Ragan Hart, the Director of Operations and Business Development at MDisrupt, talks how to successfully lead a team in the 21st century

“The way I lead is hands-down solutions-oriented. I don’t like to construct the entire path to completion, I prefer to set up the global objectives and empower those that I am managing to decide on the path.”

February 9, 2021 | by Frank Hidalgo

Ragan Hart, MS, PhD is one of our speakers at our 2021 BA Conference. She will be part of the Business & Management in Industry panel. Today Ragan sat down with us to talk about how to become a successful leader. The registration for the conference is now open, CLICK HERE.

Ragan Hart received her PhD in Public Health Genetics from University of Washington in 2018.

Hi Ragan! Let’s start with some quick questions about you! Who is your favorite Nobel laureate?

Jennifer Doudna!

Everyone at Berkeley will love that answer! And your favorite city to travel to?

Galway, Ireland.

And your top hiking location?

The Pacific Northwest Trail – North Cascades.

“My goal was always to transition beyond the academic setting... Navigating and sharing that ambition with academic colleagues and/or advisors was a staged process however, due to the potentially negative consequences we all well know of.”

When did you start thinking about leaving academia and going into Management?

When I entered academia [as a PhD student], my goal was always to transition beyond the academic setting and apply my new skills and expertise in an industry environment. Navigating and sharing that ambition with academic colleagues and/or advisors was a staged process however, due to the potentially negative consequences we all well know of (unfortunately). I’d like to believe the academic climate to disclosing such ambitions earlier in our training is starting to warm up (especially given events such as the BA Conference!).

Let’s talk about your current job. You started as the Director of Operations and Business Development at MDisrupt in March 2020. What do you do?

I wear numerous hats. I focus on building valuable relationships with clients who need our services and products (external facing) to close new business. And, I manage our internal “clients”, which is a mixture of various team members (employees and consultants). On the client side, ensuring I understand their expectations and identifying additional opportunities they may not have originally noted. Internally, planning on what the company needs are going to be six months from now and adapting the budget and operations infrastructure accordingly. All while considering an evolving set of dependencies for which set of priorities may be most desired and the trade-off for what is necessary at a minimum (the nice to have vs the need to have).

“I have found extremely effective to block off structured time to be able to think.”

We want to know a bit about your daily routine. Could you share with us what a regular day looks like at MDisrupt?

No one day is regular in a startup! That’s the exciting dynamic for me. Regular entails frequent communication with my colleagues and current clients to make sure they have what they need, discussions with prospective clients, monitoring and evaluating the performance of critical business systems, workflows, and processes, and troubleshooting each of those areas to optimize my support. I also spend time reading relevant healthtech and life sciences market news so I can strategize for future planning and be responsive as new business opportunities arise.

Meetings may take a big chunk of your time. What is your strategy to get your work done?

What I have found extremely effective is to block off structured time to be able to think. This allows me to synthesize the vast amount of information that I receive and distill the critical signals. If we spend all the time meeting, no work will get done. Worth noting too, do I miss signals after the first review, certainly, so I make sure to reevaluate and reflect regularly on the first pass.

That is smart! Top CEOs such as Elon Musk use that same strategy. How do you tell your teammates “Don’t bother me, I am busy” in a polite way?

Great to be put into the bucket with Elon Musk! We have shared visibility into our calendars, so in my structured time I write “Do not schedule” or “Buffer for meeting preparation”. That way they know I am not available.

“To be an awesome manager is to accommodate the communication and comprehension style of the individuals you are leading.”

How many hours a week do you block?

Not enough! (laughter)

You seem to like short and concise meetings that go straight to the point. Were you able to do that when you were back in grad school?

Less so than I desired. Sometimes lab meetings would take too much time, and there would not be a global objective. That experience made me appreciate how important it is to have time to plan and reflect so I can implement and execute the necessary action. Coming prepared with a set agenda and leading with the intent of the time together I’ve found helpful. Not all meetings require an agenda, but that context needs to be set ahead of time too. It’s also useful to ensure delegation of meeting actions and that the owner of the activity knows they’re the owner!

What is your definition of being an awesome manager?

The term “awesome manager” is an oxymoron [a figure of speech in which apparently contradictory terms appear in conjunction]. On a serious note, to be an awesome manager is to accommodate the communication and comprehension style of the individuals you are leading. Everyone should be afforded a different set of operating assumptions. Just because one team member may know the prework, other folks may be left in the dark. In order to prevent that, it is important to place check points for accountability and confirm alignment for understanding. These check points serve to uncover each individual’s strengths, so that I’m amplifying their strengths and less focused on or can diffuse areas they are underperforming.

The requirements to be a good manager 30 years ago are probably different than nowadays. What are the main differences?

While I’m no expert in evaluating trends for the managerial evolution, my key guess would be direct reports and individuals under the manager’s chain of command now have more opportunity to leave a position and not be tied into one role for the majority of their career. As such, attributes to be a good manager have adapted to ensure retention of the desired team. Also, I imagine publicly accessible forums such as Glassdoor, Indeed, etc, where transparent company reviews can impact hiring decisions are a source of exposure forcing managers to adapt to new expectations.

In order to be a successful manager, have you taken any courses in leadership?

While I have not taken any formal courses, during grad school I undertook leadership opportunities that started building my leadership style. I love to read management books to broaden my skills and better understand different personas of individuals. How to meet them where they are to bring them where I’d like them to be to support our shared goals. A place I also enjoy reading about leadership is Twitter.

What sort of leadership experiences did you acquire throughout your academic career?

I was always keen to represent my cohort and peers and served in the Graduate Student Senate, served on several faculty hiring committees, and was even selected to serve on my School’s Dean Executive Search committee.

“I enjoy reading about leadership on Twitter … to learn how [other leaders] have managed a particular conflict or scenario.”

“Twitter”, the social network?

Yeah! It’s raw, and likely embellished, but still reliably useful. I follow accounts of people in leadership roles. They tend to post anecdotes of situations they encounter on their day to day. I enjoy learning how they have managed a particular conflict or scenario. Then I ask myself whether I can implement that piece of insight in my own environment or if I disagree and play out the scenario with an alternate set of actions. The tweet below is an example of the kind of posts I follow.

I had never thought about Twitter that way! How would you define your managerial style?

The way I lead is hands-down solutions-oriented. I don’t like to construct the entire path to completion, I prefer to set up the global objectives and empower those that I am managing to decide on the path (within some bounds). I am open to creativity as long as it complies with scale, resource awareness, and sustainability. There is more than one way to skin a cat! I’m an active listener and try to remain compassionate. Are there critical features I can pick up in conversation that illuminate a blocker or barrier to meeting an objective that aren’t being verbalized; if so, can I re-direct our discussion to problem solving constructively rather than emotional defeat or lamenting.

How do you keep your team working from day one until the global objectives are achieved without slacking?

With accountability. Setting check points to evaluate the progress and see what needs to be improved or adapted. Also, ensuring they feel ownership of the expected objective. Or at least they recognize the impact of their role to support or impede the global objective.

And do you have any playful way of keeping them motivated?

Not yet, although I have seen people in other companies doing it. For instance, there was a company that every month awarded a desk unicorn figure to the individual that had outperformed. Everyone in the company would know what that token meant, and they would be proud when they had it on their desk. I am thinking about how to replicate that virtually, since our team is mostly distributed. Perhaps a keyword on the email signature that no one except our team knows what it means.

Oh smart! I am going to copy you on that one. Clearly the psychological aspect is an important aspect of the managing job. Have you been reading books about the topic?

Radical Candor is an excellent read. Also, The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership: A New Paradigm for Sustainable Success.

“Today, self-awareness and empathy for others establishes trust and pays dividends.”

30 years ago, having a high emotional IQ was not a requirement in order to hold leadership roles. Nowadays, it is as important as having a strong technical background. What do you think prompted that change?

As we all are digital natives today whether we accept it or not, we can more easily access resources to discern appropriate and inappropriate interpersonal dynamics. In prior decades leaders had the ability to reign more authoritatively in a vacuum and if there were dissenting views in the work environment despite potentially leading to optimal group dynamics or productivity to the business, the leaders didn’t have reason to be concerned about employee or subordinate recourse. Today, self-awareness and empathy for others establishes trust and pays dividends.

Last but not least, what advice would you give to PhD students and Postdocs that want to follow your steps?

Firstly, I want them to leapfrog my path so I can learn from them! Be sure to establish professional relationships outside of academia earlier than later in your training so that you gain a broader perspective of not only professional opportunities, but contextualizing the impact of your work, and hearing from others that it’s more than ok to not know everything on a specific topic. Market dynamics are similar to scientific discovery in that they are frequently tested and evolving. And ask questions. You’ll be remarkably impressed with how many aha’s and novelties you will inspire in others just by asking questions. And lastly, pay it forward. Extend insight wherever you have the capacity or bandwidth (which is certainly quite limited during doctoral training and as a postdoc). Oh, and allocate some time to not just read peer-reviewed literature. Leisure reading (regardless of genre) is important too!

With that we conclude the interview. We are so grateful that you agreed to be part of our annual conference, Ragan! We are looking forward to meeting you again on February 26th.

Ragan Hart, MS, PhD will be joining Beyond Academia on February 26th at 1.15 pm. For more information and to register CLICK HERE.

Frank Hidalgo is a 5th year Chembio (with Data Science emphasis) PhD student at UC Berkeley. If you would like to be part of our speaker series, contact him at fhidalgoruiz@berkeley.edu or on LinkedIn.