Transferable Skills Guide: Managing a Team

By Karen Guerin

Different tasks involved in managing a team

A recent survey of PhDs found that many researchers feel that they lack formal training in a variety of transferable skills. At Addgene we've set out to fill this gap by both highlighting that researchers do learn MANY transferable skills while working in the lab and by offering advice on areas where you might need some help. Today in our transferable skills guide: managing a team.

You’ve just been promoted, congratulations! You’re now a manager with your own team! But what does it really mean to manage a team?

If your graduate school experience was anything like mine you didn’t think much about management skills during your scientific training. I never thought about management skills before being propelled into the position of manager. I barely had any experience being managed! The good news is that management skills can be taught, but it will take time so be patient and keep an open mind.

First let’s clear up a misconception about being a manager: yes, being a manager means being someone’s boss. But it does not mean shouting orders and trying to get everything done your way. According to Merriam-Webster “to manage” is:

  1. To handle or direct with a degree of skill,
  2. To work upon or try to alter for a purpose and
  3. To direct the professional career of.

Like everyone else I mostly learned through experience and from my mistakes. Here I’ll share what I wish I knew when I first became a manager.

Know your people

Each person is unique and should be managed accordingly.  I wish I knew that when I was “managing” a couple of undergrads back in grad school. Both were hard-working scientists-in-training who got the job done, but I struggled with what I thought was a lack of motivation in one of them. He left after a semester while the other student stayed until he graduated. Years later I attended a formal training for new managers and I had a “Eureka” moment while reviewing the results of my Myers-Briggs test:  my undergrads were different people! More specifically, they had different learning styles. One was a “Doer” and the other was a “Scientist”.  My “Doer” did not lack motivation, but he didn’t want to spend hours reviewing papers to piece together the best protocol;  he wanted to get going and learn through doing things. Had I realized that at the time I could likely have retained this talented undergrad.

The point here is managing is not “one size fits all”. Manage the individuals in your team: learn what motivates them (keep in mind that it can be very different from what motivates you!), know their unique skills and strengths (you will likely have reports with different levels of experience), find out what their learning styles are and capitalize on them for the benefit of the team. By properly managing the individuals in your team you will have a much better chance of creating a high-performing team - which is every manager’s dream.

Learn to delegate effectively

 As a manager your role is not to do all the work yourself anymore. Personally I found this to be particularly challenging. As PhD students and postdocs we are used to doing (almost) everything ourselves and it’s a hard habit to break. But as a manager you will be quickly overwhelmed if you don’t delegate - as I quickly learned!

I was a poor delegator at first. I knew what needed to be done and how to prioritize but I  just added the “most important” tasks my schedule. This was bad for 2 reasons. First, it soon became obvious that I didn’t have time to do everything as I planned and I was missing deadlines - which puzzled me because I could do all these tasks before I was a manager! Second, my direct report was not engaged because I only left him/her with small tasks and s/he was always asking for more work (this is a big hint that you are not delegating enough!).

There is no way around the fact that new team members need to be trained, which may seem like a waste of your time at first. After all, you know exactly what and how to do it so shouldn't it be faster to do it yourself? Training certainly takes time - so plan accordingly -  but think of it as an investment: once the person is trained you will have more time to focus on what you should be doing : writing a grant, thinking about the next project, reaching out to other teams, expanding your network….

I found it helpful to plan my week(s) in advance as much as possible so I could more easily identify what to delegate and to whom (make sure that person has time for it!). Then schedule a meeting to discuss the work, set expectations, answer any questions, and (most importantly) decide on a timeline. My experience is that tasks often don’t get done if there is not a clear deadline. Finally check-in regularly, make yourself available, and encourage questions. Unless you’re delegating a recurring task to a seasoned report, there should be questions!

Remember that delegating is not just a way to create more time for yourself, but it will help develop your team members by giving them new opportunities.

I still need to check myself sometimes to make sure I am delegating well, but it does get easier over time!

Communicate often and clearly

As a manager you need to clearly state expectations and goals. Yours and your team’s success depend on it.  Equally as important is to be able to actively listen - this can be hard - but it is the best way to avoid mistakes due to miscommunication and to detect trouble. I’m not comfortable with awkward silences but I’ve learned to embrace them after one ended with the person in front of me saying “I’ve been doing some of X’s work for a couple of weeks now”. I had no idea this was happening even though I met with X on a weekly basis! The silence and maybe even the slight awkwardness can spur people to speak up. Once aware of the problem, I was able to resolve this issue - with coaching - before it became a major problem. But I also learned to ask specific questions. “How’s everything going?” is likely to get you “good” or “fine” as an answer which is not really helpful. “What is the best/worst part of working with X?”  is going to get you what you really want to know. Remember that one on one discussion can be confidential.

Finally, provide timely feedback. We often associate feedback with end-of-the-year performance review, but feedback should be given throughout the year and in a timely manner. If someone’s performance or behavior is inadequate, you need to address it as soon as possible for the best outcome. Nobody likes having these conversations, but waiting and hoping it will fix itself is counter-productive. I always assume that reports want to succeed at work and providing feedback is needed for that. In many cases reports are not aware of issues until you bring them up. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that your reports will be grateful for the feedback, but at least you can start making changes for the best. Positive feedback is equally as important so don’t forget to recognize someone’s hard work and reward a job well done. Your report will (needs to) feel valued.

Talk to your manager and find a mentor

Your manager should support you, just like you are supporting your report(s). This means that you should be able to go to your manager for advice if you’re not sure how to face a particular situation. But keep in mind that a good manager should help you work through your situation, not tell you what to do. Unfortunately this is not always the case or you may not feel comfortable reaching out to your manager. This is when having a mentor - someone more experienced to guide you - is valuable.

Protect your team

Make you team feel safe. Your team members need to trust you and you need to encourage them to speak their minds. They will make mistakes and you will take responsibility (within reason!).  Try to buffer them from unnecessary pressure “coming from above”, which is when other skills such as negotiation and being assertive become handy.

In summary, I’ve had “good” and “bad” managers and I've learned from both. The former will empower you, keep you motivated and help you grow in your role. The latter will make you feel discouraged and not valued which will undoubtedly negatively impact your work and your life.

It’s up to you to decide which one you want to be! 


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