Leadership in science has nothing to do with being wrong
Understanding Leadership in Practice: A Conversation with a Managing Director at the German Photon Optical and Optics Research Institutes (invited talk with Henrik Hagen)
Each episode in this series explores leadership from a different perspective. We will hear from people who studied leadership, as well as people who studied research institute leaders.
On this episode, I speak with the Managing Director of Trumpf Laser, which is located in Germany. I met at a meeting in June of 2022, focused on careers in optics and Photonics, and he was there.
In our conversation, we talked about how Hagen became interested in science and how that interest eventually led him to take on a leadership position.
But actually, in reality, behind the scenes, what I do is I ask my guests to introduce themselves to me first, and on this occasion, I’m going to include Hagen’s introduction.
What do you do when you are interested in physics? Yeah, I’m crazy about things I don’t understand (but I know what I can do about them)
Yeah, and so, so I’m not talking too much about the job, right? So I’m, I’m crazy about things I don’t understand, right? In general, whether it’s in science or anything else. Everything which I don’t understand makes me crazy.
I want to understand. Unfortunately, there’s too many things out there today, which I don’t understand. But diving deep, and getting to the core of understanding gives me a deep satisfaction.
Okay. Let’s return to your scientific curiosity. How did you, how did you get into, you know, becoming a scientist, and following that path of trying to learn more about the world?
When I was a kid I wanted to become an astronaut, like a young boy. So, so the stars, the sky, the rockets. I was born four years after the moon landing. There was a time when the moon landing was ten years away but still in the minds of the people.
And that was always part of me. Yes, since a kid. But very difficult to understand. I started experimenting at the age of 12 in the basement of our house.
They were thrilled. Mother was angry at what happened because it wasn’t only me. I have a friend that is still friends today. He also studied physics later on. I is completely different from this metal.
I don’t know, not going into details yet, but I was driven then then by this stuffs, obviously, by by doing something with your hands, you can do exciting stuff. Sometimes it’s difficult and dangerous.
That is what we did. And over time, I would say the enthusiasm grew. Because in the end, I saw here by, let’s say being a quantum mechanical concept, if you put some mechanics optics around it, by a sudden you have a device, a tool, which can bring benefits to society.
The decision to go back to research in lasers, or whether I wanna take over a part of the responsibility and the responsibility of the research project?
All my life, until today. The decision making point at that time in 2005, my wife was pregnant, yeah, must also admit, there was a private component involved, that I decided going maybe into the safe harbour direction, into industry.
It is not clear whether it will turn out to be a professorship or not. That’s the reason for going into that direction.
You have been with TRUMPF Laser for a long time. You have worked your way through the R&D department doing fundamental research. You spent many years doing that, and you are now a managing director.
Yes. So basically, maybe going back to research first in TRUMPF, I was going with the technology development. From one technology to the next in lasers.
And over time, my responsibility grew. The scope of research and the bandwidth are only some of the things that I came to take a decision on. Do I want to do the research project and then take over the responsibility for the whole site, or do I want to do it piecemeal?
If you are a leader of a company and can define the strategy, you will be able to make all the wishes that motivate you to become through many people.
Who’s looking at me? How I fell in love with technology and science, and how I became involved in the management of a laser
It’s always clear to know after the event. At that point in time, I didn’t know who was really looking. Give me direction, or go in that direction.
Sometimes, it depends on luck and opportunities, because of the former managing director being allocated to another site. So there was an empty vacancy, which I could fill. And the question is: who could fill it? Someone knows the subject.
So to say, the science, or the technology, should be also someone who has skills in leadership, who understands people management, and that’s what I learned over time, yeah.
I am not interested in creating products, where you only add to the value of the product, because you can make it cheaper.
To build a laser and technology in general, which all the other people cannot do. To undertake challenges with high risks involved, where everybody in industry will say “Well, we don’t touch this topic. It’s too early for that. We do not do that.
What do you do when you’re a leader? How do you learn? What skills do you need to learn from? What have you learned during your leadership?
You mentioned earlier that you have developed skills along the way as a leader. So what are these skills, and and how did you learn them, or from whom did you learn them?
You need to listen to the people who you are leading. If you don’t know the team or the people around you which you would like to lead, then you have a severe problem.
To understand what the fears or concerns of each individual in your group are, you need to have strong social skills from my perspective. And really to get everybody sworn into a mission what needs to be accomplished?
You need to be authentic. To a certain degree, you can learn that. But you cannot fake. Let’s say the people have a good feeling for the leader telling them what he is up to. Is it real? Or is it just driven by monetary purposes or goals? Is he really standing up for something?
I bring people in to share their thoughts so they are part of the journey to define our goals.
You need to bring people together to connect, you need to have a feeling for which people will work well together, and you need to negotiate between differing opinions in order to make it happen.
Do you study up? Do you like to read about leadership? Or do you do watch people that you are, that you’re you know, that you that you think are doing a great job?
What Is The Role of Communication: My Personal Experience at a Relatively Young Company (Role of an Employee or a Mentor)
The question is very good. It was a very good question. Of course, you don’t have this all inside you. I believe you have some things inside of you.
There are some things that you need to learn. I had a lot of failures. Early, when I joined the company, very stubborn. I said it’s how we need to do it. Either we do it my way, or we don’t do it. And then I was surprised that the team was sometimes not responding, or, and so on and so on.
So what’s very important in such kind, it’s that you have mentoring, yeah. You get feedback. Yes? Feedback on how you act and how you do it. Sometimes I engage in seminars.
I don’t like a lot of seminars but there are some really good seminars on communication skills and understanding first, what type of communication do you prefer?
Do you know a person who listens on the subject topic, or if you’re more of a relationship oriented person and so on? Understanding your role in a discussion of people is very helpful because you can’t really change the communication type that you have.
I want to answer your question as quickly as possible. Over time, it was success and mis-success thatimproved, learning and getting feedback. I am still doing a lot of mistakes, so I am still not perfect, don’t get me wrong. But this helped me to get into this role where I am today.
What to do if you’re unhappy with an idea or a project and you don’t want to be part of it? A simple solution to a common problem
It’s possible that it is a little bit safer and selfish after regaining feedback. If you see people having joy in the same idea which inspires yourself, it’s the most fantastic feeling you can have.
It is easy if everything runs smoothly. But what do you do if you have difficult employees, if you have employees who simply don’t want to be part of the journey you have in mind? How do you handle difficult situations and figure out a path out of them?
I’ve been asked what to do if an economy crashes and you need to deploy people. Or the people should be told that what they are thinking is coming later?
You know, from the point of view of people not, people being disappointed, like the team is disappointed, or maybe there is a lot of money down the toilet.
So if you see a project which matters to the company, which is a strategic goal, is going off in the wrong direction, either we underestimated the challenges we had to take, or the cost spendings are too high, or the market has shifted by a sudden, which you didn’t hit on the radar.
For instance, the geopolitics is not the same. These sudden topics are far away from your daily decisions and used to be of concern.
Sometimes you don’t have topics that are in your hands. And then you need to flexibly adjust, and then again, get the team re-involved into the process. Why do we change? Why do we do it now different? As we have just decided it may be three months ago in an all-hands meeting.
Why would you like to be a leader? What do you want to see in a leadership role? Are you uncomfortable with giving up?
But obviously, that starts when you’re, when you’re an early career researcher, and you said yourself, sometimes you can be a leader without having a giant group of people to be to be leading.
You need to love this. It’s necessary that you like this. There are situations as a leader where you need to stand up in front of a group, everybody is watching you spot on, whether it’s your employees, whether it’s your bosses, whether it’s your shareholders, or whatever it is, you need to give answers.
And the question then is would you feel comfortable with doing so? Or is that more a job you would dislike? If you dislike, my recommendation would be don’t go for a higher leadership position.
We know that other topics would be great for us to cover. Listeners can send in their suggestions about what they want us to say on the show.
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Bioinformatics and stem cell biology: The role of Fiona Watt at the European molecular biology organization, EMBO
Watt is related to stem cell biology. Her work has focused on cell regeneration. She was the first female Executive Chair of the Medical Research Council in the UK and has held many positions of leadership.
Now for the benefit of our non-UK listeners, the Medical Research Council, or MRC, as it is locally known, is the national funding body here that funds scientific research at the forefront of medical science.
Now, in early 2022, Fiona became the director of EMBO, the European molecular biology organization. And here, for the benefit of our non european listeners, EMBO is a not-for-profit organization based in Heidelberg, Germany, and it is devoted to excellence in the life sciences.
Funded by membership from around 30 countries, it supports research, it publishes journals, it awards postdoctoral fellowships to encourage mobility, and it offers training events, courses and workshops to support its researchers.
In this conversation, Fiona, and I talk about some of her different leadership roles. She told us a little bit about her job at EMBO.
Does the Physical Space Matter? It’s important for me to think about the physical space as a place where interactions are better or worse than others
Well, the answer is no. And I really, I think some people take a job because of the status. And some people take a job because of what they want to do. That’s probably true in all walks of life.
And after quite a few years working in a research institute, I became very interested in how you could make conditions better for younger scientists. I became more of a leader in the academic world due to that.
And I moved to King’s College London 10 years ago. Having the ability to design research space was one of the main attractions of that job.
I dropped from the center that I set up. Part of the answer is the physical space because it’s a happy place to work for me. And I don’t think scientists always think about that.
They might think about a nice atrium. You know, the way it looks from the outside, but I’ve worked in places where interactions between different groups were better or worse, and I think the physical space is important.
The role of the lab management course for measuring the impact of a thought leader on the public face of an organization like EMBO
And if they’re a thought leader, then they will influence others by what they write and how they speak. If it’s an organization like EMBO, it’s important to be the public face of the organization as well.
You know, when I was starting out, there were very few women scientists. Most of the support I received came from women who work in the US, partly because of what I do.
But I felt that I had no training. And so I think, because of that experience, I felt very much on my own, in control of my own career: “This is what I want to do now. How am I going to do it?
Yeah, I think so. I know a lot of people so I can pick things up, or I will do it in a different way.
But I would say it’s completely different now. The lab management course is one of the things that EMBO has ran for many years and is aimed at scientists just at the cusp of independence.
And so helping those young people and everybody who’s been through my lab and done that course is better than me, because, you know, they’re in a trusting environment, they learn about the common challenges you face early on.
Are You a Leader? What Do You Think About Your Leadership? An Explanation for Why You Shouldn’t Have a Leadership Style
I don’t know if you’ve used questionnaires, leadership style, or anything like that throughout your career. But do you have a leadership style? Is it a name? Or, you know, how do you think of yourself as a leader?
I think it’s important that people are not frightened to tell you when you’re wrong. I think that it is important to respect the ambitions of the younger scientists in your care in a science context.
So I think we really have to try to understand: “How is all of this going to work?” And how can we ensure that the creativity and independence of scientists can flourish?
Do you think good leadership comes from your leadership style and what kind of leader you think they are? What do you think bad leadership looks like?
I don’t like it when someone is just in a leadership role for their own benefits and not for the organization.
You can experiment and see if it went well or if it wasn’t, and then realize that the numbers are wrong or the interpretation isn’t right.
Why scientists should be trusted advisors at the end of their academic career? (An interview with emma.com in September 2006)
I think there is a real trust issue here. I saw it in the newspaper. I think scientists have a good reputation. Academics often don’t, because any discussion with government will quickly flip to “you should give more money to my type of science, and particularly to my university.”
And so actually, one of the things that I’m planning at EMBO is to convene a small group of people who I believe, have done it well in different countries, who are trusted advisors, so that we can be better at advising governments.
Okay, so we’ve already touched on this a little bit when we talked about your career and how you took on more and more leadership positions, and I guess, more leadership positions with more responsibility as you move through your career.
It can be frightening, but it is also refreshing. But to go back to your question. I wouldn’t start with PhD students at the beginning.
I was surprised when I was appointed as Executive Chair of the MRC, because I had moved to King’s 10 years prior to that. That was last year.
Because, as my next set of experiments in the lab, I created a company which will provide a vehicle to do some safety studies in humans, so that wouldn’t be compatible with the MRC.
What do we have to do about the EMBL, where we can go, and how we can support displaced scientists in the world?
And so when EMBO came calling, I mean, what’s not to like? It’s International, it’s focused on young scientists, it’s about sharing data, whether publishing or open science initiatives, and to be back in a world class research institute in EMBL, was just fantastic.
It’s a really nice organization. But we’re constantly looking at each of the tasks that were responsible for, and making sure that we’re doing them as well as we possibly can.
The effect on our fellows has also been felt. We were able to use the funds to provide extensions to the postdocs.
And so we moved quite quickly to establish a list where scientists anywhere in the world could offer support for scientists who are displaced from Ukraine. It has been an effort by a leader of such a large organization to understand how IT strategy decisions are made.
The part of that responsibility that is taking a look is saying are we doing this as well as possible. Is there anything we did 10 years ago that’s important?
Now, to give you a very concrete example, we publish a number of journals. And we have to consider a future in which all of our journals, not just a subset, are open access.
A Recommendation for Working Scientists: Towards Moving Beyond the Symmetry Breaking Barrier: Leveraging the Expert’s Advice
We consult a lot, all of the time. All of our staff at EMBO are reaching out asking for advice, debating, but that doesn’t mean we just sort of tally the votes and say, “Oh, we’ll do that.” It requires an element of direction.
Hello, me again. Just a quick note to say thank you to Fiona Watt for taking the time to speak to me for this episode as part of the leadership series on Working Scientist.
And thanks, of course, also goes to you for listening. Every single listen means a lot to our team here at Nature Careers as we strive to share stories and advice that will ultimately help you navigate your career as a working scientist.