive consequence will increase the probability that the behavior you’re rewarding will be repeated.

– The Negative Consequence: This is a punishment or reprimand. A negative consequence will always lessen the chance that the behavior will be repeated, but the only time you should use a punishment or a reprimand is when someone is not doing–or incorrectly doing–something they already know how to do. Keep attitude issues separate from those of ability: With attitude problems, you reprimand or provide a negative consequence. On ability issues, however, Blanchard suggests you redirect.

– Redirect: If you observe that the performance is not going well, you want to redirect the person, which means you go back to the beginning and start again with the activator–the performance planning. Give them what they need to do the job right and make your instructions as clear as possible.

– No Response: Sadly, this is a consequence quite often used by scientist-managers. No positive response, no negative response. They just leave it up to that person to guess how her actions are viewed. The “no response” consequence will also lessen the chances that good behavior will be repeated.

If you’ve ever worked for someone who withholds information like this, you might already suspect that withholding a response is a poor way to manage. Give your people the respect they deserve with an appropriate response as soon as possible after their actions.

An “easy job”?

I once had an engineer tell me in an interview that management looked appealing to him because it is “a relatively easy job of managing details.” Although I wouldn’t want that guy anywhere near the management ladder, it reminded me at the time that good leaders make the job look quite easy.

The transition, however, is a tough one, both for you and for the employer who supports your conversion to the management ranks. Start thinking about the process, learn your ABCs, and you’ll have the basic tools to understand your new responsibilities.

Images. Top: Jupiter Images.

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