Moving Up The Ladder In Clinical Research: How To Develop Management & Leadership Skills
This article is the second in a three-part series providing insight and guidance to help professional clinical researchers effectively navigate their careers. Click here to read Part 1.
One of the biggest career jumps is from individual contributor to manager. Entering a management role, whether it be people management, project management, or team management, means a shift in day-to-day responsibilities from “doing” to shaping, guiding, and leading others. As a manager, your ability to build a solid team and provide growth opportunities for others becomes more important than the talents developed as an individual contributor. Becoming comfortable with making more abstract contributions rather than providing tangible work and checking off your accomplishments is paramount.
An ideal people manager is one who can identify employees’ strengths and weaknesses and provide opportunities where those employees can capitalize on strengths and improve their weaknesses. The goal of a people manager is to create latitude for employees to learn, grow, and succeed, while still accomplishing their day-to-day work. A people manager does not need to be an expert at an employee’s specific job but must be knowledgeable enough to identify individual skills and gaps and subsequently provide appropriate development opportunities to close those gaps. An impactful manager proactively collects feedback from an employee’s peers and team members within the organization to build a complete picture of their strengths and challenges, and then communicates this feedback back to the employee in real time. It is important that a manager be comfortable delivering feedback in a constructive manner and providing guidance toward areas of improvement. These skills don’t come without both education and practice, and they are some of the more challenging aspects to learn in becoming an effective manager. On a regular basis, successful managers dig just enough into the details with their employees to ensure they feel supported, have the resources they need to accomplish their goals, and feel that their work is rewarding. It is difficult to measure a manager’s success on a daily basis; however, over time his/her impact will become clearer regarding both their employees’ performance and the organization as a whole.
Successfully managing a project or team requires a similar approach but with a focus on deliverables rather than on the development of direct reports. These managers must work to build a team composed of the right talent to get the job done, ensuring the team is appropriately trained, is aligned around a mutually understood definition of success, and is provided the tools to succeed. An effective manager sets expectations and shares feedback throughout the project so the team remains aligned and understands their progress, both collectively and individually. S/he proactively assesses the risks that, if realized, may hinder a successful completion of the project and its deliverables and also collaborates to plan mitigations for these risks. Additionally, a successful project manager works with his/her team to problem solve and to identify and fix systemic issues rather than just correcting the work themselves. These behaviors enable the team to grow and succeed.
When becoming a manager, it can be difficult to let go of the “doing” aspects of work in order to make room for the requirements of the new role. While a new manager may be able to sustain this momentum for a short time, the quality of their work will eventually suffer. There are many reasons people struggle with delegation. For example, it can be hard to determine which tasks to delegate or to learn to trust those available to take on tasks, while some constantly worry about being perceived as “doing less.” It becomes apparent very quickly whether someone is succeeding in their new role by becoming an effective delegator or if they are turning into a “super-sized individual contributor.”1 In the iconic words of Ron Swanson (Parks and Recreation), “Never half-a** two things. Whole a** one thing.” If you are conflicted about which tasks are appropriate to delegate, seek guidance from your manager or mentor. If you are concerned about the qualifications of your delegees, treat the opportunity as a coaching or mentoring experience to teach and empower. If you want to maintain the reputation you have built as a valuable employee, embrace the change that comes with your new role and work to make those you manage and lead shine. The overall success of the employee, project, portfolio, department, etc. that you’re leading reflects more on you than your abilities to complete all the tasks.
The major strengths that separate good managers from great managers are tough to measure. What follows are a few stories that highlight some of these strengths that may help you assess where you need to grow. Not all are critical at every stage of management, but if you can’t master them, you’ll struggle to advance into more senior executive roles with increased responsibility.
Cheri was a skilled clinical operations consultant who supported studies in the clinical trial associate (CTA) role and had consistently proved she was ready to take on more responsibility. She was assigned a clinical trial manager (CTM) role for a Phase 1 trial with one of her peers supporting her as a CTA. Out of habit, she continued to handle the CTA tasks along with her CTM responsibilities. If she delegated work to her CTA and the work was completed incorrectly, Cheri just corrected the work herself. In general, she felt uncomfortable assigning tasks to the CTA because she was Cheri’s peer. Cheri became overwhelmed and was losing confidence in herself while her CTA was underutilized and discouraged. With encouragement from her manager, Cheri began to delegate the appropriate tasks to her CTA. She took the time to provide guidance to her CTA on ways to work more efficiently and correct mistakes. The CTA was able to expand her skillset and Cheri had the time to manage the trial effectively. Additionally, the CTA felt empowered and began seeking Cheri’s advice on her work outside of this trial, giving Cheri the opportunity to coach and continue to build her leadership skills.
Determining The Right Level Of Involvement
Brian held a senior management role in his company, but he still felt compelled to offer to help more junior colleagues on their projects in both routine and reactive circumstances and when he noticed they were going astray. If his help was accepted by these junior colleagues, their project leads would feel micromanaged. Brian was skilled at digging in and reviewing project details item by item to facilitate discussions and align the team. This guidance often proved to be necessary, but it also caused irritation and resentment on the projects, despite his good intentions. He worked incredibly long hours just to keep up with his inbox, leaving him exhausted and overwhelmed. Ultimately, his own work suffered because he had too much on his plate and couldn’t adequately develop a strategy for his own team, which caused fragmentation and disconnection to the point that it hindered his team members’ success. Brian’s manager and peers were open with him and provided him feedback, which led him to modify his priorities and reset with his group. This feedback helped Brian focus, but he still needed to constantly remind himself to stay out of the weeds and on top of his own work.
Angie was promoted to a mid-level Clinical Operations role at a small clinical-stage biotech company. She had really enjoyed being a CRA at a large CRO and felt she managed her assigned research sites well, ensuring they had solid enrollment numbers and high-quality data. Her visit reports were always detailed and timely and she could be counted on to manage the follow-up actions efficiently. When she shifted to a role where she was leading projects for a small biotech company, Angie faced challenges she hadn’t previously experienced. In one interaction she initiated with executives in the company, she sought to advocate for protocol design changes that would make the clinical trial more flexible for patients during COVID, but the company’s chief medical officer (CMO) was not used to the flexibility. By clearly demonstrating the benefits and dispelling his concerns about potential compliance risks, Angie was able to provide a clear case with industry examples that inspired him to integrate the changes.
In parallel, while working with a difficult Quality Assurance (QA) colleague who had little knowledge of important preselection criteria for CRO qualification, Angie realized the conflict was a territorial issue rather than a difference in opinion in the CRO’s qualifications. She had to find a way to help this more senior team member ask questions in a way that played to her position in the QA group but also provided Angie with the information she needed to assess the CRO team’s qualifications, roles, and responsibilities thoroughly. Angie approached the CMO for support and they jointly suggested that she partner with the QA colleague and conduct the assessment together. This forced both parties to learn to work together rather than allowing either of them to overlook the conflict. During this interaction, Angie was able to constructively educate her colleague so they could ask the most important selection questions to evaluate the suitability of the vendor.
Both of these interactions provided new opportunities to push Angie out of her comfort zone. Her real growth was recognizing when she needed assistance and being comfortable asking for help. She reached out to respected senior leaders to seek guidance on how to approach both situations and then navigated a path forward in a way that helped her accomplish her goals of progressing the trial and maintaining professional relationships with her senior colleagues.
Building the skills illustrated above are key to succeeding as a manager and are the foundation for becoming a successful leader. The focus of our next installation will be Situational Leadership,3,4 particularly in respect to managing up. Being able to appropriately manage senior levels becomes progressively more important as you seek to move toward a leadership position.