T H E   N I H    C A T A L Y S T     N O V E M B E R   – D E C E M B E R  2005



by Joan P. Schwartz

Joan Schwartz

Have you ever wondered why you can't get one of your fellows to do something the way you want?  Or how about the time you tried to convince your SD that your latest idea was the key to your Institute's future? 

Some of us become lab or branch chiefs — or even scientific directors — with no real training in the new leadership talents those jobs entail. 

A logical remedy, agreed to in focus groups with lab and branch chiefs and scientific directors we held earlier this year, is to provide training in such skills.

In December 2003, 18 NIH tenure-track and senior investigators piloted a course on leadership skills. This test course was developed and run by UCSF Professor Ed O'Neil, who had been enlisted by the NIH Committee on Scientific Conduct and Ethics.

O'Neil began the pilot by asking participants whether we thought we would learn something useful. The group was initially dubious. We had struggled to fill out the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the 360 Skillscope. The MBTI assesses preferences in making decisions, acquiring information, and engaging others. The Skillscope matches self-perception of leadership skills, attributes, and organizational effectiveness with the perceptions of others who work with you. This entails detailed evaluations from five or six peers. Would the results be worth so much effort? participants wondered.

But by the end of the 36-hour retreat, all were convinced that we understood — or at least had a better perception of — our own leadership styles. In addition, we had developed strategies for improving our leadership skills. We agreed the course could be a useful exercise for all scientists at the NIH, few of whom get such training. 

We were also convinced that  O'Neil was the right person to teach these skills — he understands how to engage scientists, despite their natural resistance to this training. For example, in one enlightening exercise, O'Neil asked the introverts (as defined by the MBTI) to gather in one corner of the room and the extroverts in the other corner to discuss what it was about the other group that made it so difficult to work with them. It was surprising but reassuring to the introverts to see 20 scientists in their corner and just four in the extroverts' huddle.

A Course for the Tenure Track

The bottom line was that the Scientific Conduct and Ethics committee — 12 of whose members participated in the pilot — concluded that the retreat formed the basis of a very useful course for NIH tenure-track investigators. We added a few modules to make a two-day, off-campus retreat with the added benefit of giving attendees an opportunity to start networking with other tenure-track colleagues. 

The course has now been held three times, with the fourth session planned for April 2006. Participants complete the MBTI and Skillscope in advance, so that the results can be compiled and shared with them during the course, intensifying its personal relevance.

 Retreat Day One features an introduction to leadership in scientific settings, followed by modules on:

n Leadership styles and preferences (MBTI and Skillscope)

n Teams: working through, motivating, and developing others

n Giving developmental feedback

n Practice in giving feedback and a debriefing

n Introduction to goal setting

The second day includes a session in which personal goals are discussed, fleshed out, and made more realistic. Also that day, and in the evening sessions, are modules on criteria for tenure; handling BSC reviews; and dealing with conflict, an interactive session led by NIH ombudsman Howard Gadlin that addresses such issues as conflicts among collaborators about the direction of a project and its publications, authorship, and publicity.

Members of the Scientific Conduct and Ethics Committee lead a session on mentoring, using case studies of problems and mentoring gone awry. For example, what do you do when a new postdoc wants to finish a paper from her graduate work and needs to do a series of experiments unrelated to your lab's goals?  Small groups hash out each case and then discuss with the whole group how it could have been handled.

About half of NIH's tenure-track investigators have now attended the course. Ninety percent rated it excellent to outstanding. Specific comments include:

n "I thought it was great. . . . "

n "Ed O'Neil is an incredibly talented group facilitator, who presented information directly applicable to our numerous research responsibilities. Seeing how our Skillscope and MBTI data could be used positively for professional growth was great. The inclusion of senior researchers in the seminars and small groups was appreciated because of their imparted experience in handling challenges."

Dates Modules

January 26


February 22


March/Early April

Leadership Styles and Preferences:
MBTI discussion—A.M.

Teams: Working through, Motivating, Developing Others—A.M.
Managing Up—P.M.

Dealing with Conflict, Enhancing Your Mentoring Skills, Negotiating/Hiring Skills*

n "Everything was very good and useful. I wish I had this course early in my tenure-track."  

Several people who did take the course early in their tenure track have asked whether they can take it again — they felt they would get more from some sessions with more experience under their belts.


. . . and Now for Senior Investigators

In light of such reactions and the success of the course, the Committee has now decided to offer a version for senior investigators. This course will be offered as individual modules — one or two per day — on the Bethesda campus, starting in January 2006. Ed O'Neil will lead some of the sessions, which will be offered on a first-come, first-served basis to no more than 30 participants. Watch for an e-mail announcement in early December to sign up; this could be your chance to improve your leadership and management of recalcitrant people — even in the NIH bureaucracy.n


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