Build it, run it and move on.

I heard a talk on leadership during a commencement address many years ago that has stuck with me. The esteemed speaker, a nationally known, highly successful businessman, spoke about what it took to be a successful leader. One theme of his talk was that successful leaders should not hesitate to switch jobs. His approach throughout his own successful career was to “build it for 3 years, run it for 3 years, then move on.”

I was captivated by what he said, yet this is my 18th year in my current position so I obviously didn’t follow his advice. I believe the reason I have not moved on after so many years comes from an approach to work I developed early in my research laboratory training that engrained in me the importance of being an experimentalist. In the research laboratory, we design research to test a hypothesis with the goal of advancing our understanding of a problem. There is something to learn from well designed experiments whether they turn as predicted or not. An experimentalist learns that unexpected results are often the most interesting and exciting, and is continually thinking creatively about what led to an unexpected result and how this result should impact on the design of the next experiment. Certainly there are highs and lows based on results, but each day brings the excitement of something new, and the hope for continued progress and for future results that lead to unexpected opportunities.

As my career has evolved to include administrative roles, I have done my best to maintain my experimentalist attitude. I consciously try to consider whether there are new and better ways of addressing challenges even for what otherwise would be considered a mundane administrative matter. This might involve designing a new initiative or shared core resource to take advantage of a scientific or clinical advance, bringing together people that share a common interest but haven’t worked together before, or hiring cancer researchers with expertise in a new area of science. Not all novel administrative endeavors turn out precisely as planned, yet there is always something to be learned from them. Just like in the laboratory, careful evaluation of unanticipated results often leads to new concepts and new approaches.

Creativity is not appropriate for every administrative activity. Indeed there are days when I feel stuck administratively in the run it mode working hard just to maintain the status quo. Fortunately, such days are the exception. We live in a time of incredible advances in cancer research and cancer medicine. This rapid change means I am able to spend most of my time and energy, both in the research laboratory and in my administrative office, focusing on new and exciting ideas and approaches.

In other words, after many years with the same titles, I am still in the build it phase. Thinking back again about the message of my commencement speaker, he accurately predicted the satisfaction and excitement I would get from working on the build it portion of my career. What he did not convey was that the sense of satisfaction in a job could be extended over time by taking an experimentalist’s attitude and approaching that job as a never-ending build it opportunity.