The 5 Leadership qualities you need to succeed in the STEM world
When it comes to developing your STEM leadership qualities, Kathleen Goss has two key pieces of advice. Learn from mentors; observe what works—and what works with your style. Secondly, trust yourself. “I am a leader by instinct,” Kathleen shared at a recent TARATALK with Gotara’s founder and CEO, D. Sangeeta. “I try not to overthink things, but a lot of times, my first reaction is probably the soundest one.”
Kathleen is the Regional Vice President for Cancer Control at the American Cancer Society in Chicago. She’s been in this role for less than a year, but she’s volunteered with the society since she lost her father to cancer while in university. The day he died was the same day Kathleen was set to write the MCAT. Instead of medicine, she decided to dedicate her life to becoming a cancer researcher.
(See below to discover how Kathleen turned this devasting experience into something positive.)
“I think that [my dad] would have been shocked but proud. But I think he’d also be tickled, to be honest, that my interest would have led me down that path. So, life has a way sometimes of throwing curves at you.”
Career inflection points that helped Kathleen develop leadership qualities
After completing her graduate work, Kathleen became an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati. Her research focused on the molecular events that drive breast and colorectal cancer. She later moved her lab to the University of Chicago, whose Comprehensive Cancer Center is internationally recognized as a leader in cancer care, research and education.
It looked as though her academic career path was set—until it wasn’t. After five or six years at the University of Chicago, Kathleen said it became clear that she wouldn’t become a tenured professor because of her track record in funding and publications.
“It forced my hand to make a change,” she recalled. “I stayed at the University of Chicago and the Cancer Center, but I went into administration, and it turned out to be a wonderfully rewarding career. And in that role, I think I brought a lot to the table. So, it turned out to be one of the best things I ever did.”
Then about six months ago, it was time to pivot again—this time into the non-profit space in a leadership role with the American Cancer Society. Leaving behind 20+years in the academic world wasn’t without its risks, but Kathleen said she trusted her intuition that this was the best choice for her.
In addition to trusting your intuition, Kathleen shares the other STEM leadership qualities she believes are key to success.
5 STEM LEADERSHIP QUALITIES THAT WILL SET YOU APART
1. BE A GOOD COMMUNICATOR
“Scientists have a bad rap for not being adroit communicators,” said Kathleen. “It’s about listening. It’s about being clear, setting expectations, communicating them clearly, getting and receiving input, and acting on that.”
2. DON’T SECOND-GUESS YOURSELF
Inspire confidence in your team by knowing how to make decisions. “I think as women, we second guess ourselves a lot and try to get consensus at all times and do it nicely… But at the end of the day, being a leader is using the skills, expertise, and talents you bring to the table to make decisions that you know are the best ones for that situation. That what makes you a leader.”
3. TAKE CHARGE OF YOUR FUTURE
Leaders know how to take risks, and they explore their options. Kathleen urged young people to realize they have choices and to be open to taking the chance to walk through different doors, knowing that they’ll be fine with the choices they make if they’re based on doing what they love. “You can create your own path,” says Goss. “In science, you are being trained by people who have followed an academic career path. If you deviated from that path, it was seen as not acceptable. I think that it set this tone that it’s not acceptable to find your way, and I wish I would have known that people find their way all the time and they’re OK. In fact, they’re better than OK. They’re spectacular.”
4. TURNS NEGATIVES INTO POSITIVES
When you’re in a leadership role, you’ll face challenges, but if you build on these experiences and turn them into opportunities, it changes the game. In Kathleen’s case, she turned losing her father at a young age into something positive by becoming a cancer researcher. “I think in hindsight, it helped me on a personal level, taking something devastating personally and finding some positive in it,” she noted. “And to this day, that is a motivator for me. Careers in STEM are challenging. There are a lot of bumps in the road; experiments that don’t work or ideas that may not pan out. I had a colleague who called it the fire in my belly. It was this desire bubbling under the surface to want to do something meaningful and something that could have an impact on patients and families who were fighting this disease.”
5. HAVE A PERSONAL MISSION
Leaders who inspire others have a mission and purpose to their work. Early in your career, don’t stress if you don’t know what “your passion” is. “Don’t put constraints on yourself,” advised Kathleen. “Instead, ask yourself what gets you excited. What problems do you want to tackle? What strengths do you think you have? What are you able to bring to the table to contribute?” Answer those questions and you will know your mission.
For more strategies to build your STEM leadership qualities, join Gotara and receive advice from top STEM+ leaders.