Developing the Next Generation of Laboratory Leaders

Leadership training programs will help clinical and anatomic pathology laboratories prepare for the challenges ahead

Kimberly Scott

At a time when clinical and anatomic pathology laboratories are under increased pressure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, having strong leadership within labs is essential. And as the pace of Baby Boomers who are retiring accelerates, the need for a new generation of laboratory leaders to take over is more critical than ever.

While most laboratory training programs touch on key leadership skills, such as communication, conflict resolution, and change management, virtually none provide in-depth leadership training. Typically, the standard approach to selecting new laboratory leaders has been to promote high-performing line staff, but the skills and knowledge that make an effective bench technologist are quite different from those that make an effective leader.

To help fill this need, several industry groups have begun offering leadership training programs in the last few years. 

Leadership Institute

The American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP) hosts a series of online and live leadership courses facilitated by organization and industry experts from the association. The goal of its Leadership Institute (LI), which began in 2016, is to increase leadership at all levels of an organization by teaching participants different communication and conflict skills, leadership styles, and how to become more situationally effective. The courses, in part, address self-awareness and feedback, organizational effectiveness, team dynamics, diversity and inclusion, and emotional intelligence. The LI also includes personal coaching, which can be in-person, over the phone, or via video conferencing.

Cherie Germain, MHS, MASCP, PA(ASCP), program director for the pathologists’ assistant program at Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California, completed the LI a couple of years ago and now has incorporated it into the pathologists’ assistant curriculum.

“It is now part of our clinical lab management course,” she explains. “It really opened my eyes to some things I hadn’t considered before. One of the modules addresses generational communication. I’m a Boomer, but some of my faculty are Millennials, and it really helped me see things from their perspective. Considering all perspectives when you are problem solving is such an important part of leadership.”

Germain recommends the Leadership Institute for anyone who is in a leadership role or considering moving into leadership. Individuals can purchase the LI course for $499 ($399 for ASCP members). ASCP also offers bulk rate pricing for institutional and group purchases with several templates that can be customized to the needs of institutions. 

AP3 Laboratory Medical Direction

The College of American Pathologists (CAP) also offers leadership training through its AP3 Laboratory Medical Direction (LMD) program, which averages about 30 participants per year. The program consists of 30 online credit hours, plus an in-person session, according to Richard Scanlan, MD, FCAP, chair of CAP’s Council on Accreditation and a professor and vice chair of pathology at Oregon Health & Science University. The program is designed for pathologists or PhDs who are currently in a laboratory medical director or section head role. Because the program is self-paced, it can be completed in as little as a few weeks. Scanlan says 277 people have completed the program since it began in 2011. The program ranges in cost from $1,330 to $2,379 depending on time of registration and membership in the CAP.

“There will always be a need for laboratory medical directors because it is a CLIA requirement,” says Scanlan. “The LMD program is one way of feeding that pipeline.” The ASCP and CAP programs are complementary, he notes, with ASCP focused more on administrative directors and CAP focused more on medical directors. “Both are needed to ensure ongoing laboratory leadership,” he says.

Amanda VanSandt, DO, medical director for hemostasis and thrombosis and the director of the residency program at Oregon Health & Science University, took the LMD program three years ago when she was a newly appointed director.

“I had some fundamental training in residency, but it doesn’t fully prepare you for being a director,” she says. “In the LMD program, we participated in a lot of activities where we discussed team dynamics, different phases of a team and how to motivate your team. We also did a lot of problem-solving exercises, such as transitioning to a new laboratory information system. A lot of the things I learned, such as identifying root cause analysis and using fishbone diagrams [which show cause and effect], are things that have been useful in my day-to-day job.”

Leadership Exploration in Anatomic Pathology

Industry associations are not the only ones offering leadership training. A number of health systems and laboratories also offer programs to help develop leaders within their own ranks. Mayo Clinic, for example, launched a 12-month program in 2015 to identify and train high performing staff interested in future leadership roles within the division of anatomic pathology. The Leadership Exploration in Anatomic Pathology (LEAP) program is intended for allied health staff who have not yet stepped into a formal leadership or management role and serves two purposes: 1) train allied health staff on basic leadership skills, and 2) identify those with talent to manage others.

Prior to the pandemic, participants in the program would complete assignments (such as reading articles on a particular topic) and then meet monthly to discuss the topic with facilitators and other students. The program was halted earlier this year due to COVID-19, but it is expected to start up again sometime in 2021, according to Blake Cappell, HTL(ASCP), education specialist in the Division of Anatomic Pathology and an instructor in the program.

The LEAP curriculum consists of four modules: defining leadership, leadership opportunities, leadership in action, and career development. The focus is around discussion, interaction, and mentoring. Around 10 to 12 people participate in each year-long session.

“Developing younger leaders in-house is ultimately more beneficial than trying to find leaders ‘in the wild,’” says Cappell. “Whether or not participants actually go on to leadership roles, these skills help them in their jobs. We have received lots of positive feedback from supervisors who say they really notice a difference in staff who have gone through the programs.”

Since LEAP began five years ago, about 60 laboratorians have completed the program, and about 20 have been promoted from their position, many becoming supervisors or assistant supervisors, notes Cappell. The leadership program is funded through the AP division—there is no cost to participants.

One of the first people to participate in the LEAP program was Lindsay Gust, HTL(ASCP), assistant supervisor in the Division of Hematopathology at the Mayo Clinic. At the time she participated, Gust was a technical specialist in the histology lab and later became an assistant supervisor.

“I had taken some job instruction training before, but LEAP gave me additional tools, such as how to hire and train employees,” says Gust. “One of the main things I got out of the program was learning how to empathize with people in the workplace, realizing that there are feelings involved in every situation that people are in.”

Ultimately, these leadership training programs, and others like them, will assist clinical and anatomic pathology laboratories in preparing for the challenges ahead, including future pandemics.

“Challenges like COVID, and Ebola before that, always come out of the clear-blue sky and require rapid development of new diagnostic tests,” notes Scanlan. “The laboratory director is the one individual with the medical, technical, and communication skills needed to deal with these situations. We are the first responders in infectious health care emergencies.”


Kimberly Scott

Kimberly Scott is a freelance writer specializing in health care and medical diagnostics.