Lab To Leadership: inspiring leaders in STEM

Aly King-Smith is Director of Clearworks, based at the historic Caswell Science Park in Northamptonshire. King-Smith speaks with DDW’s Megan Thomas about Clearworks’ Lab To Leadership initiative, established to inspire leaders in STEM.

MT: Could you provide a general overview of the course and the company behind it?

AKS: Lab To Leadership is a specialist programme for new and aspiring leaders in the STEM, biotech and pharma sectors, designed in response to what our clients tell us. They want to develop their own home-grown leadership talent and to help their brilliant technical experts feel more comfortable more quickly, as they move up into people leadership roles. They also tell us that they notice a gap in confidence as scientists move away from their own specialist science into leadership, and sadly many of their own scientists hold back from applying for the leadership roles.

Clearworks Coaching is an established Organisational Development (OD) and leadership consultancy in this sector already, working with senior leaders and teams globally since 2013. We wanted to build an affordable, specialist programme using this experience, to help companies offer great leadership development earlier in the career pathway, rather than saving executive coaching for the top levels only. This will help companies keep their best people, save money on recruiting from outside and raise performance across all the teams earlier.

MT: From what I understand, the Lab To Leadership initiative aims to turn more STEM experts into leaders. What inspired Clearworks Coaching to establish this programme and what will it help achieve?

AKS: Historically, biotech and med-tech organisations haven’t invested in their in-house leadership development as much as other sectors, leaving top roles to the scientific founders and contributors. Increasingly the sector is feeling the benefit of developing the behaviours and commercial mindsets early, and realising the huge return on investment. We’re aiming to develop cost effective and time efficient programmes to assist this change and make leadership development attainable for more organisations sooner.

I imagine anyone reading this article will already be convinced of the global importance of the STEM sector. The scientists and technical experts in this field deserve superb leadership to help them deliver what the world needs from them. Developing confident leaders at every level of science is absolutely critical to driving pace and impact in a sustainable, fulfilling and efficient way. Moving quickly from research to commercial; from technical to people will enable companies to innovate and compete in pacey global markets.

MT: Why do you think scientists lean towards individual contribution rather than leadership roles?

AKS: Having a brilliant mind and a STEM expertise doesn’t necessarily prepare us for the leadership of unpredictable humans. Many scientists tell us that they’ve measured their own success, even their identity, on being accurate, knowing ‘their stuff’ and having a reputation for getting things right.  This can cause a crisis of confidence when looking at fluid and unpredictable leadership roles. This combines with the practice in some organisations of giving “Heads of” roles to people based on the quality of their scientific outputs, whether or not they have an aptitude for leadership.

Looking at a group of brilliant scientists, delivering wonderful technical work, will provide no insight into who will rise to be the greatest leader of people.  It’s impossible to know who will be able to have the tough conversations, express their vision, take people along with them or gain promotion onto the board. Staying in an individual contributor role can feel like a safe, familiar place with a more obvious route to predictable success. It takes courage and new skills & mindsets to step out of that.

MT: What has the response been to the programme so far?

AKS: The response to the release of Lab To Leadership has been hugely positive because we’ve designed the programme in response to the gap that loyal clients have described. We know it’s needed and it addresses a very clear gap in an affordable way.  It is interactive, adult and focused on real-world, current challenges, so it supports the day job, rather than interrupting it with add-on work. This is always popular with busy delegates!

MT: Why do you think Covid-19 has been so impactful in waking organisations up to the benefits of working across geographies and building online communities? Do you think this will be a permanent mind-set shift?

AKS: For a few years we’d been highlighting to clients the very specific opportunity that online working could bring in connecting people with a shared purpose but different geographies – for example female scientists working in isolation across many sites, or solo biologists working amongst dozens of physicists across the country (or other similar scenarios, of course).

We’d also been flagging our commitment to reducing our global travel footprint using technology.  Often clients were cagey about making the big move online, assuming that online teaching is second best.  We found that the 2020 removal of choice from that decision, forced some of the programmes online, and it gave us a chance to demonstrate outcomes.

Starting with the most innovative clients, gradually all our coaching successfully moved to online platforms – and with that came the opportunity to open up applications from global leaders to connect. One of our most established leadership coaching groups in pharma in Basel flipped online, and we were suddenly able to invite women from China and Canada as well as Switzerland.  It’s a profound development for the connection of leaders across organisations, smashing silos and building community.

We expect many programmes to remain online and a few to use a hybrid combination of face to face launch events, with online coaching.  It’s very very unlikely we’ll lose that now.

MT: Could you tell me more about how the programme is structured, and the sorts of activities included in your sessions – what can a participant expect to achieve throughout the sessions?

AKS: Often similar themes emerge for new and aspiring leaders in STEM: delivering difficult conversations; communicating with people whom we find tricky to understand; leading people who are scarily clever and more experienced than we are…

Our aim is to balance common themes with the individual needs of all participants. This leads to the design of Lab To Leadership combining self-led learning ahead of sessions, with confidential coaching groups monthly, online or in person where the great conversations can happen.

Participants will find the experience challenging, enjoyable and pacey. There is a bias towards action, conversation and experimentation in real time and the aim of the journey is individual leadership confidence.  Exploring the topics that cause people discomfort, can be the heart of the work.

We explore real life challenges in the organisations where participants are working and they travel along for six months with a cohort of trusted peers, either from their own company (for the organisational groups) or from across the whole industry (in the open groups). Groups like this often bond for life, leaving participants with a trusted group of supporters and sounding boards, as they continue their career.

There is no question that some of the leadership models and text books have a place in the development of leaders, but they MUST be brought to life to enable people to use the theory in their own context. The scientists who work with us need to know the content and input is high quality, because that is their world.  And at the same time, it’s our job to bring it alive in real scenarios.

MT: Lab To Leadership is evidence-based, not just theoretical. Could you share some of the research from which the programme was created?

AKS: We’ve been working with leaders in this sector since 1996, and since 2013 as Clearworks Coaching. The Lab To Leadership pathway has been created from hundreds of research conversations, practical “business as usual” observations, workplace experiments and coaching conversations with clients in the STEM sector. The content of our own research is combined with the best Occupational Psychology data to ensure the material is true, robust and useful in the real world of leading people in STEM. Any assessments or psychometrics included in the programme are hosted by specialist, expert Occupational Psychology consultancy partners.

The Clearworks Coaching team itself is a deeply experienced group of practitioners who are all qualified and certified to combine the use of research-based coaching tools with grown up commercial careers. I have a commercial background in the UK pharmaceutical and vaccine sectors and am committed to impactful leadership development which goes beyond text books and white papers.

MT: What is unique to Lab To Leadership that sets it apart from general business leadership programmes?

AKS: This programme is designed especially for scientists, using tried and tested methods in their own sector. It focuses both “above the line” – on the practical tools and techniques that help new leaders feel more confident and competent, and “below the line” on the individual values, preferences, fears and backgrounds that help and hinder us as we become leaders.

We understand the concerns of how long courses can be, whether the content will stick long term, whether it is ‘leadership fluff” or truly useful, and whether the course leaders are close to the world of scientists and technical experts.  We also understand the pressures on organisations to deliver great content that is affordable for lots of people.

The Lab To Leadership programme offers practical, manageable real-world work in a STEM context that is immediately usable. The promise to delegates is that they will quickly know themselves better as leaders, understand how others tick and gain confidence right from the start in having the big conversations, sharing their vision and managing the tricky characters in their teams. The conversation-based, trust-building, coaching approach builds community and peer support right from day one.

Importantly, the team at Clearworks has a heart-led commitment to driving inclusive leadership.  Rather than teaching “D&I” as a standalone topic, the Clearworks approach is inclusive in design and delivery, from end to end, with a conscious focus on the power of group coaching to build connection and equity in all members.

MT: What sort of benefits can society at large expect from a science industry which invests in and prioritises leaders?

AKS: So often we are invited to work with teams that comprise exceptional brains and experts, but they’re slowing themselves down through lack of clarity, shared purpose and trusting conversations. They suffer from repetition, wasted time or confusion of priorities.

If society is to benefit fully from all the amazing potential that brilliant brains can deliver, the leadership needs to be confident and agile, to build a shared vision and purpose to drive clear ways of working for their teams. And on top of that – imagine how much better it feels to work for a great, inclusive leader? Large numbers of healthy, happy, high performing STEM experts would bring such a positive uplift in the world!

MT: Are there any success stories of a company’s transformations from Lab to Leadership sessions that you’re able to share with me?

AKS: This is a new programme launch so it would be strange for us to be able to claim company transformations with it yet! What we can share is direct feedback from recent related leadership coaching groups at Clearworks in the pharma and biotech sector.

Leaders give feedback most often on the following areas:

They describe a much greater confidence in identifying their own strengths; a raised self-awareness and flexibility in their approach. They say they feel able to raise the big conversations with their own upstream leaders and they actively apply for more jobs and opportunities. Resilience, coaching skills and leadership confidence are all listed as specific areas of improvement for participants, and they note a significant increase in the ability to give and encourage feedback across teams.


Aly King-Smith is Director of Clearworks based at historic Caswell Science Park in South Northants with a global client base, developing leaders in STEM, biotech and pharma.

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