When you were a PhD and Postdoc, you became an expert for the scientific methods you used for your research. Stepping up the career ladder as a group leader, you use your hands-on scientific expertise less and less, and your work is dominated by conceptual planning and team leadership. I’ve said before that the step from Postdoc to research group leader is very similar to that from expert to small business leader: the most important step of the entrepreneur is to remove himself from the everyday business.
Any business depends on its owner – but, as Michael Gerber explains in his book The E-myth, often for the wrong reason!
Gerber explains that the biggest mistake small business owners make is that they stick to doing expert work, that is, the work they used to do so well that they decided to base their own business on it. This ties them up, and they aren’t free to do the work for which their business should really depend on them: leading and expanding.
As leader of your research group, you face the same challenge: to get stuck in the day-to-day research and to fail stepping up to steer. The solution is to systematically “remove yourself” from the research work. A weird thing to say, isn’t it? Yet, before I started leading my own research group, those who already did consistently told me that my work would change. So, rather than waiting until you can’t wait any longer, make it an explicit aim from the start: remove yourself.
3 reasons to remove yourself
Why would you consider to remove yourself? There’s at least 3 important reasons.
Your job description has changed
First and foremost, you now employ people who do the operative work. Your role in the group is to lead. Some of the tasks that come with being a group leader are rather obvious, such as making decisions and structuring everyone’s responsibilities. But maybe the more important part is that you now have to grow and develop your group. This means that you have to write and revise many more papers than before; decide when you need new people and new money, and write the grants for it; make sure that your team members develop new skills and expertise and coach them. You simply won’t have time for operative work anymore.
The idea of scale
In business, scale refers to doing more of the same simply by adding one more. One more McDonald’s. With one more set of employees who have exactly the same functions as those in all other McDonald’s franchises. Look at my post on Michael Gerber’s book, the E-Myth, which lays out the idea of scale for small businesses in more detail.
The idea of scale ports directly to your research group. It means that you have to make sure that you can get more research done by simply adding new people to the team. This will only be possible if the work in your lab does not depend on you. If you have to train every new lab member yourself, then there’s a tight limit to the number of new people that can join. If you have to invest significant time into every project that is running in your lab, then the number of projects is seriously limited.
Make your group sustainable even in times when you can’t be there
As you climb up the career ladder, you’ll have more stuff going on outside the lab: talk and conference invitations, review boards, administrative meetings etc. You’d like to be sure that work gets done when you can’t be there.
You might find that writing and planning – of which you’ll presumably be doing more than before – is easier in other places than the office, and decide to work at home on some days.
And if you are planning to take a break from work or to reduce your working hours to raise children, this point is especially important. You’ll be much more calm about being gone if you know that your group’s work continues, and that you will be notified only when it doesn’t.
So why am I still here?
As the leader of your group, your main responsibility is to steer where the whole thing is going. Of course “removing yourself” cannot mean that you have nothing to do with your group anymore. It means that you stop doing the operative work that you used to do and for which you became expert during your PhD and Postdoc time. Yes, you drop all that to free yourself for a different kind of work: planning, expanding, guiding, supervising, thinking, and writing.
6 strategies to remove yourself
How can you set up your group in such a way that you can remove yourself? Although you want to be able to be gone, the research group is still your baby, and you have to be in control.
I’ll give a brief list of strategies, and pick each point up again in separate posts later on.
- Delegate. The most obvious thing to do is to hand off as many tasks as you can to your team. Your work should be the things that a) only you can do, and b) you do best. This means that you have to hire the right people – those who can take over as much as possible of all other tasks. I’ve written about delegation here.
- Templates, Workflows, and Instructions. Create documentation of the knowledge that is necessary to do the research right. I’ve posted about this here.
- Create a group culture. When you aren’t there, then your team must make its own decisions. You would like those decisions to be the same ones you would have made yourself. The way to ensure that is to have a group vision and culture. If you and your team share the same priorities and values, then everyone will make compatible decisions. Development of a group culture requires explicit communication with the team.
- Set up an organizational structure. It must be clear who is responsible for what; who can answer what questions; what kind of events may be handled entirely without you (and by who); and for what kind of things you want to be kept in the loop, or make the final decision. You can delegate some leadership roles to some of your group members, e.g. Postdocs. Make sure they know what you expect of them, and where their competence ends.
- Set up communication. Make sure you can be reached. For example, hand out your mobile number, or have an emergency email address for your team that you check even when you don’t check other email. Everyone should know how to best forward information to you. There are many interesting options for team communication besides Email, such as Evernote, Slack, Gitlab, Google Docs, and Asana. I’ve posted on being available here.
- Set up regular meetings. It is essential to have regular meetings with the group, and with each team member. Many business people recommend weekly One-on-Ones with individual teams members; I’ve found that this is good for new lab members, but can be too much later on.
What strategies are you using to remove yourself? Share it in the comments!
Tim Ferriss has written a lot about the idea of removing yourself in his book, The 4-hour workweek. The book’s aim is rather different from this post’s, but it is full of thought-provoking ideas that can be used for our purposes.