Leadership development in STEM organizations: Insights from Saville Assessments

TTS’s best-of-breed product partner, Saville Assessments, has recently launched a podcast series featuring deep dives into assessment-related topics and industries.

In this article, we discuss Saville Assessment’s insights into leadership development in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics-based industries (STEM). To this end, Learning and Development expert, Stu North from Quotient Sciences was the interviewed guest.

Leadership in STEM organizations

Leadership in STEM organizations can be challenging in part because of the disposition of many STEM specialists. There tends to be an overrepresentation of introverts, deep specialists, and people who do not necessarily want to be leaders, preferring to stay within their scientific career paths.

As a result, many organizations will opt for parallel tract development for specialists who wish to further their roles without taking on leadership responsibilities, but the basic dilemma remains: How to select and develop leaders in STEM-based industries and organizations?

Part of the solution to this problem, according to Stu, is expectation management.

For those who join STEM organizations, it is important to clarify that eventually, given sufficient seniority, they will be expected to lead teams of people.

As team members begin to develop their careers, assessments like the Saville Wave can aid them in gaining insights into their behavioral styles. Such insights can point to barriers and opportunities that can be overcome or leveraged when working with others, such as being open to accepting feedback or needing to develop one’s teamwork capacity.

Such assessment results can help individuals develop their skills in these areas and therefore mitigate against the breakdown of positive team dynamics.

In addition, it is a critical route to developing leadership abilities within STEM organizations.

Challenges and limitations in STEM leadership initiatives.

While assessments like the Saville Wave can deliver powerful insights to nascent leaders, a downstream challenge is the uptake of development initiatives.

People in STEM careers are often reluctant to take part in training and developments that put pressure on them to “perform” in front of others or that put the focus on them. To prevent such fears, careful facilitation is required that adapts to the audience’s needs and does not force them to participate in activities that might generate social anxiety.

Using a system of “rounds” can be useful, allowing everyone a structured turn to participate, with fair warning, thus reducing performance anxiety and creating a safer development space.

An allied question to the above is whether to mandate training initiatives or make them voluntary. Stu recommends against mandated training. Such mandates often lead to ineffective training. A better strategy is to entice staff by creating the desire to attend through clever internal marketing, creating excitement by using internal media like blog posts and announcements and using low barrier-to-entry micro-learning events.

In other words, effective training tends to be more of a “pull” force than a “push” motivation.

Internal performance management can be connected to development initiatives, which in turn can help reluctant trainees see the potential benefits of training. Seeing a practical difference or benefit that may stem from training seems to be a key determinant of training success and buy-in.

The risk of forcing individuals to attend training can also be deleterious to the rest of the group, especially for trainees who are motivated to change and who want to benefit from training.

Reluctant trainees who feel forced to attend are often disruptive attendants and may impact negatively on others’ learning.

Developing people skills in STEM leadership

People skills and developing these seem to be especially difficult within the realm of STEM organizations and teams. Although these may be a challenge to develop, they are undoubtedly critical to leadership success and building strong teams.

On one level, Stu points out the necessary truth that people tend to learn people skills due to either the pain associated with not developing such competencies or conversely, the need to develop these due to a desire to further their career.

Helping trainees visualize their current situation, what they want to develop, and the future after such skills have been mastered seems to be very helpful in motivating staff to attend training and persevere in developing their people skills. This builds self-awareness about the nature of the challenge as well as possible tasks that the person needs to accomplish to develop their skills further.

In addition, encouraging staff members to experiment with new behaviors and seeing the results of trying new things can go a long way to developing motivation for enhancing people skills.

Assessment insights and leadership development

Assessments can help create insights for staff in terms of their leadership gaps and likely roles. It is important to note that introverts can make excellent leaders, and the stereotype of extroversion = good leadership is just that, a stereotype.

What is more important is for leaders and developing leaders to understand their own styles of behaviors and build positive behaviors in their relationships to their team members.

Stu points out that in STEM careers, team members need to be led by leaders with credibility and reputation within their specialty. Once credibility is achieved, developing or enhancing leadership skills are logical next steps.

Keeping STEM workers engaged

Based on insights gained during the COVID epidemic, Stu points out that his organization has shifted to a task- rather than time-based paradigm in measuring performance.

Leaders were encouraged to set tasks for team members rather than mandating time-based presence. Using this approach, team members were able to transition rapidly and successfully to remote work.

Using large attendance webinars and virtual events outside of regular meetings and work engagements also helped maintain engagement and positive team dynamics.

In addition, leaders were encouraged to have more frequent, informal chats with team members that fell outside of work-related meetings and topics. Such chats helped maintain positive teamwork and engagement.

Final thoughts on leadership development in STEM

Stu offers some final advice for developing better leaders in STEM careers:

  1. Make more use of assessments. Other than using assessments for selecting better leaders, using more frequent assessments, such as the Saville Wave, to track development needs as well as inform possible learning and development strategies is crucial. To leverage the power of assessment data, such assessments should be made constantly available to leaders on request, rather than being seen as special projects or events.
  2. Create sufficient channels of learning. Leaders need multiple channels of learning, such as e-learning, multimedia, face-to-face training, and many more. Given that people learn in different ways, having access to a variety of learning channels will improve learner buy-in and uptake.
  3. More time. Although time is always at a premium in any organization, learning, and especially leadership development, should be accorded sufficient priority by the organization. This will allow leaders to take the time needed to develop their skills and capacities properly.

We hope you enjoyed this summary of Saville’s recent deep dive in assessment-related topics! For more on our product partner’s insights, you can visit: https://www.savilleassessment.com/

If you are interested in how TTS can help you develop your leaders using state-of-the-art assessment products like the Saville Wave, why not contact us at info@tts-talent.com?


Saville Assessments (2023). The Deep Dive Podcast – Episode 1 – Stu North on Leadership in STEM.