Effective leadership and management skills are crucial for any high functioning work unit, and laboratory medicine is no exception. The two skill sets are distinct, but linked; management skills help maintain control and proper function, while leadership skills motivate and inspire.  Historically, the standard approach to selecting new laboratory leaders has been to promote high performing line staff. The problem with this strategy is that the skills and knowledge that make an effective bench technologist are quite different from those that make an effective leader. Too often, employees are promoted without any preparation or training on leadership or management skills, then flounder in their new roles. This leads to frustration for both the leaders and those they lead. Essentially, we are setting up our future leaders to fail. 

The challenges of transitioning from an individual contributor role to a leadership position are significant. According to Gallup, only 30% of people have the innate talent or can be taught to manage others effectively (1). Identifying these individuals early and developing their abilities is essential for maintaining a pipeline of future laboratory managers. A Center for Creative Leadership white paper found that more than half of new managers had received no management training prior to assuming their role (2). Over a quarter of new managers did not feel they were ready to manage others. The paper lists numerous challenges that unprepared, novice managers face, including motivating others, communicating effectively, and managing workplace conflict. 

To deal with this challenge, the division of anatomic pathology at Mayo Clinic created a 12-month program to identify and train high performing staff interested in future leadership roles, called Leadership Exploration in Anatomic Pathology (LEAP). This program is intended for allied health staff who have not yet stepped into a formal leadership or management role and serves two purposes: 1) train allied health staff on basic leadership skills, and 2) identify those with the talent to manage others. It is critical to identify the strengths of prospective leaders early in order to prepare them to take the next step—something every laboratory should make a priority.

Flipping the Classroom

Our program uses a flipped classroom approach, in which participants complete assignments (articles, webinars, etc.) prior to each session to ensure they have a baseline knowledge about the monthly topic. That way, facilitators focus on practical application of each month’s topic during classroom time. This approach requires that the materials for each session be easily accessible by the participants at any time and from any place. To achieve this, we use the Blackboard learning management system, which participants also use to complete program evaluations.

Active learning and reflection are major components of the program. We strongly encourage facilitators to devote most of each hour-long session to skill development, with minimal use of PowerPoint presentations. The sessions usually contain 10–15 minutes of review followed by 30–40 minutes of directly applying knowledge and skills. For example, during the conflict management class, participants spend most of the time working through conflict management scenarios. These scenarios are based upon real-world situations in the laboratory, such as a disagreement with a co-worker who is perceived not to work as hard as others. This allows the participants to examine the situation from a new perspective, that of a laboratory leader.

Reflective learning practices are built into the program to ensure that each component serves as a building block for the next. We ask participants to share how they applied what they learned from the previous month’s topic to their work setting. They also complete a leadership inventory at the beginning and end of the program, which facilitates self-reflection on their leadership growth over time.

Identifying Leaders

To be selected for the program, interested participants must be in good standing and employed within the division of anatomic pathology for at least 2 years. After receiving supervisor approval to apply, participants complete a personal goals statement explaining their experience and education, career aspirations, and plans for career development. Applications are reviewed by a selection committee that consists of divisional leaders and the education team. We received 33 applications for the first offering of LEAP, with 15 individuals from eight work units accepted into the program.

Once we finalize the selection process, supervisors meet with each applicant. For those who are not accepted, supervisors offer mentoring and encouragement to continue developing their knowledge and skills. These conversations are important to ensure that all employees feel supported, and they provide a great platform to discuss stretch assignments and other ways to gain leadership experience.

The LEAP curriculum is comprised of four modules that contain three lessons each (Figure 1). The program starts with a basic exploration of leadership, including the differences between leadership and management. The module, Define Leadership, emphasizes that leadership is a mindset that takes practice and repetition. The second module, Leadership Opportunities, examines leadership positions within the division of anatomic pathology, while also highlighting the importance of customer service. Third, Leadership in Action reviews the basic concepts of performance management, conflict resolution, and communication skills. The last module, Career Development, delves into the art of résumé writing, interviewing, and drafting career development plans.

Developing Your Own Leadership Program

Leadership development does not need to be time consuming or costly. The first step is to analyze the needs of the laboratory: brainstorm pertinent laboratory leadership skills that are in demand at your institution and query staff to determine which topics interest them. Once these skills and attributes have been identified—such as customer service, project management, or empathy—recruit employees who demonstrate these abilities and have them create education materials like presentations, handouts, and online modules. Relying on these in-house subject matter experts further develops their leadership knowledge and skills, while offering learners a leader they can observe and emulate.

 he most powerful, lasting impact of leadership development education occurs when the learning is experiential. Holding employees accountable and encouraging them to use the knowledge and skills gained from an educational experience can have an immense impact on their development, and on the entire lab’s advancement.

Similar to developing leadership topics, creating experiential learning can start with resources already at hand. These experiences can be as simple as crafting stretch assignments to strengthen future leaders’ specific skills and attributes, to having them shadow colleagues to better understand their daily routines. Of course, many free resources—which can be useful with careful curating—are also available online.

Conclusion

Mayo Clinic’s LEAP program has been a remarkable success, with positive feedback from participants and their supervisors. Several of our inaugural participants have moved into specialist or managerial roles, showcasing the succession planning goal of the program. Importantly, we do not guarantee that participants will advance—the program is designed only to give them the tools that will enable their success. With careful planning, clinical laboratories can leverage existing experts and resources to create programs of their own and train their future leaders for success.

Shannon Bennett, MS, MBA, supervises the Quality & Education teams in the Division of Anatomic Pathology at Mayo Clinic. +Email: bennett.shannon@mayo.edu

Amy Seegmiller Renner, MS, HT(ASCP)CM, is an education specialist II and an instructor in laboratory medicine and pathology for the College of Medicine at Mayo Clinic. +Email: seegmiller.amy@mayo.edu