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E. Blair Holladay, PhD, MASCP, SCT(ASCP)CM
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For pathologists and laboratory professionals who want to climb the career ladder, that often means moving into a supervisory role. This can be both exciting and daunting as your responsibilities, relationships, and expectations can change almost overnight. The essential “soft skills” such as leadership and communication skills, often aren’t taught in school, but are critical to being an effective supervisor and maintaining a successful laboratory team. Our experts explain what to expect and how to navigate this new transition.
One of the most difficult parts of the transition to supervisor is the way it changes your relationships to colleagues in the laboratory that you may consider friends, according to Theresa Tellier-Castellone, EdD, MPH, MLS(ASCP)CM, Program Director, School of Medical Technology, at Rhode Island Hospital. Ms. Tellier-Castellone moved up in her career to a supervisory role at a relatively young age, overseeing some colleagues who had mentored her, and quickly realized that there would be “different rules of communication.” She adds, “Now you’re no longer just a colleague, and you’re going to have to work on different communication skills with people you probably talked to in a very different way in your pre-existing role. Your words are going to land differently.”
You may no longer be able to have lunch with your peers or take one-on-one walks because you have to avoid anything that’s perceived as favoritism, says Stacey Robinson, MS, MLS(ASCP)CM SH, SCYM. “You don’t want it perceived that one person has your ear.”
Aimee Angus, MLS(ASCP), Lead Molecular Medical Technologist, Clinical Molecular Microbiology at Rhode Island Hospital, adds, “It’s always harder to tell people things they have to do as opposed to just doing it along with them, but as long as you are approachable and communicate your expectations right up front, and you’re consistent, people won’t take advantage of the situation.”
It’s also important to remember that when you shift to supervisor, it’s a transition period for everyone in the laboratory, not just you, Ms. Robinson says. In that transition, Ms. Tellier-Castellone explains that it’s normal “To feel very much like a man on an island all by yourself. You’re not yet a manager but you’re also no longer a bench tech.”
To solve both feelings of isolation and to ensure the development of necessary leadership and communication skills, Ms. Telllier-Castellone insists that finding a mentor is key. “It’s important to be willing and open to find a mentor, somebody who’s going to be able to guide you through this process.”
Additionally, many of the professional associations, like ASCP, offer courses on leadership and management. At the very least, Ms. Tellier-Castellone recommends “taking ownership and reading leadership articles and books to find comfort in how to be the kind of leader you want to be.”
At Ms. Angus’s hospital, a program called “Buddy to Boss” is available for anyone who is new to middle management. She wishes she’d had such a program back when she was moving into a supervisory role.
There are numerous soft skills necessary to be a strong leader. “Walk the walk, talk the talk,” says Ms. Tellier-Castellone. “If you’re going to expect people to change, to be excited about a new assay, then you’ve got to model this yourself. You’ve got to understand the testing, not just say ‘we’re going to make this change.’”
Good communication from a leadership position should empower, not feel like a dictatorship. Ms. Robinson explains that just coming in and telling people what to do will get you very little buy-in. “You have to spend time getting to know each person and learn how to bring them along,” she says. This means helping employees see how your requests are either good for the laboratory, or for their careers, or both. “They took this job because they wanted to do it, so you have to play into that and find aspects that will appeal to them.”
Along those lines, Ms. Robinson urges new supervisors not to try to be the “subject matter expert” right away. “Your staff are the subject matter experts; they are doing the job on the bench every day. Maybe there’s something you or the pathologist understand that needs to be changed, but try to be vulnerable and transparent, saying, ‘I haven’t been on the bench in a while, we need to make this change, how do you see this working?’”
Empower employees and get their feedback. “You do have to eventually take ownership of that decisions because if it fails, ultimately it’s on your shoulders, but don’t be afraid to use the subject matter experts that are in the trenches,” Ms. Robinson says.
A supervisory role can be exciting because it may be the first time you are empowered to make decisions in the lab. One of the benefits of the role that Ms. Robinson enjoys is what she calls “artistic license,” to make many more decisions herself. “I was previously the flow tech and it was like playing a game of telephone between leadership and the pathologist, and a lot got lost in translation.” When she became supervisor, she could control that information flow and decision chain, though she always tries to be transparent about her decision-making process.
However, unpleasant parts of the job are also a reality, particularly around managing personnel, such as having to give corrective actions and even firing people. Ms. Robinson suggests there’s no reason to be afraid of these situations if you are fair and accurate and document everything. “I used to worry about personnel actions until a friend gave me the advice that ‘people fire themselves’ and I have found that to be true. Just document everything, do that due diligence.”
And when it’s time to have tough conversations with staff, Ms. Robinson recommends, “Don’t dance around it, just do the hard thing, but also let them know ahead of time that you need to talk with them, so they’re not blindsided.”
Good leadership is as much about making people feel valued as it is being the heavy. “You have to recognize when someone goes the extra mile and tell that person, to make them feel valued and respected,” Ms. Tellier-Castellone says.
At the end of the day, Ms. Angus says you have to realize “Not everybody is going to like you and that’s fine. You’re going to make decisions that they don’t like and you’re going to have to say things that might upset people, but you have to do it for the better of the department you work in. You have to separate the person from the business, for the lab.”