Lab-to-Market: Learning Leadership
How mastering "soft skills" can help you maximize your potential as you move out of the lab and into the market
In our recent Lab-to-Market series, we’ve been exploring some of the most vital skills, strategies, and resources to help innovators make the transition from working in a laboratory, or coming from a scientific or engineering background, and into the world of commercialization and entrepreneurship. This process requires a lot of thought going into it, from whether it makes sense to commercialize in the first place, to finding ways to make sure your innovations matter in the current landscape. Along this journey towards entrepreneurship there is going to be an enormous need to start building your team, communicating your vision to various stakeholders, and charting a path forward, not only for yourself, but for all of the communities this effort touches. These kinds of challenges and opportunities require a wholly different set of skills than is usually employed in more purely technical sectors. While a lot of thought goes into the technology-transfer process in the transition from lab-to-market, one thing that is equally vital is the essential role that “soft skills” have to play in fulfilling your greatest innovation potential.
Why do soft skills matter?
Soft skills are an often undervalued, yet essential set of abilities that can make the difference between surviving as a leader and thriving as one. A study out of Yale revealed that emotional intelligence helps us make better decisions at work, and another study from Harvard showed that emotional intelligence was more helpful than IQ in predicting team success. Additionally, a 10-year study at Google called Project Oxygen showed that emotional intelligence matters more to one’s success as a manager than IQ or technical skill. Additional research from Harvard Business Review confirms much of what we already know: that the most successful entrepreneurs rank highest not necessarily in hard skills, but rather metrics of emotional intelligence like persuasion, leadership, personal accountability, and goal orientation. These skills are vital to the entrepreneurial process, and even the most technically-minded founder will need to incorporate them if they are to be successful in getting the resources their venture needs to succeed. While technical knowledge is essential to science and technology ventures, ideas are only half of the battle. It’s not ideas that matter the most necessarily– it’s you and your team. Even if one idea fails, a good leader with the necessary leadership skills can take their team, backers, and investors through tough times to another idea, relying on both their hard and soft skills to restructure and rethink their project and take it to the next level. The principal takeaway: emotional intelligence is just as important as any “hard skill” and investing in it helps individuals and teams succeed at work.
How do I keep my team motivated?
While these skills are a key competency for any founder, closing the gap towards mastering them can often be particularly challenging for innovators in the hard sciences and research. Some of the latest findings indicate that this gap is most evident in spaces like the life sciences and pharmaceutical industries, where the most value is often placed purely on “hard skills” (ie the most qualified scientists) and not necessarily on leadership skills (ie who might be able to most effectively manage a series of simultaneous projects).
Surely in these industries, like many others that benefit most from the technology-transfer process, the need for talent representing the best of a particular insight is essential. But what many ventures and companies are beginning to understand is that the best team members are happy team members, the best leaders the ones who are most capable of hearing and listening to their team and their customers. This linkage between soft skills and measurable outcomes is implicit in some of the latest research from this sector; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the rate of voluntary termination (people quitting their jobs) in the U.S. is about 2.5 percent across the private sector. A 2019 survey of the global life sciences industry in particular showed an average voluntary termination rate of 13 percent for the U.S. and 12.5 percent for the world by the first half of the year, significantly higher than the average. This trend is repeated across other science and tech industries as well, and is meaningful: Employee “churn” is expensive and disruptive to the scientific process, and it makes companies vulnerable to loss of proprietary scientific knowledge, as well as being a contributing factor to the industry’s overall talent gap. This has become even more true in the last few years, as the COVID pandemic has accelerated churn across industries.
How can I become a great startup leader?
It’s clear that these skills are important to venture success, but the next necessary step is asking how does one build them and grow them? It’s easy to be overwhelmed, especially if you have a more technical background. But don’t worry! Anyone can start to work on these kinds of skills, building them over time. A great place to start is thinking about the skills you already possess. Many researchers, scientists, and founders from an S&T background already have profound leadership and emotional intelligence, even more than they might realize. Many researchers possess project management skills and strong organizational capabilities, as well as the communication skills that come with presenting and sharing one's work. There are many other ways to start incorporating these skills into your entrepreneurship journey, from fostering self-awareness, building self-confidence, and most importantly fostering a strong support base of supportive relationships, predicated by a foundation of empathy. This last point is perhaps the most vital, as empathy is the most essential leadership skill, crucial not only to building and supporting a team, building investment, but crucial to customer awareness as well.
It takes a lot to be a great leader in the startup world, but soft skills are an essential step towards getting there. GIST is proud to support innovators on their commercialization journeys… subscribe to our newsletter for future resources and opportunities as we work globally to empower the next generation of innovators.