|New Scientist Program: Checking-In Topics|
(Starting with the most recent additions)
58. Getting the Most from Your Employees: Dr. Bryan Kaphammer, Acting Associate Area Director
How you communicate your expectations can make a difference. You know how you want people to communicate with you. Whether it is in writing, a phone call, or face to face, we all have our preferred method of communication. Your supervisees also have their preferred method for receiving information. Just because you like email does not mean that everyone likes email. Your communication will be most effective if you communicate with the employee using their preferred method, whatever it may be. If uncertain about their preference, just ask them, and let them know your preferred method of communication. At the same time, never underestimate the value of face to face conversations.
Once you have clearly communicated your expectations to your direct reports, you have begun the process of engaging them so they can perform at their best. Another way to ensure they are engaged is to show them how their specific task fits into the overall project. Everyone likes to think that what they do is making a difference. Understanding how their work contributes to the success of the project allows the employee to share in the project’s success. Your success becomes their success and success is a strong motivator. So, take the time to communicate your expectation and show how the employee’s work contributes to the project. Doing so will help all your team members perform at their best.
57. Conducting Midyear and Annual Performance Reviews: Dr. Deborah Samac, Plant Pathologist with the Plant Science Research Unit in St. Paul MN
The key to a successful review meeting for both you and the employee is in planning and preparation. This includes reviewing the documentation submitted by the employee, your observations of the employee’s performance, and input from the people who work with the employee. It is helpful to keep a written log of your observations that include specific examples of the employee’s performance over the year. For the annual review, summarize your evaluation noting performance in which the employee exceeded goals and areas for improvement, then complete the rating form. Discuss the ratings with your RL before meeting with the employee. This step helps ensure consistent rating across the management unit. A general outline for the review meeting is: state the purpose of the meeting and topics to be covered, discuss positive past performance, indicate areas for improvement, seek employee input for improving performance, offer your suggestions for improvement, discuss future research objectives, and discuss employee developmental needs and goals. Ask the employee about any concerns they have. Finally, initial and date (midyear) or sign and date (annual) the paperwork.
Be sure to allow plenty of uninterrupted time for the meeting. Your mentor is a good source for additional details on conducting appraisals and a 1-hour module on conducting appraisals and handling emotional employees is available in AgLearn (Performance Appraisal Essentials: Conducting the Traditional Appraisal).
56. Coming soon - instant messaging and video conferencing - two more ways of keeping in contact with your match: Barbara King
55. When Leadership Changes: from Dr. Gary Snowder, Sept. 2007
54. Is it really all downhill after three years? Barbara King
Both reports can be found on the NPA Diversity Bulletin Board in the Employee Satisfaction and Retention folder.
53. Shrimp on a Treadmill: Barbara King (2011)
Dr. Tom Trout, RL with the Water Management Unit in Fort Collins cautions that cold calls by reporters do occur and scientists need to be prepared. Trout notes that there are generally two categories of writers/reporters: popular media (newspapers, radio, TV) and specialized, such as agriculturally-related writers, trade organizations, etc. The latter are generally easy to work with in that they have a background in science and their only agenda is to tell the full story and focus on the research. Reporters from the popular media, though, tend to perhaps also have their own agenda, which may or may not be focused on the research. Trout suggests that effectively working with the media is a learned skill that can be developed, especially if scientists always have in their minds a clear statement about their research that explains the need, what the scientist did, what the impact was, and the problem that is being solved. This is the same type of statement used in your annual reports and RPES write-ups. Keep these statements in your head at all times so that you can reflexively recall them at a moment’s notice. If you do receive a call or inquiry from a reporter, you shouldn’t be surprised, nor should you get carried away with providing any more information than what is being asked. One last note, if scientists are contacted by a nationwide organization, or are invited for a radio or television interview, they need to refer the reporter to the ARS Information Staff (Sandy Miller Hays). And, yes, there is an “app” for that, i.e., Policy and Procedures Manual 150. Additionally, no doubt your mentor has had similar experiences and further advice.
52. Planning Your Accomplishments and Impact: Barbara King (2011)
51. Learning How to Play in the Sandbox: Barbara King (2011)
50. Getting Ready for RPES, Plan It, Do it, And Don’t Forget To Write It Down: Dr. James Strange, Entomologist, Pollinating Insects - Biology, Management and Systematics Research, Logan, UT (2011)
49. The Challenge of Establishing New Research Collaborations: Dr. Virginia L. Jin, Soil Scientist, Agroecosystem Management Research Unit, Lincoln, NE (2011)
48. The Technician/Scientist Relationship: Dr. Erin Espeland (2011)
Technician personalities and skill sets often determine our research programs to a greater extent than we might think at the outset of the scientist/technician relationship. What qualities define a successful ARS technician? How can these qualities be developed further? What are the leadership skills that ARS scientists need to develop in order to have productive, trusting relationships with their technicians? How can we avoid common pitfalls early on in the supervisor/technician relationship that become difficult obstacles to overcome later? Recognizing the potential conflicts in advance can save an enormous amount of time, energy, and hurt feelings. Advice and guidance from your research leader and other location scientists can be helpful. Your mentor is another resource, perhaps with a more neutral perspective.
47. It’s That Time of Year - Where You’ve Been and Where You Plan to Go! Barbara King (2010)
Everyone is no doubt aware of social security benefits. The FERS basic benefit plan will pay an annuity of 1% of your high three average earnings multiplied by the number of years worked. This can be a little, or a lot, depending obviously on earnings and years of service. TSP is based on your contributions and how well (or not) your investments grow. One piece of advice: contribute at least 5% so you get the matching 5% from ARS. As you are able, continue to increase your contributions as much as possible, by dedicating all or a portion of each promotion, step increase or (when we have them!) annual cost of living increases. Here are some websites: general information on FERS; information on the TSP and the Employee Personal Page (earnings and leave statements, on-line TSP contributions and allocations, etc. While FERS includes a small defined benefit, it likely will be no more than a third of your retirement income, the rest will be social security and your TSP. Here is one other web site on the TSP.
There are many approaches to investing, and more books on investment strategies than one could ever read. My suggestion for those of you new to investing: pick up a copy of The Investment Answer by Daniel Goldie and Gordon Murray. This short book - 60 some pages - is concise, easy to read and gives the reader a solid understanding of the fundamentals of investing.
Now for some other type of planning. Call me sentimental, but one new year/end of year exercise I enjoy spending a little time doing is a simple paper and pencil review of the past year and planned anticipation of the coming years. Without a plan, life just kind of happens. This is especially true for retirement planning! A favorite saying of a former mentor of mine was "days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, and months turn into years." So, to avoid the "where did the years go?" dismay, here’s what I do. Take a plain sheet of paper, orient it portrait, add the heading "my life" (and date it!), then divide the sheet into three columns: one narrow one in the middle, and two wider columns on each side. Title the left column "Personal", the middle column "When" and the right column, "Professional." Now the fun part begins. The "When" can be specific years or ages, or can be in increments of years (say, one year from now, five years from now, retirement, and so on to old age).
Start filling-in the sheet. You can start by jotting down what you hope to have accomplished professionally by the time you retire, maybe you have a "bucket list" on your personal side. Or, maybe you just want to have more balance. Maybe, by a certain age, or certain timeframe, you have a specific goal (promotion, major impact/patent, family plans, design a house, etc.) - jot it down. Then, work backward noting what you need to do at each major step (decade, five years, etc.) to meet your goals. Or, maybe you want to start with where you are today and work forward incrementally. The purpose is to get you thinking about where you are and where you want to go/what you want to achieve personally and professionally, and how to balance everything, including retirement planning. This exercise can be modified to fit whatever you want to focus on - maybe you only want to focus on the next ten years. This exercise can be specific or general. Have fun and best wishes for a wonderful holiday season and new year!
46. Writing and Publishing Papers as an ARS Scientist: Dr. Debby Samac, ARS Research Plant Pathologist, St. Paul, MN (2010)
45. Lessons Learned: Barbara King (2010)
44. Choose Carefully - Balancing Research and "Good Citizenship": Barbara King (2010)
43. Customer Focus Groups: Barbara King (2010)
By now new scientists have no doubt heard - and maybe even know a lot about: Mid Year Review; Annual Performance Review; the NASPDP Assessment; and RPES It is important that new scientists understand the distinctions among these reviews. The Annual Performance Review is a formal review conducted by your RL, and covers the requirements of your position description, which includes several "critical elements," one of which is a minimum number of publications. A Mid Year review is also conducted for each employee and serves as a check to ensure that employees are on track to meet their performance requirements. New scientists should understand that meeting the minimal annual performance requirements will not ensure promotion when they are reviewed by RPES panels. Additionally, the NASPDP now incorporates a formalized Mid-Course Discussion between the RL and new scientist about 18 months after the new scientist has been in the program. The purpose of this review is to ensure that the new scientist is on track for a successful RPES review.
At the end of the NASPDP, scientists are assessed by a small panel of NPA scientists to provide independent feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of each participant. At the proper time, the scientist prepares a draft RPES case write-up (or similar for Cat 4 SYs) that serves as the document that guides the panel.
Under the RPES process, Category 1 scientists prepare a detailed case write-up that is reviewed by a panel of scientists. The case write-up addresses four factors: 1) Research Assignment; 2) Supervisory Controls; 3) Guidelines and Originality; 4) Contributions, Impact, and Stature. Of those four factors, particular emphasis in the case write-up is placed on Factor 4 (Contributions, Impact, and Stature).
The AFM website includes several policies relevant to RPES: A short guide to RPES can be found at: http://www.afm.ars.usda.gov/rpes/files/brochure-overview.pdf, the RPES Manual can be found at: http://www.afm.ars.usda.gov/ppweb/PDF/431-3-ARS.pdf, and the manual for panelists can be found at: http://www.afm.ars.usda.gov/ppweb/PDF/431-3M-ARS.pdf. If protégés have questions about these reviews, they should talk with their RL and certainly also talk with their mentor. Although mentors do not participate in any way in performance reviews, they nonetheless can be a key source of advice about the various processes.
One activity that was emphasized in New Scientist Orientation is the importance of publishing your research results. Despite what at times may seem to be overwhelming demands on your time, carving out blocks of hours to collect your thoughts and results, and putting those into words on paper, is essential to your success in ARS. Good writing generally takes time, practice, and concentration, regardless of your comfort and skill with writing. One strategy to help avoid the craziness of looming deadlines is to establish a habit of writing, say on a daily or weekly basis. This dedicated writing time will force you to gather your thoughts and data on a regular basis and it will also give you the opportunity to actually write. Senior and junior scientists may be very good at designing and running projects, but not so good at taking the time to write manuscripts. Other senior and junior scientists are masters at both tasks. Talk with your "match" about tricks and strategies for writing.
Certainly your trip through graduate school had its share of celebrations big and small, and no doubt, days when you questioned just why you chose to pursue a PhD. Life after graduate school may have some of the same types of highs and lows. For the most part, your experiments are humming along smoothly, work relationships are collegial and inspiring, and life is good. Until, that is, something is not so good. It might be a failed experiment, or a rejected manuscript, or perhaps a disappointing annual review or RPES decision. For protégés, receiving a disappointing RPES decision may seem like one of the biggest setbacks you can face in your career. Despite the disappointment though, a "retain" decision is not a show-stopper, nor is it a reason for anguish. While platitudes and advice to stick post-it notes telling you how good you really are only go so far (and recent research is casting doubt on the usefulness of such tactics), there are tangible resources at your disposal. Certainly your RL and other unit scientists, as well as your mentor can provide some insight and advice. Additionally, Dr. McGuire reviews every case write-up and provides comments and suggestions and is another resource. Dr. McGuire provided an overview of the RPES process in a previous Checking-In Topic (#32), and the RPES guidelines (ARS 431.3) can also be reviewed. For other sorts of setbacks, your same circle of colleagues can be sought out, as can your mentor. Learning how to deal with any of those sorts of setbacks can be a lesson in itself, and most ARS scientists have had occasions to learn those lessons and pass on their "lessons learned."
Beginning a new career as a scientist at ARS can be a daunting experience. Generally speaking, most scientists are hired in the middle of a CRIS cycle, with milestones set and research programs well outlined for the people already there, and perhaps for the person being replaced. The research proposed may not necessarily fit well with your areas of expertise or interest. Depending on the location you are hired into, you may be told which projects to work on, you may be given minimal guidance as to what the appropriate steps are for developing your own research program, or you may be let loose into the ARS research scene without much more than a pat on the back and a "good luck and here’s your lab." In any of the above cases, it’s important to communicate early on and clearly with your colleagues what your interests are, how you see yourself fitting in, and for them to communicate back to you what they see as your role in the team. After all, they hired you with something in mind, right? The earlier this conversation happens, the easier it will be for you to integrate into the research mission of the location and establish collaborative projects with your peers. The other scientists at your location may or may not initiate this. Some locations will prefer to have you adhere to the proposed CRIS projects and allow you to have more input when the new CRIS cycle comes around, while others will give more leeway in terms of beginning projects of your own design right away. It’s important that, in either case, you and your fellow scientists know what the expectations are. New projects can usually be added to the annual milestones for greater impact, and milestones can be changed to better reflect the new direction of the scientific staff. Knowing the degree of flexibility within your unit can make developing your program a little easier.
Additionally, external research opportunities come up frequently. If you are not given much leeway in terms of CRIS projects, this is an excellent way to get started on projects that are of more interest to you personally. I would advise taking advantage of these if they seem to apply to your research and you have the time, resources, and interest. You never know, the small extra funding that you apply for from the Office of International Research Programs (for example) may turn into a large scale project with substantial impact potential.
Every scientist knows that having solid technical support is crucial to their research program. At the NPA Leadership Conference this past spring, one of the breakout session discussions included conversations about what sorts of things SYs can do to develop and retain staff, especially technical staff. One of the challenges is that technicians reach their full performance level fairly early in their career. Given that reality, scientists are left to figure out how to recognize the important contribution made by technicians, how to help technicians maintain currency in their field, and how to provide opportunities for technicians to remain engaged. Here are some ideas that were generated during the discussion:
As you look at these suggestions, mentors probably have other suggestions that have worked for them.
At the last NPA Leadership meeting held in April 2009 in Denver, we held a session on leadership development. As part of the session, I covered a wide range of training programs that help individuals improve their managerial/leadership competencies. Often, early career scientists enter a program straight out of graduate school or perhaps with some post-doc experience and are provided a nice laboratory, funds to do research and, "oh, by the way, here is a person to help you." Typically, our early career scientists have never been in a position that required formally supervising someone. Did they teach you how to supervise someone in graduate school? Most likely not but this is something that can be learned. Just as you learned how to use a microscope, design an excellent experiment that will answer hypotheses, etc., good supervisory skills will enable you to manage your laboratory effectively and help keep a harmonious workplace. If you are new to ARS but have experience in the private sector or University, you probably supervised individuals. While some of the core supervisory principals are the same, supervising people in the government can provide additional challenges. So, we encourage you to learn and or sharpen your skills through formal supervisory training. There are several excellent courses that can be found at the following websites:
For the mentors, we really appreciate you taking time to help one of your colleagues. There is also lots of training out there for you as well. Since you are involved in this program, I suspect you may have interest in further developing your leadership skills. The websites above offer several excellent mid/senior career programs that can help you navigate some of the challenges you may face now or in the future. Please seriously consider sharpening your saw as well. For further information, your research leader and/or center director received a thumb drive at the leadership conference that contains additional information.http://www.npa.ars.usda.gov/voices). That story focused generally on location community and how workplace community plays out at locations in the NPA. Meetings, social events, volunteer efforts, and events to welcome new - and bid farewell to - departing employees are some examples of workplace community. Additionally, employees in some occupations, especially scientists, may develop their own community.
A scientific community is one way that scientists can talk about their research, the ups and downs of a given project, brainstorm potential projects, discuss technical innovations, celebrate publishing results, or just generally keep conversations between scientists alive regardless of disciplines. Exactly how a scientific community develops at any given location is probably largely dependent on the culture of that location. For instance, do scientists talk with one another about their research? Are scientists easily accessible to one another? Are office doors open or closed? Are people genuinely interested in each other’s research? The number of scientists may or may not influence the ease, or difficulty, of developing a community of scientists. Also, the proximity of a location to a university can open up opportunities for collaboration and communication, but what about locations far from a university?
What does it mean to be part of a community of scientists, and how do those types of communities develop? How do new scientists either start, or become part of, a community of scientists? Protégés may well have been part of a strong community of scientists during their graduate program and may be expecting to develop a similar type of community with scientists at their location and within ARS. As mentors, what sorts of advice would each of you give to your protégé about creating or joining a community of scientists?
Job seekers are urged to perfect the "elevator talk" - a short statement of why they should be hired. You have a job, so you might be thinking, "Why bother with creating a new "elevator talk?" While the "elevator talk" is a useful tool for job seekers, that tool is also handy for those of us who have interesting and challenging work. Being able to distill in a few sentences what you do and why what you do is important, is something that you should be able to effortlessly recite to professional colleagues, friends and neighbors, and just about anyone you come in contact with. Why, you ask? For starters, every interaction is an opportunity not only to talk spontaneously and confidently about what you do and why your work is important, it is also a chance to explain ARS and describe the sorts of research conducted by you and other ARS scientists. Just as recruiting is often linked to word of mouth, the same can be said for the power of stories to inform others about you and ARS in general. Personal stories can be compelling, and when shared with students of any age, can inspire them to want to learn more about science. At a minimum, a good "what I do elevator talk" given to non-scientists, exposes them to the mystery and value of scientific research. Likewise, a good talk given to professional colleagues captures what you do in a concise and meaningful context. The next time you’re asked about what you do, having your rehearsed talk will give you the confidence to describe your work succinctly and persuasively.
All of the newly hired scientists by now have completed the New SY Orientation Workshop held in Fort Collins. Our last workshop was December 1-4 and was attended by 9 new scientists. One of the discussion points has always been the Research Position Evaluation System or RPES. This is a formal classification system approved by Office of Personnel Management specifically for those classified in primarily research positions. For those of you classified as Category 1, RPES is an important component of your lives because it directly impacts what grade level you are assigned, which, by the way, also impacts your salary. During the New SY workshop, we throw a lot of things at you very fast and we realize not everything has sunk in. This month’s checking in topic suggestion is RPES and how you can best approach your case write-up.
Most of all, concentrate on your high impact research and publish in peer reviewed journals. We expect a lot from our scientists but the rewards can be excellent!
Hello. If we haven't met, let me introduce myself, my role in the NPA and how I may be able to help you. My name is Mark West and my job title is Area Statistician. I love my job which is to provide statistical support to you. I have nineteen years experience consulting with agricultural scientists. I joined ARS in 2000. Prior to joining ARS I was on the faculty at Auburn University from 1989 to 2000 doing what I do now but also teaching service courses in statistics. Many of my experiences as consultant involved helping out with analysis and interpreting results after the experiment was already conducted. These interactions were just fine when the experiments were well-planned. However, I have run across quite a few poorly planned experiments and well-planned experiments that failed for reasons that could have been avoided. Poorly planned and poorly executed experiments waste your time and resources. One of my roles as Area Statistician is to provide assistance in helping you plan your experiment correctly so that your work will meet the level of scrutiny of your peers and that of OSQR. Most of all your experiments should provide information that you can use to help carry your science forward. Needless to say this is a very challenging role and carries a heavy weight of responsibility for you, those involved with your research and me. When planning your experiment, please have someone check it over with a critical eye. I would be very happy to look over your plan and offer my suggestions but I would also encourage you to ask others in your field for their opinions as well. I hope to hear from you. Please visit the NPA Statistics page for contact information and a description of other services that I provide.
Career planning can take any number of directions - from the initial "what kind of job do I want?" to the more specific "how do I advance in this job?" For the purposes of this checking-in topic, it is assumed that each of you have answered the first question and are beginning to think about your first RPES panel and perhaps are starting to think about how you define career success, which likely includes the issue of advancement. (Then again, if the assumption is wrong and if you’re a protégé you probably should call your mentor right away; and if you are a mentor, maybe you should call your protégé!)
While a visit to nearly any bookstore or library will give you seemingly limitless resources on career planning, the following are highlights from an article in the October 2008 issue of AMSTATNEWS (American Statistical Association magazine), courtesy of Dr. Mark West (NPA Statistician). Although the article "Snakes and Ladders: Building a Career in Statistics" by David Banks, Duke University, deals specifically with statistical careers, the skill sets he lists are easily relevant to any professional career. I took Banks’ seven skill sets, added some narrative, and also added an eighth skill set - collegiality - that I consider to be equally important:
Banks also noted that your reputation, capability, and social capital are strengths that you should constantly nurture. What you say and do, your science, how capable and reliable you are, and your ability to read signals and get along with others - are all equally important. As you assess your current job and think about where you want to be in three, five, ten or even 15 years down the road, keep in mind these eight career-building skill sets.
Preparing and delivering presentations is a skill set that every ARS scientist should learn how to do, and do well. Whether you are making a presentation at a professional conference, explaining your research to the general public, or even making a point during a staff meeting, you want your message to be clear and have meaning for your audience. Despite good intentions, presentations are almost sure to falter unless you take the time to carefully prepare your content and practice your delivery. For most of us, public speaking is a learned skill. Mastering public speaking though, takes time, effort, and practice. Having a meaningful message and effectively delivering that message are keys to effective presentations and to successful communication in general.
I have two recommendations to help start you on the path of making truly effective presentations. The first one is an exceptionally good and readable book that contains lots of tips: "Presenting to Win: The Art of Telling Your Story" by Jerry Weissman, Prentice-Hall (2003) ISBN 0-13-046413-9, $25.00). This book is a gem and I highly recommend it as a resource you will return to time after time.
The second resource calls for a definite commitment on your part. With that said, consider joining a Toastmasters group. The structured and inclusive approach of Toastmasters (types of speeches, instant evaluation, extemporaneous speaking, etc.) is a proven method to help individuals develop and polish their presentation skills. Regardless of where you are in your career and no matter how comfortable or uncomfortable you are with public speaking, Toastmasters is a terrific way to further develop and hone your communication skills. Most communities have at least one Toastmasters group - if your community does not have one, recruit some other employees and form your own group. Information about Toastmasters can be found at: http://www.toastmasters.org.
The time and effort you put into learning how to give a good presentation that your audience will appreciate and remember will be time well spent.
The Mentoring Handbook - “Mentoring Handbook: July 2008" has been revised, and is now available on the NPA web site here. This revision of the handbook incorporates the previously stand alone "Getting Started" file and also includes a listing of recommended topics for mentors and protégés to discuss. A very short list of recommended resources is also included, and mentors and protégés are invited to add to this list (send your recommendations to Barbara.firstname.lastname@example.org).
Ethical dilemmas can surface in any number of situations, and learning how to spot potential conflicts and resolve them can help researchers avoid even larger problems later on. For instance, according to a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, an emerging ethical problem involves researchers "touching-up" or otherwise altering images in order to make them easier-to-read. Probably every scientist has encountered, or will encounter, an ethical situation where they are uncertain as to what action should be taken. In the above example, suspecting an altered image is just part of the dilemma. Knowing what to do, or who to report your suspicions to, is not always clear. Ethical dilemmas can crop up at any time and can present early career and senior scientists with difficult decisions and sensitive situations. Learning how to identify and deal with ethical dilemmas is a topic worthy of discussion at any time with mentors and protégés.
Reciprocity, or honest give and take between individuals, is often the bedrock of meaningful relationships. The mentor-protégé relationship also relies on reciprocity and exchange of information. Without the social exchange of information, where both parties benefit, mentoring relationships will likely wither. Both mentors and protégés have consistently reported that they hope to benefit in some way from the mentoring relationship. In the book Power Mentoring (by Ellen Ensher and Susan Murphy), the duality of benefits to mentor and protégé is discussed extensively, and the value of reciprocity is captured by the assessments of several protégé and mentor pairs. In one pair, the protégé noted that her mentor has a great deal of experience and comfort in dealing with senior executives, and in turn is a valuable sounding board who not only asks the tough questions to ensure that she covers all the bases before presenting an idea to her supervisors, but can also help line up the support of senior line management. Her mentor, in turn, reported that she has benefited by having someone new to the organization, and from a different demographic (in this case, a different generation; in other cases, gender, or racial or ethnic group) give a fresh perspective and honest feedback to her about her perspective. As your mentoring relationships build over time, keep in mind the reciprocity each of you have to give and receive information and advice.
One of the most important aspects to the establishment of a consistent research program is the development of good technical support. A major aspect of assuring such support rests in the development and implementation of performance plans for those you supervise. Performance reviews are one of your most important forms of documenting an employee’s contribution to your project. Development of the performance plan requires planning on the front end, monitoring throughout the year, and an honest assessment at the end of the year. Discuss with your mentor the performance plans your have developed for those you supervise. Use the following points to guide your discussions with your supervisees.
1. Planning Performance
2. Monitoring Performance
3. Performance Assessment
Quite a lot of what has been written in this series is very helpful to those of us negotiating the intricacies of the civil-servant/scientist world that we find ourselves inhabiting these days. This missive includes, should you choose to accept it, a reading assignment as well as some thoughts on being useful to someone near you.
Some years ago, 2005 in fact, Steve Jobs - yes, the Steve Jobs of Macintosh-Apple-Pixar fame - gave a very insightful three-part address to the Graduating Class of Reed College. For those of you who are not already aware of this address, it can be found at the Stanford University News Service web site address - http://news-service.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html - and for those of you who vaguely remember reading this address some years ago, I encourage you to quickly revisit this link. Now that you’re back, and regardless of how you feel about Steve Jobs, the businessperson or the human being, his reflections for the benefit of the Reed College Graduating Class of 2005, as well as the rest of us, I suppose, are indeed quite moving.
Looking forward to an ARS career that will likely span 5-7 OSQR cycles and a greater number of Executive Branch Administrations, might appear rather daunting, but one can find great comfort in Jobs’ admonishment that you can be sure that the dots will somehow connect, but only when looking back. Of course, the dots are - and please excuse the OSQR reference here - personal milestones that extend over an entire career. In my singular (N=1) experience, over the course of more OSQR cycles than I care to admit, I have found the "dot-connecting working hypothesis" that Jobs espouses to be rather useful, I mean, comforting, not only while negotiating large steps associated with moving from one OSQR cycle to the next, but even when facing choices made within an OSQR cycle that resulted from discoveries as well as failures. Admittedly, though, the thrill of discovery is far more enjoyable even though failures, again in hindsight, frequently resulted in more progress being made.
In sum, Jobs is suggesting that cautious optimism - of course, in addition to careful attention to detail - has an important place in the short journey that we have as scientists in this world. Jobs is also careful to note the importance of others that influenced and/or assisted him in his singular, but far from lonely, journey; and yes, luck and timing are both in one’s lifetime equation. So, recognizing that each replicate or personal scientific experience is likely to be attended with struggles that would be familiar to our peers, one can’t help but wonder just what might be gained as an agency if we devoted perhaps an additional 1% of our precious time - say, five minutes of a normal schedule - in assisting each other with "Connecting the Dots."
Barbara King asked me to write a short piece to be used as a "checking-in topic" and suggested that I look over some of the past articles for perspective. The one that caught my eye was Work:Life Balance. In a dissimilar vein, we are too frequently tempted to find balance between integrity and practicality. As scientists, the integrity of our work is everything. Our professional integrity is critical too because it translates directly into trust, which is the stuff career opportunities arise from.
So when checking-in with your mentor/protégé this month, consider discussing some real-life scenarios, each of which I’ve experienced more than once:
Dr. Richard Beeman, 2007 NPA Senior Scientist of the Year, kindly supplied the following musings on his 27-year career with ARS. As evidenced by his essay, Dr. Beeman reflects on the choices, challenges, and opportunities he encountered during his journey with the Agency. Clearly, maintaining an open mind, keeping creatively engaged, and following through on unexpected opportunities led Dr. Beeman to forge a spectacularly successful career with ARS. I think you will find his story provocative.
Many ARS scientists have (unlike me) kept to the path they originally charted, and have had great success. The reflections below summarize my personal research journey, and I do not presume to suggest that my experience will be relevant or useful to anyone else. Even the most intelligent and insightful people fare poorly at predicting the future -- even the near-future. One of the corollaries to this fact is that five-year research plans often do not play out as foreseen. Perseverance and long-term commitment are noble traits, but inflexible adherence to a plan that is faltering might reflect mere stubbornness or lack of creativity, rather than good discipline. The recent ARS directive allowing changes in CRIS milestones represents an acknowledgment of this truth. These milestones should be viewed as flexible and temporary guideposts, or as one snapshot of a possible future, not as rigid requirements.
I was hired by ARS in 1979 as a toxicologist to conduct research on insect chemical control issues and develop pest-control alternatives in the stored-product arena. For at least the first several months on the job, I had no clear vision, even of a possible near-term path for my research, never mind a long-term path. I considered the idea of developing a program in pesticide residue analysis and environmental monitoring, but eventually decided to try to document the status of insect resistance to the few chemical pesticides then registered for direct application to stored grain. My surveys of insect resistance inevitably led to the field of genetics, since all resistance to toxins has a genetic basis. I was quite surprised by the emerging realization that I was fascinated by genetics, and that my heart was not in chemical toxicology and never had been, even though I had spent years of study to earn credentials in that field. It was therefore a natural step to modify my research plan to begin to investigate the genetic basis of pesticide resistance and to become interested in better ways to engage in gene discovery. I had been working with the red flour beetle, Tribolium castaneum, in large part because it was an important pest of stored grain; it had proven to be highly adaptable to all classes of insecticides in terms of resistance development; and it was easy to rear and manipulate in the laboratory. It now became evident that Tribolium also had excellent potential to become a laboratory model for genetics research, along the lines of the fruit fly, Drosophila. It was at this point that I began to deviate sharply from my position description, and began to invest effort in developing basic techniques for genetic manipulation of Tribolium. These efforts had no direct relevance to, and were quite separate and distinct from, my prescribed studies of pesticide resistance or pest control technology, although I was hopeful that in the long run, a useful connection could be made. My supervisors reacted to this change with skepticism, although I realized then, and now, that keeping your supervisor informed and in the loop is critical. While times change, and bureaucracies expand, ARS continues to remain open to different ways of addressing problems.
Twenty years later, my willingness to pursue an unexpected and uncertain opportunity has led to success, and now might seem prescient. It was not. No one can see the future, especially 20 years in advance. I did sense that Tribolium could be a good genetic model, but I could not have imagined that this new path would lead to the first entire genome sequence of a pest insect, a complete catalog of all 16,000 Tribolium genes, the discovery of hundreds of good candidate genes for biopesticide targeting, or the development of sophisticated methods for germline transformation and functional genomic evaluation. The lesson I’ve learned from my experience is that maintaining a receptivity and responsiveness to a changing environment, and listening to your inner voice, are as likely to lead to success in ARS as subordinating yourself too completely to others, including supervisors and customers. Of course it is important to listen to these other voices, but they should not always be allowed to drown out your own. You might actually have a better idea than your supervisors and customers how to achieve a goal that you all share. Everyone wants their problems solved ASAP, but all of us should know that the shortest distance between a problem and a solution is seldom a straight line, and often involves an unpredictable meander.
Thank you to everyone who took the time to respond to the survey on the mentoring program. The results indicate that, overall, mentors and protégés report high levels of satisfaction with the Framework (structure, materials, frequency of interactions); Transitions (to job, worksite, community, work:life balance); and General Usefulness (advice, networking, collaborations, etc.); while questions dealing with Recruitment reveal that most respondents heard about their current job through some type of word of mouth.
Yet, despite this overall satisfaction with the program, only about half of the mentors and protégés report communicating with one another once a month. While the monthly checking-in topics apparently serve as a spark for contacting one another, the open-ended comments indicate that some mentors and protégés are not especially satisfied with the frequency of their interactions. An additional tool that could be used is the Discussion tool on the Sharepoint site. Discussions can be used for general questions, comments, or threaded discussions. Everyone (mentors, protégés, and RLs) has access to the Sharepoint site - https://arsnet.usda.gov/sites/NPA/NewSY/NASPDP - type in your user name and password used to access Outlook).
The Executive Summary has been saved on the NPA home page, and both the Executive Summary and full report (saved as Report-2007) of the survey results have been saved on the Sharepoint site. In the coming months, some of the program materials will be revised, and if any of you have any changes or other suggestions to the program materials, please feel free to share your ideas with me and/or Dr. Chandler. And, of course, do not hesitate to give your match a call! Also, as always, if you have a topic for a future Checking-In topic, give me a call or email me your idea (or write-up).
20. When Leadership Changes - Dr. Gary Snowder (2007)
Although I have some personal advice to share, as a scientist I must refer to research (that obviously agrees with my philosophy). A recent study in the Harvard Business Review (Surviving Your New CEO by K. P. Coyne and E. J. Coyne, May 2007) identified critical factors that new leaders are quickly looking for. Basically, new leadership wants team players and people to accomplish new goals. Here are a few of my interpretations of their study:
Catch the vision. Although it may be tempting to take a "wait and see" attitude about a new leader, this is a wrong approach. New leaders are looking for players, teammates, action figures - not sideliners or fence sitters. Understand the vision of the new leader, buy into that vision, and let the new leader know you are supportive. Silence on you part does not equate into agreement, but leaves new leaders to draw their own conclusions about you.
Play hard. Be proactive by demonstrating your willingness to accept new changes, policies, and direction. Let your actions validate your commitment. Of course, all of this must be done with sincerity and without being sycophantic (flattering, apple polishing).
Leave your baggage at the door. Whatever personnel problems, or past disputes over lab space, funds, equipment, technicians, vehicles, computers, have been, bury them in a deep abyss. Bringing up past battles, historical preferential treatment, and old wounds to your new leader is a waste of everyone’s time. Be focused on the future.
Accept change. New leaders have their own agenda and your agenda is not necessarily of great interest to them. Your short and long term goals may not now be aligned with those of new leadership - your goals and research may have to be modified. Never attempt to thrust your own agenda ahead of the new leader. (This is a tough concept to grasp for some scientists who are personally attached to their own research program. You must realize, ARS scientists are hired to conduct agency research not personal research.)
Be honest. When discussing your research with the new leader, present the facts as clearly and as honestly as possible. Sugarcoating is the wrong approach. The truth will eventually be found out and no leader is supportive of a scientist who is not trustworthy. If you fail to identify the negatives of your projects (things gone wrong) the leader will either assume you are not smart enough to recognize problems or you try to hide the truth.
Get’er done. It is most important to demonstrate your worth to the new leader by accomplishing important projects in a timely manner. Identify solutions rather than moan about problems. Always follow through on assignments. Establish your value quickly.
Learn to disagree. Every individual has their unique style for dealing with differences of opinion. Effective leaders expect subordinates to have differing opinions and to share them in a constructive and non-confrontational manner. Subordinates must realize that they are offering options and alternatives. The key is to offer choices that help the leader achieve his/her vision. Once the decision is made, discussion is over.
In the business world, when subordinates fail in any of the above actions, they have a high likelihood of needing to update their resume.
Whether a leadership change is disruptive or productive, is truly a matter of how you respond to change.
The responses from the survey are trickling in - thanks to each of you who have taken the time to complete the survey. While we haven’t done any real analysis yet, one theme that has emerged from the survey for protégés is the question that asks proteges to list their most pressing concern(s). Several protégés cited their most common pressing concern is time management, especially finding time for conducting research while also completing paperwork and administrative duties; to working with support staff who are limited to working 40 hours a week; to balancing work and personal life. While there are tons of books on time management, mentors should be able to help their protégé figure out some strategies that will reduce (maybe even eliminate!) much of the aggravation and heartburn that comes from that sense of being over scheduled.
There has been nearly an endless flurry of rumors and worries concerning possible reorganization of ARS. Dr. Blackburn addresses the reorganization proposals in his annual ARMPS discussion, so there is no need to discuss the different proposals in this column. However, this recent spate of rumors and associated "what-ifs" is a good reminder of the importance of keeping things in perspective. Regardless of what organization or institution one works in today, one thing that can be counted on is that what was true yesterday may not be true tomorrow, or three months from now, or even next year, but then again, things might not change a bit. At any rate, new scientists may or may not have first-hand experience dealing with the uncertainties surrounding the array of rumors and political maneuvering that has occurred with the proposed realignment of ARS. Mentors, who probably have "seen it all and heard it all" can be an important sounding board, as well as provide their insights and experiences, and be able to share with their protégé the types of coping skills they have employed in the past in dealing with the various rumors that are bound to occur within any large organization when change is contemplated.
Regardless of where matches are in their mentoring relationship, it is always a good idea to assess the relationship to determine if the interests and needs of the protégé and mentor are being met. One barrier to meeting the needs and interests can be unaddressed and in some instances unacknowledged, assumptions on the part of mentors and/or protégés. A simple yet effective method of addressing assumptions is for mentors and protégés to ask themselves the following questions:
New and seasoned matches are urged to use these questions as a basis for assessing the effectiveness of their mentoring relationship and the future direction of their relationship.
The two previous checking-in topics on relationship building between mentors and protégés touched indirectly on the need for effective communication. A key aspect of mentoring - for both mentors and protégés - is the ability to effectively communicate. Establishing good communication in a mentoring program such as this one that relies on telephone and email can be problematic, especially since classic non-verbal signals (smiles, frowns, and gestures) are not visible to the other person. Email, although notorious for misinterpretations has two distinct advantages: interruptions are impossible, and messages can be re-read and considered before replying.
Regardless of the situation (face to face, telephone, or email) the foundation of good communication is the ability to actively listen to what another person is saying. Active listening is crucial in any meaningful relationship. Briefly, to be an active listener - for both mentors and protégés - means:
Active listening for mentor/protégé partnerships is especially valuable in building and maintaining the relationship. Too often, attempts at communication fail either because the message was not clearly conveyed or the intended target failed to grasp the significance.
In the January message, four mentoring philosophies were briefly touched on, and mentors were invited to think about what approach best fits their motivations for being a mentor, while protégés were urged to think about what sorts of expectations they have for the mentoring program. Both mentors and protégés were encouraged to talk with one another about their motivations and expectations.
While mentors typically fit into one of the four philosophical approaches described in the January checking-in message, there is not a similar set of styles identified for protégés. Although there is not a set of recognized "protégé styles", Ensher and Murphy (Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get The Most Out of Their Relationships, 2005, Jossey-Bass), have identified four basic strategies that protégés are encouraged to follow. These four strategies are:
What type of mentoring philosophy do you as a mentor practice? What would your protégé say is your mentoring philosophy? What are the expectations of your protégé? Ellen Ensher and Susan Murphy, in their book Power Mentoring: How Successful Mentors and Proteges Get The Most Out of Their Relationships (2005, Jossey-Bass) talk about four mentoring models: Corporate Citizen; Pragmatic; Global Citizen; and Master. While no one philosophical approach is better than any of the others, the philosophy influences the mentoring relationship, especially in terms of shared expectations. According to Ensher and Murphy, the underlying goal for a Corporate Citizen mentor is to help prepare the next generation of leaders for the organization. Pragmatic Mentors, on the other hand, tend to view mentoring as egalitarian, with mutual benefits for themselves and their protégés. Some pragmatic mentors seek to identify and develop their own successor so as to ensure their agenda is carried forward. Global Citizen Mentors are more concerned with imparting their life knowledge in general rather than focusing on helping their protégé advance in a particular job or career path. Finally, Master mentors focus on getting to know their protégé’s as individuals so that they can tailor their approach to the needs and interests of the protégé.
As your mentoring relationships develop, think about what sorts of approaches and expectations each of you bring to the relationship. It is important for mentors to think about the underlying motivations they have for mentoring, and for protégés to think about what they expect to gain. At the same time, it is important for mentors and protégés to discuss with one another their expectations. If the mentor perhaps doesn’t know what the protégé is looking for (and vice versa) the relationship may not be mutually satisfying.
13. Work: Life Balance - Barbara King (2006)
12. Survey Results and Regular Communication - Barbara King (2006)
If you’ve not yet checked out the results, you’re encouraged to do so at: http://www.ars.usda.gov/Aboutus/docs.htm?docid=14078
The results were presented during the Administrator’s Council meeting in Beltsville in September. Several other Areas have expressed interest in developing similar mentoring programs for their new scientists, and the Area Office has fielded several inquiries about the mechanics of our program.
We continue to look at the results to help continue improving the program. The results showed that many protégés are concerned about balancing administrative duties with their scientific duties, identifying their role (in their unit, at their location, and in ARS generally), and preparing their first case report. Developing a mentoring relationship takes time, commitment, and a sense of direction from both parties. One key to successful mentoring matches is regular communication, and the best way of ensuring that mentors and protégés talk on a regular basis is to establish a date and time for talking. While there is not a magic formula for the frequency of such discussions, certainly once a month would be a minimum. Additionally, having some sort of agenda or "talking points" for both mentors and protégés is also recommended. One challenge for mentors and protégés is the geographic distance between many of our matches. While face to face meetings are bound to be helpful, that’s not something that all matches will be able to accomplish, so it’s imperative that matches find other methods to develop and maintain active and meaningful discussions. Hopefully, these monthly checking-in topics serve as a reminder for matches to maintain a dialogue.
11. ARS Manuscript Peer Review - (2006)
It is the Research Leader's responsibility to assure that the scientist selects qualified peers to review the manuscript. Ask your RL for recommendations. Never select peers to rubber stamp a manuscript; rather select peers who will be helpful, even critical. Although only two peers may be sufficient for review, sometimes it is wise to select more to meet the broad spectrum of a manuscript. For example, a manuscript on the genetics of disease resistance may benefit from a review by a statistician, a geneticist, and a veterinarian. More than one reviewer in the same scientific field could be sought after.
Remember the objective of peer review is to improve the manuscript. So expect and welcome suggestions, comments, and even criticism. Science should always be open to criticism. Learn to accept criticism and to learn from it. A reviewed manuscript with red ink all over it should be appreciated because a reviewer made a sincere effort on your behalf.
There are several benefits to a peer review that a young scientist must recognize. Experienced reviewers can:
These benefits result in a successful submission of a quality manuscript.
Yes, this process may slow down the time to publication; but it helps you as a scientist to publish higher quality manuscripts. Despite the delay in submission time, every scientist should schedule the production of manuscripts by taking into account the time invested in the peer-reviewed process. Again, it will only be in your best interest.
ARS scientists are held to a higher standard than most of our colleagues. The manuscript peer review process helps us rise to that higher standard.
10. RPES - Unraveling the Mysteries - Barbara King (2006)
It is the time for mid-year performance review. Be sure to be prepared for this important meeting. Review your Performance Standards and make notes of what you have completed on each accomplishment. It is your responsibility to make sure your RL understands your accomplishments. Never assume the RL knows everything you have done. Be sure to inform the RL of your future plans to meet your goals.
Also, make notes on items you need special assistance on from the RL, such as lab equipment or supplies, data analyses, data collection, etc. Do not hesitate to politely address these items with your RL. If you have a problem to address, offer a possible solution or alternative solutions. Remember, the responsibility for the final decision lies with the RL. If you do not agree with the decision to your problem or the logic of the decision, let it go. Life is too short to worry over things you have no control over.
Most things in this life are accomplished in a step by step approach. The Performance Standards is an outline of your step by step accomplishments to meet a goal. Take them seriously. If you can not meet one of your listed accomplishments within the year, let the RL know as soon as possible. Never surprise the RL at the end of the year with a list of excuses of why something was not accomplished. A second "never" item is: never go into the interview with the idea of listing everything that needs to be fixed. The purpose of the mid year is to check on your personal progress. IF the RL asks you about any concerns, start with the positive things and then offer suggestions to remove "hurdles". Conflicts with other personnel can easily be identified by simply stating "My working relationship with so-and-so needs to improve." I think you get the jest of what I am saying.
At the end of the interview, recognize and thank the RL for all of his/her efforts to support you and your research. I make it a point to leave with a handshake and eye contact.
The value of networking is often overlooked by young scientists. Webster's New World Dictionary defines a network as a "group, system, etc. of interconnected or cooperating individuals." Networking involves communicating with fellow researchers at other ARS or university settings. These contacts can be a dependable source of information about a research area in which you are unfamiliar. Research Leader's should play an active part in assisting young scientists to network by recommending names, encouraging participation on out-of-house research committees, and by talking up the young scientists to the RL's contacts. Mentors can also take an active role by promoting protégés in a similar manner.
It is amazing how well networking works to promote a person's career. The more people who are aware of your strengths, abilities, and research interests, the greater your opportunity to be sought after for cooperative research and presentations. It is generally a false assumption that every one will become aware of your research and interest because they read your publication. If you want to get your name out in your field of science, be sure to communicate with colleagues. Every scientist enjoys talking about their research so it is easy to get others to initiate a conversation. One can simply include a question about their research when requesting a reprint. Or ask a colleague for their opinion about your own research. A good researcher should already know "who" is conducting similar or related research from the current literature. From this list, one can network by email or phone call. At committee meetings, young researchers should take advantage of interacting with other researchers. Active membership in a related professional association or society is a start at networking, but the key is to be an active member by attending meetings, joining committees, reviewing manuscripts, etc.
The benefits of networking are many fold. There is name recognition, increased opportunities to join committees, gain a greater understanding for lab or statistical procedures, recognize new opportunities, establish new long term relationships that you can depend on for assistance, see a whole new side to a problem, find additional mentors to model your career after, etc. As your own career advances, everyone will know you and begin to seek your assistance or opinion on related matters. Remember that research in a vacuum is usually of little worth. Networking is bi-directional, by expecting assistance you must also place the expectation on yourself that you will be a source of assistance to others.
7. Navigating the Federal Bureaucracy - Barbara King (2006)
6. Balancing Work and Personal Time - Barbara King (2006)
5. Understanding the Federal Budget - Barbara King (2006)
4. Bridging Career Goals and Responsible Research - Barbara King (2006)
The ARS code of ethics can be found at: http://www.afm.ars.usda.gov/hrd/ethics/ethicscode.htm; to learn about the ARS research structure, click on http://www.ars.usda.gov/Research/Research.htm. The link from the Indiana University http://poynter.indiana.edu/mr-main.shtmlprovides several case studies dealing with moral dilemmas that can be used as a starting point for general discussions.
3. Establishing a Research Agenda - Barbara King (2006)
With the calendar year rapidly drawing to a close, many protégés will experience the ARS performance review system for the first time. Although mentors do not have a role in the evaluation process, they nevertheless are in a position to demystify the process and answer any questions or concerns protégé’s might have. The review process includes the Individual Development Plan (IDP). The IDP is an opportunity for employees to discuss with their supervisor the types of specialized training that might be valuable. For example, new scientists might be interested in supervisory classes through the Texas A&M Supervisory Academy or the OPM Management Development Centers, or the Congressional Briefing class (see the attached documents). The ARS Human Resources website also includes a listing of courses: http://www.afm.ars.usda.gov/hrd/empdev/index.htm. Mentors might have recommendations concerning any of these courses or other courses not listed. Additionally, you might want to review the portion of the NASPDP document, especially the section on performance evaluations.
Best wishes for a restful Thanksgiving.
1. Collegiality - Barbara King (2005)
The "Getting Started" document provides one sketch of how mentor and protégé relationships develop over time. Collegiality is one topic that was listed in the Building Trust phase. For new employees, the direction a relationship takes with co-workers is often established during the first several months of employment. Getting along with your supervisor is just one relationship. Working together with support staff - managerial, technical, clerical, and custodial - is also critical. At the same time, ARS scientists are expected to forge positive relationships with customers, focus groups, faculty, and other scientists. Additionally, scientists will likely have supervisory responsibilities, and may not have had any previous supervisory experience. Mentors will probably have their own stories and strategies and advice on what steps to take to enhance collegiality as well as what pitfalls to avoid, and have some advice on supervision. If you and your partner haven’t addressed collegiality, now is a good time to begin that discussion.
As always, if you have questions, concerns, or suggestions, please give me a call or send me an email.
The user-friendly URL for this page is: