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Looking Out, Looking In: Charting a Growth Path for STEM Organizations

Sep 4, 2018 5 MIN. READ

STEM organizations often face two critical issues: external communications and internal development. Here's what they can do to improve.

STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines have long been associated with cutting-edge problem solving, out-of-the-box thinking, and technically adept workforce talent. Embracing STEM is also vital to our future: these disciplines, individually and in tandem, are responsible for technological feats, medical achievements, and scientific advances that sustain and improve our quality of life—both in the United States and around the world.

Organizations with STEM missions are too many to name, but they touch everything from space exploration to disease prevention to behavioral and social sciences to telecommunications, cyber and engineering product design. Beyond that, many other types of organizations have STEM Research and Development (R&D) divisions.

Despite their contributions, STEM organizations are often the first ones on the chopping block for layoffs and budget cuts. So what can they do to avoid that outcome and promote their value?

In my experience, these organizations consistently face two key challenges: external communications and internal development. Read on to learn more about how they arise—and what STEM leaders can do to counter them.

Challenge: “If we build it, they will come”

STEM organizations tend to ascribe to the famous Field of Dreams mantra: “If we build it, they will come.” Their employees find the work intrinsically rewarding and often think that everyone else will be naturally inclined towards or attracted to their products and services. This can lead to a false or misplaced sense that the organization is effectively engaging its target customers or audiences when, in fact, it is alienating them.

This disconnect can also spur miscommunication between the organization and its audiences. Customers and stakeholders—who aren’t familiar with STEM terminology or processes—believe they getting something very different than what the organization believes they are promising. These differing objectives—from miscommunication about deliverables to project timelines to objectives—can create frustration or compromise mission accomplishment.

These differing expectations, left unresolved, result in less than optimal mission and purpose accomplishment.

Solution: Looking out with a strategic communications plan

A robust strategic communications plan implemented with key customers and stakeholders can help promote the innovative and vitally important work done by STEM organizations. STEM organizations attuned to customers immediate needs produce “what works now” briefings and executive summaries while continuing to work on more long-term research and development.

They also find a way to bridge the communications gap with non-STEM customers, who usually don’t have the same level of expertise or a strong understanding of subject matter terminology. “Translators” with skills and experience across STEM and non-STEM disciplines are employed to help smooth. communications.

Employing or finding a few extroverts within the STEM organization can help further vital ongoing relationships between STEM organizations and their customers. These individuals are natural communicators who like to get to know customers professionally and personally. Taken together, these actions can elevate STEM strategic communications plans, driving connections with customers, and spurring internal research and development that meets those customers’ needs and expectations

Challenge: Applying generic leader development practices

Many STEM organizations are taking steps to develop their leaders, offering them courses on important skills like communication, strategy, and decision making. While this effort is an important, well-intentioned one, the application of standard development practices and strategies used by most organizations may not serve the unique needs of a STEM organization.

Traditional organizational structures and hierarchies provide their employees with a gradual increase in their responsibilities and work experiences, along with opportunities to exercise leadership throughout their careers. First, supervision opportunities may occur naturally within a small team initially, followed by supervision of a larger team and, ultimately, oversight of a multi-level organizational directorate or division. Entry-level employees tend to gain the experience they need for the next level of responsibility on-the-job.

STEM organizations, conversely, tend to hire individuals after years of time spent in an educational institution—a necessary prerequisite to the application of their technical skills on-the-job. What typically follows is time spent in individual contributor or team member roles. With enough seniority and demonstrated technical achievement, an individual contributor may suddenly find themselves promoted into leadership of a complex, matrixed, and multi-specialized directorate or organization. These kinds of swift transitions to advanced management can be jarring, because the rising leader has not had progressive experiences managing people and delivering results through others.

Solution: Looking on with a STEM approach to leader development

A few targeted and customized interventions can make a world of difference for STEM organizations looking to prepare individuals for success as a leader. To remedy the void in early-in-career leadership opportunities, get creative by identifying non-traditional leadership opportunities, both within and outside of the workplace environment. Individual contributors can be assigned to lead a cross-organization task force designed to solve pressing organizational issues and challenges. Organizations can also informally reward and recognize individuals who voluntarily take on leadership roles in charitable causes and non-profits outside of work.

These kinds of activities offer a chance for individuals early in their careers to grow their leadership skills, even if their day-to-day work does not allow for it in an explicit capacity. Beyond offering informal, hands-on leadership experience, these types of opportunities also provide important information about rising leaders to watch. Who is passionate about and skilled at leading and managing scientific achievement rather than scientific discovery itself?

With this knowledge, the STEM organization can support the development of individuals who demonstrate talent and potential for greater leadership responsibility. These individuals, having had early and progressive leadership experiences, will be positioned to make better career decisions about managing scientific achievement.

Advocacy and mentoring from successful, current leaders is another key piece of the puzzle. One STEM organization executive leader admitted that he needed to do more to communicate both the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards that come with a progressive series of leadership roles. Young, aspiring scientists and engineers, he said, tend to view individual discovery and research as more rewarding than promoting, obtaining funding for, managing, or implementing scientific discovery and research. Consequently, it’s important for organizations to leverage their “role model” leaders to be active spokespersons for STEM leadership career paths.

“Role model” leaders can also offer mentoring to those who have made a swift jump into a leadership role. And pairing those who are relatively new to leadership roles with these role models helps them identify challenges and solutions in a safe, developmental setting.

Balancing strategies for future growth

Looking out with a strategic communications plan and looking in to provide tailored leader development are two solutions that can help STEM organizations realize their full potential. In tandem, these steps will help teams effectively serve external customers, stakeholders, and employees. What is your experience with STEM organizations and their growth? Tell us what you think and continue the conversation on Facebook and LinkedIn.

By Dr. Steven Aude
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