Watch the Front Lines
One of the more common issues I encounter in conversations with junior faculty has to do with people management. We all know that the best leaders can sense when and how much to delegate. Delegation is an important part of team building, for it instills a sense of ownership and engagement. This is true especially when the tasks you are delegating tap into creativity, enterprise, independence and design. These kinds of tasks allow the members of your team to develop their own skills. Such opportunities ultimately contribute to job satisfaction, which is an important metric for any institution, academic or otherwise. From the standpoint of a faculty member, delegation frees time to pursue other priority areas that you, as leader, are best positioned to serve. This includes writing grants and papers, hiring new staff, serving on committees, or just stealing away to think big thoughts (which, by the way, is one of the reasons you signed up for the job in the first place).
Here’s the catch: one must tread warily. The line is fine indeed that separates healthy delegation from neglect. While good management by necessity involves delegation, it also involves spending time on the front lines, so to speak. The bottom line is to challenge yourself to remain familiar with every part of your program, top to bottom. This includes that which may seem less glamorous, less exciting, or even mundane – those things you think (surely) ought to be easy enough to do without you. The reality is that research moves so fast now and involves so many moving parts, that no one can be an expert in everything. That’s why you delegate.
But if you don’t take the time to peak under the hood, by the time you catch a problem it may be too late to fix – which means lost time and resources. Over the years, I have tried to keep in mind one simple rule: you can’t fix what you can’t see. This does not mean feel free to hover, which tends to undermine ownership, increase anxiety, and generally drive everyone around you nuts. Just meet with your team, talk to your team, and show interest in your team.
As you grow in your career, spending time on the front lines becomes more and more difficult as demands on your energy increase. However, there is true benefit in doing so. By engaging as the leader, you are reinforcing a sense of value, both for the work itself and for your staff or trainees personally. By extension, you also are reinforcing their buy-in to your research program and their commitment to your mission. Often the balance between success and failure rests upon what you might consider a small detail. Remember, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link – so pay attention to all of your links. As a leader, if you put yourself above any part of your research program, you risk weakening that part and the people who support it. Travel, be an ambassador, spend quiet time to think and move things off your desk. Do all of those things that bring professional fulfillment and make you happy. However, as you do, remember to make an effort to stay engaged with those who make it their business to help you with yours.