The many faces of leadership

As you finish your graduate degree or wind down your postdoc, it’s unlikely that your first thought in the job search process will be, “Do the companies I am applying to see me as a leader?” After all, the effort you are making is all about getting a foot in the door, not landing a vice president of research role. But did you know that there is significant consideration given to your leadership ability in the decision to hire you today?

It’s never too soon to start thinking about your leadership experience and formulating how you will answer interview questions about the topic. And, because leadership styles vary so dramatically, it’s also good to start thinking early in your career about your own style and how it might develop so that you will be ready to take advantage of future career opportunities when they come your way.

It’s never too soon to start thinking about your leadership experience.

Two interviews in one

After one of my recent seminars, I spoke with Steve, a Ph.D. biochemist interviewing for his first move to industry. “I am surprised that I’ve been asked a lot of questions about my relationship with others,” he said to me. “In fact, more emphasis has been placed on this than on skills that fit the requirements of the job. What’s up with this?” he continued. “I’m not applying for a position leading a team of people. … I’m applying for jobs that have me doing independent research work at the bench.”

I reminded Steve that, when you interview, you are actually seen as a candidate for two jobs: today’s job—the job you applied for—and the position that would come after that. Hopefully you’ll prepare well for the first, because you’ve seen the job description and have been studying how closely your background might fit the company’s need. It will also probably be pretty easy for the hiring manager to determine whether you fit the bill.

Different leadership types

In November’s Tooling Up column, I described a variety of career ladders, each with different leadership requirements and opportunities. The opportunity to manage a small research group, for example, can often come quickly, especially in startup companies. Some companies, called “dual ladder” employers, have a formal split between managers who have “direct” leadership responsibilities, and those who wish to remain as scientists. But even those who decide to stay in the ranks of bench researchers on this dual ladder must practice “indirect” leadership. Both direct and indirect leadership are important, and recruiters look for candidates who display evidence of either.

Although direct leadership experience can be important, especially if you’re interested in pursuing a management position, that other aspect of leadership, the indirect type, is what interviewers will really be hoping to find. This is leadership via influence. Their top candidates always have plenty of this on offer, and it’s an essential ingredient in a company. Here, you may not be the boss, but your expertise in a given area gives you a large impact—and graduate students and postdocs have ample opportunities to demonstrate this type of leadership. Perhaps the principal investigator (PI) asked you to review a range of new lab equipment and, after making your recommendation, you were the one trained by the supplier to teach others how to use it properly. That’s a great example of leadership via influence.

Examples of leadership don’t need to be tied back to something technical. Perhaps your postdoc association asked you to find speakers and pull together a successful career development event. That experience puts you squarely in a leadership role and illustrates to an employer that you are the kind of person who can motivate a group to work together on a shared goal. Examples like these can separate you from other jobseekers and earn you the chance to have an in-person interview. This is great ammunition for a cover letter, or to elaborate on in your first phone interview.

Different leadership styles

It’s easy to spot parental leaders in the ranks of professors. The parental leader will take grad students in hand as a parent would with children, protecting and sheltering them. Unfortunately, the parental leader sets up a climate where young scientists remain dependent, which can slow their career development. The democratic leader, on the other hand, sounds great at first because everyone in the lab gets a vote—but in the end, nothing gets done because consensus is often hard to find! The parental leader needs to cut the apron strings, but the democratic leader has to learn to make decisions, because progress is often brought to a halt by a lack of decisive ability.

The autocratic leader has little concern for others and refuses to see them as individuals with unique skills. Instead, to this person, people are tools to get a job done. If you’ve ever had a PI with this attitude, you know it can be a very demoralizing environment, and there is absolutely nothing worth emulating here. In contrast, some leaders feel that their people can do whatever they wish. Working for such a hands-off manager sounds great—until you find that you are way out on a limb because you have so little support. Everyone likes independence, but, as you might have found out if your adviser operates in this way, everyone also needs some occasional direction.

A company’s leaders, both direct and indirect, serve as a sort of organizational gyroscope, valued by the company for their ability to establish and maintain internal harmony. It’s never too early to develop your own leadership examples!

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