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A scientist's advice on managing a team

Managing a laboratory was one part of his job that Duke University biology professor Mohamed Noor wasn’t taught in graduate school. But he hopes to share what he has learned about management to help others.

August 9, 2011

Biologist Mohamed Noor says that the management aspect of his job as a Duke University professor causes him to lose more sleep than any other area, including activities such as teaching, seeking grants, publishing papers and getting experiments to work.

Why? Partly, he said, it’s because graduate training doesn’t prepare scientists for management. And management is important, because a laboratory really isn’t a physical space -- it’s a team of people.

Noor hopes to help his fellow scientists in this regard, both on his blog, Science, Food, Etc., and with a book he’s writing on the subject.

In an interview with Faith & Leadership, Noor shared the following advice and observations for people who are new to managing a team.

Communicate with the people you supervise

Fairly recently, I started a process where every week I meet with every single person in the lab individually. I have a half-hour block slotted.

I don’t necessarily use the whole half-hour block, but it’s slotted so that -- “Here’s a time when you know you can find me, I know I can find you, and we can go over what things we’re doing.” I have a system for online questions or comments, and I update it every week, so that way when they come, it’s not, “Oh my gosh, what’s he going to ask me?”

I use Google Docs. They can see it. They can edit it. They can add things to it. They can look online and see, “Oh, this is what we talked about last time. Here’s something he added from last week that he wants to look into, so I’ll come ready to answer the question.” It’s also good for me. They come prepared, I’m prepared, and everybody’s ready to go and talk about what they need to do.

Those have saved my life. Because what happens is the graduate student comes into your office, and they largely expect you to be able to remember exactly where the last conversation you had with them left off.

But I have four Ph.D. students, I have two postdocs, I have two technicians, and I have a million other duties that are completely unrelated to any of them. I can’t just snap my fingers and pick up where I left off with any one of them, so it really helps to have a lot of notes where I can say, “Give me one second.”

I flip to that and I’m like, “Oh yeah, last time we were together we talked about this, this, this, this, this. OK, go ahead.” It makes it so our meetings are much more efficient.

Be cautious in hiring, especially in the beginning

You’re used to being part of this very dynamic group, and you show up at your new lab and here’s this empty room. It’s all too easy to then just start grabbing a bunch of people and say, “Oh, this person seems really good. Oh, this person seems really good.” Getting too many people too quickly is a recipe for disaster.

It’s much better to let it grow a little more organically, a little bit more slowly, and have people more staged. Don’t feel like you need to fill up the room.

It really helps, too, to interview as rigorously as you can. Have people in your lab talk to the interviewees. Now, some people get a little bit fearful of this, and they say, “What if somebody in my lab says something bad and they don’t come?”

On the other hand, if the person in your lab says something bad and they don’t come, maybe there’s a reason that that person isn’t a good match. Maybe the “bad” thing that they said was something like, “He likes to supervise this closely,” and that person didn’t like that. That’s not bad. That just means that maybe we’re not as good a match as it seemed.

Separate the personal and the professional

When you’re starting off as a new faculty member, it’s very easy to remember being part of the group and being part of the team. But you’re actually their boss now. You may think casual jokes and a little teasing are very innocent, but for them it’s not at all innocent, because it’s not in a symmetrical relationship.

It’s good to take a step back, keep a little bit of a buffer between you and everybody else in the lab, and very much think about what you say before you say it. And never say anything when you’re mad, like, “Go away.” Throw something in your office or something like that when nobody else is there.

The analogy I use for that is there’s an invisible hammer you’re carrying, and if you start swinging it around, you could hit somebody and have no idea. I’ve definitely made that mistake many times. I probably still make it, but hopefully less.

Block off personal time

Another important thing is to block off a little time for yourself or for anything family-related. It’s not like my family ceases to exist; they need time, too, and there’s times when I want to go to my kid’s baseball game.

Another thing that I started doing is I blocked off lunch every single day. If I didn’t do it, it might very well get scheduled away. I make it so that nobody can put an appointment there. I say, “No, I will have lunch.”