Articulating Leadership and Management

Job descriptions often ask for leadership or management experience but what if you’ve ‘just’ been a postdoc?

The focus of this blog is all about how we can articulate leadership – perhaps when we don’t feel we have it?

How can we articulate leadership and management?

This is something that I’m asked about a lot in my work with postdocs, particularly when it comes to job applications.  A lot of them will say ‘must have leadership skills or must have management experience.’ It can cause real panic!

How do you go about getting management skills if you haven’t been a manager?  How can you progress into a management role without those skills?  That is what we’re going to answer today. How can you take the skills and experiences that you already have and be able to put them articulately on your CV?

Deciphering the job adverts

I recently worked with some environmental scientists who were finishing off their PhDs and we were discussing this exact problem.  For example, an advert for an Environmental Sustainability Manager, “you will need to have excellent leadership capacity to oversee and manage team members in the delivery of programs and projects, providing an opportunity for individual members to contribute”. 

In previous roles or positions, you might not have been called a leader or a manager but you have definitely, at some point worked with others towards delivering programs and projects. If you’ve done that successfully, then chances are you’ve already provided that opportunity for individual members. So, despite the fact that we haven’t got our experiences labelled as such, we do have some experience. 

This doesn’t mean that you can say you’ve been a CEO when you haven’t!  It’s about making sure that you really bring your skills to the fore. 

Another example would be a job where it says “lead” in the in the title, this can put people off as they think, I’ve not been a lead in anything.  However, if you break it down into the essential requirements, wording such as highly skilled, proven track record and publishing demonstrable understanding of the tools and infrastructure required is used.  It doesn’t say you must have led a massive team. Always make sure you drill down on the essential and desirable characteristics of the applicant they are looking for on the job description. Chances are you will have most of them.  If you’ve got a good 60-70% it could well be worth investigating further so don’t be put off by the word lead. Just because you take the leader doesn’t necessarily mean you are a leader or an official manager.

Leadership positions

For this example, I’ve picked the CEO of the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency. I’ve not looked at this one because I think you’ll be ready for a CEO job coming out of your first or second postdoc! Wait a couple of years for that to happen. It was more to do with what they’re looking for. 

  • Understanding and appreciating complex and high-level stakeholder environment – chances are you’ve worked with other people. Stakeholders are people that are interested in your research.
  • Bring a natural ability to develop effective partnerships across public, private and third sector – again that is around working with others.
  • Having strong experience of developing and delivering a strategic vision and leadership for a successful team – again think about when you lead on a project. When did you work with other people?  When did you set the agenda?  When did you set the strategic direction? 

It all fits into the day-to-day things we do, it’s just we seldom call them leadership or management skills.

My Top 8 Leadership Qualities

These appear across lots of leadership articles that I looked at.

  • Communication skills – the majority of leadership is tied into good communication. We are constantly communication from simple emails to social media to presentations, these are all forms of communication – start a list of all the ways you communicate in your life both professionally and personally, it all counts.
  • Organisation – if you’ve managed to get through a PhD, congratulations. If you’re a postdoc, chances are you are already organised. This isn’t just about time though it could be organising projects, organising date or people. How do you organise your day? How do you organise your team? How do you organise people who work with you?
  • Problem Solving – because we’re researchers, we solve problems. To articulate that you could think about making a little mini case study of a time where you solved a problem, if you can do more than one that’s great as it’s something they often ask at interview too. For example, what were the circumstances? What were the action that you took and what were the results?
  • Coaching and mentoring – you may not be a coach or senior enough to be classed as a mentor but if you’ve had a conversation with an undergrad in your lab who’s doing a project and you’ve nurtured them along, then you have done coaching and mentoring. You may not have any formal coaching qualification but it’s not about the piece of paper. You provide advice to colleagues; all those things constitute coaching.
  • Delegation – now this is a tough one because quite often, as a busy postdoc in a lab, you might feel that you need to delegate things but you don’t. Think about how you would set about giving a task to a junior colleague. How do you set about giving them something that they can go away and do that takes something off your plate that also benefits them? Delegation is hard, it’s taken me a long time to delegate things but I am getting better.
  • Relationship building – we all naturally do this in our everyday life. Relationship building could be as simple as connecting to people on Twitter, or on LinkedIn, or just emailing someone starting those conversations building that know like and trust.
  • Motivation – not just of yourself but also motivation of others. How do you motivate yourself? How do you motivate others? How do you understand what it is that motivates others? Again, that comes back to the top tip of communication, talking, asking, building relationships, and then understanding. The biggest thing that leaders and managers need to understand is what motivates us won’t necessarily be the same motivators for our staff.
  • And finally, adaptability. I think the past few years have really seen us have our resilience and adaptability muscles stretched, possibly, almost to breaking point. Again, it comes back to rather than just saying, oh yes, I had to adapt during the pandemic, think about how did you go about adapting? What were the circumstances? What were the actions you took and what were the results?

That kind of framework really is key. When it comes to writing these down on your CV try to use some action-orientated verbs. You need to give a spirit of who you are in a paper document.

Words and language

One of the ways you can do that is to use active verbs but use them selectively. For example, spearheaded might seem a bit over the top for you but initiated, you probably have initiated projects, you might then say that you have initiated multidisciplinary research project across four countries using interdisciplinary researchers. That is a brilliant sentence, and one that is very, very common with the people I work with! 

Or reduced? I reduced the time it took for a program to run by 50%, which meant that we could, in real time watch our patients data. Again, tie it to a result. Numbers are good, so reduced by 50%. That’s a good quantifiable, then think about the effect that that had as well. Don’t just put that you overhauled programming that doesn’t tell me anything. However, you might have overhauled a health and safety sequence for the lab, which resulted in no accidents throughout 2022. 

I hope this has given you some ideas and the confidence to be more open to job descriptions you might not have considered before, if I can help in any way through my career coaching online courses or if you just want to chat, then my websites will let you do that. So do get in contact.

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