CAREER COLUMN

How I led my lab from 18,900 kilometres away

An opportunity to do a visiting fellowship in New Zealand meant Thomas Bennett had to manage his UK research group from afar — and so change his leadership approach.
Thomas Bennett is a Royal Society University Research Fellow, and spent time as a University of Cambridge Visiting Canterbury Fellow at the University of Canterbury, Chirstchurch, New Zealand. Twitter: @thomasdbennett

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In February 2019, I started a two-month visiting fellowship at the University of Canterbury, in Christchurch, New Zealand. Now back at home, I’ve realized that being far from my group made some existing challenges even harder, and led me to make some simple changes to my management approach.

My independent career as a principal investigator kicked off in October 2016, with a Royal Society University Research Fellowship. Since then, my informal support of 2 or 3 colleagues has morphed into a research group of 14 students and fellows in the department of materials science and metallurgy at the University of Cambridge, UK. I’ve found it challenging to reconcile the huge privilege and responsibility of being a good leader with my desire to gain international experience.

Group meetings

When I started as a principal investigator, my weekly group meetings consisted of requesting an update from each person, and lasted around 90 minutes in total. This was a poor idea — I found that those who spoke first quickly lost interest, and contributions to group discussions were low.

This and my upcoming fellowship on the other side of the world meant that something had to change. Now, our weekly meetings are more dynamic, and take about one hour. One colleague delivers a 10- to 15-minute presentation on the latest results, and another presents a 10-minute critical appraisal of a literature research paper. Occasionally, someone will give a 30-minute to one-hour ‘taught’ class on a technique, on topics such as sample preparation, data collection, data analysis or data presentation, in addition to the regular meeting. These changes have improved the whole group’s willingness to engage in discussion.

Balancing time

To better manage the increase in time commitments that comes from leading a group in the United Kingdom, while teaching and researching in New Zealand, I created a colour-coded task list, as opposed to a non-prioritized list. Green: ‘all good’; blue: ‘waiting for something or somebody’; brown: ‘I need to do something’; red: ‘I needed to do something months ago’. When I was in New Zealand, I made a note of key findings, results and other information from each group member to get up to speed quickly in a meeting. I used a spreadsheet to record conference and grant deadlines and progress. The Excel document is a source of gentle amusement in the group, but without it, I would have been lost.

Remote management

Being long distance forced me to take a less intrusive role in some of the everyday running of my lab group. This was a scary prospect, but in reality — as long as you keep the emphasis on safety in the lab — it will prove to be a liberating experience. I was happily surprised by the ingenuity of the group in my absence. In addition, PhD students and postdocs are usually more skilled in the laboratory than PIs, owing to their more recent experience and previous training. For me, time spent going over laboratory procedures is time that I could spend more usefully discussing science with my group.

In addition to the group meeting, I held hour-long, one-on-one Skype sessions with each student and postdoctoral fellow in the group. These took place from 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. and from 7:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. New Zealand time. Over in Christchurch, I can be 11, 12 or 13 hours ahead of the United Kingdom, depending on daylight saving time. I found our virtual meetings to be more efficient than in-person conversations, although they came with the disadvantage of potentially making me seem less approachable. This was a problem, especially given the emphasis I place on student and staff care. To try to mitigate this, I was careful to start Skype meetings with an informal chat.

I asked my team to supply PowerPoint presentations in advance on research carried out in the preceding week, so that I could ask questions before each meeting; that ensured we kept in regular contact. The strategy also provides valuable data-presentation experience and is something that I plan to continue in person now I’m back in the United Kingdom.

Thumbs up, thumbs down

I continue to learn good practice wherever I can. One team at the University of Canterbury has a routine in its morning meetings, in which every group member indicates their level of progress and work satisfaction using a ‘thumbs up’ (content), ‘thumbs sideways’ (progressing) or ‘thumbs down’ (having difficulties) hand gesture. After this, the group discusses the day ahead and upcoming challenges, which allows the whole team to contribute to solving problems. I will introduce this here in the United Kingdom.

I still make mistakes, but I am getting more comfortable with the idea that as long as you get up in the morning looking to do the best science you can, and try your best for your colleagues, then that is at least some progress towards being a good group leader.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-01243-1

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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