PhD Skills The Industry Mindset

Your manager shadow post-PhD and beyond.

Being a manager isn’t as straight forward as it seems. Having adept interpersonal skills to foster support and develop those around you is essential. As you progress up the ladder it’s important to think about your manager shadow – how others perceive you, model and emulate your behaviour.

Being a manager and directly line managing other people at work is often something most PhD students don’t get much exposure to. Yeah sure, you might supervise some undergraduate or masters’ students, possibly even mentor other people in your department or lab, but this is still not quite the same to directly line managing someone as part of your job. The same also applies for your PhD supervisor, even they probably would find transitioning into an industry specific managerial role hard. It’s safe to say that despite a plethora of transferable skills, managing others is likely to not be one of them.

When we think about any manager role, there’s two prime pillars you want to keep in the forefront of your mind. That’s being supportive and facilitating the best out of others (i.e., your direct reports), and being a role model for your direct reports and the wider organisation. Unfortunately, most, even some of the best line managers around, don’t undergo any formal training on how to do either of these. To be a good, or even half-decent manager, you must be reflective, understanding, and aware of your interpersonal skills.

Those of you who have had difficult PhD supervisors will relate. They can be the source of a significant amount of your stress, it’s likely that your family household know them by name, and they feature in a lot of your dinner conversations. If you are to take on a managerial role, it’s likely the people you manage will do the same. Therefore, it’s incredibly important that you keep this in mind whilst also ensuring you really are helping to nurture and develop others. It’s far too common for people to leave jobs, move on, change careers because of negative experiences they have with people – not necessarily the work, but the people and/or work culture.

To embody a managerial role effectively then, in a way to get the best out of people, it’s important to always see them as people first. Just like you, they have a life outside of the office, health conditions, mental health challenges, holiday needs, financial goals, kids to support, a desire to grow, and more. And so, to be an effective manager it’s about understanding them as people and helping them to navigate the world of work collaboratively in a way that gives them satisfaction and enjoyment.

The core ingredient needed to do this is through establishing a good relationship which fosters openness and honesty. Creating a ‘psychologically safe’ space for your reports to express their concerns, worries, and challenges is paramount. If you don’t foster this safe space, it creates a sense of isolation, lack of information sharing, or even an unwillingness to express problems (with a tendency to cover them up). This can create instability in teams, people may leave ‘out of the blue’ as it prevents you from having awareness of their struggles, reducing the opportunity to intervene and offer the necessary support.

This is an art that not everyone has. Being a people person and developing good interpersonal skills takes time, practice, and commitment to understanding people. If this is something you really don’t enjoy or find frustrating – it’s probably safe to say people management isn’t for you. It’s likely that your frustration will seep into your managerial role, having a direct negative impact on those around you. Thinking about that ‘psychological safety’ piece we’ve already mentioned, being impatient is likely to immediately sabotage this. It’s quite likely that your name will be thrown around your report’s late-night conversations with their family in a bad way. All in all, developing your social skills and your managerial skills to help nurture and foster the best out of people is paramount to do well in this role.

The second core pillar as part of this is what we’ll refer to as your ‘work shadow’. In short, this is part of your personal brand. As you progress up the career ladder, more and more people look up to you, with their own goals wanting to reach the same position you are in now. Thus, it’s incredibly likely these individuals will copy you – or at the very least be more observant of the way you conduct yourself and carry yourself in the workplace.

To progress your career in this manner then, it’s important you’re mindful of how you speak about work whilst at work, who you raise challenges and concerns to, and how well you articulate these challenges and concerns. You don’t want to be setting a cat amongst the pigeons if you’re regarded or are aiming to be regarded as one of the more senior members of your team or organisation. A nice way to think about it is how you contextualise your feedback. Feedback is the core to success, and if your organisation/own manager fosters a safe space to share concerns and worries – then you’ll understand the importance of it.

However, sharing concerns in a room full of 100 team members is going to lead to a different outcome as opposed to sharing it in a one-on-one setting with the appropriate stakeholder. The points you may raise will be the same, but they’ll lead to different outcomes and be perceived as either constructive (in a one-on-one setting), or overly negative and unproductive (in a room full of 100 colleagues). Time and place is key.

Getting to grips with this idea is a nuanced yet important skill that’s necessary to being regarded as a more senior member or manager of the team. It’s difficult to grasp at first, especially if you’re used to working independently and in a silo during your PhD. If you want to accelerate this learning curve, identify a mentor or closely observing another senior member within your organisation as a way to learn will pay dividends. Understanding how to position yourself and articulate your thoughts/insights is integral to building a positive work shadow that compliments your overall personal brand.

Progressing up the career ladder takes time, and it’s not always about how ‘good’ you are at your job. It also encompasses your ability to manager others as well as your senior work shadow and/or personal brand. Overtime, it’s likely you’ll understand the subtle difference, but if you fail to recognise this and don’t consciously engage with it, it’s likely that you’ll find career development and career success particularly challenging.

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