SJ Boulton of Labster: “Listening is often more important than speaking”

By not creating space for people to fail safely, I was actively depriving them of the opportunity to learn deeply and effectively. When I recognized my perfectionist anxieties were a tension holding people back and not a mechanism for accurate delivery, it was much easier to let go and make the necessary space. As a […]

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By not creating space for people to fail safely, I was actively depriving them of the opportunity to learn deeply and effectively. When I recognized my perfectionist anxieties were a tension holding people back and not a mechanism for accurate delivery, it was much easier to let go and make the necessary space.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing SJ Boulton, Global Curriculum Lead at Labster, the virtual STEM labs simulation company. SJ has taken her background as a Pharmacology Professor at Newcastle University to and her PhD studies in diagnostic and therapeutic technologies to make a virtual STEM curriculum engaging and beneficial for learners. Her goal is to explore and bolster traditional constructivist pedagogies with insights from learning analytics and UX/UI feedback in rational game design.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

The role that brought me to Labster didn’t exist when I was a student, so I can’t say I had an active plan to land here! It’s fair to say that I’m a curious opportunist when it comes to career planning.

I started out as the kid that asked too many questions. Since then I’ve accumulated an excessively broad skill set that I enjoyed applying to problems in need of solutions. Like many millennials from ex-mining communities in Northeastern England, I was the first in my family to pursue higher education. I was lucky to have the world class Newcastle University right on my doorstep and to have the freedom to follow my interests. I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I still don’t, but I was inspired by people building careers based on asking questions and solving problems.

I came to Labster as a Simulation Director after spending a year investigating new technologies with a bespoke robotics company between my BSc and PhD degrees, establishing post-doctoral research projects and then holding a teaching fellowship in the Medical School of my alma mater. It took a leap of faith to leave a permanent teaching position at a Russell Group university, but my curiosity was piqued by Labster’s ambitious mission and the opportunity to create new EdTech tools to address deep-seated educational challenges .

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It’s hard to keep the end user’s curiosity in mind when you become close to the tech you’re developing. Some of our student users have great propensity for uncovering unintended clickability through impish misuse of the simulations. Their teachers’ feedback is always taken seriously though out of context it can sometimes raise a giggle. Our users have taught me to keep youthful playfulness firmly in mind when play-testing new content.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Labster’s commitment to storytelling in scientific contexts is unique among EdTech resources. By setting difficult concepts in real-life contexts and linking lab techniques to tangible data and demonstrable impacts we can provide deep, active and resonant learning opportunities for our student users. Our characters help bring the techniques and concepts to life, whether they’re exploring assisting Marie the lab technician follow a procedure safely or helping a basketball team get the right nutrition for their big game.

Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

In short, no, but it is reductive to say that the status quo is globally bleak. Where I am in the UK, enrollment of female-identifying candidates in the Biosciences is at parity and psychology related subjects enrol male-identifying candidates in the minority. I’ve been lucky to be part of scientific research groups with gender parity at professorship level as well as serve a faculty with female leadership at Head of School, Undergraduate Dean and Pro-Vice chancellor positions.

In contrast, HESA data collected over the past 12 years continues to demonstrate low female-identifying enrollments at undergraduate level in engineering, with equally low progression to skilled post-graduate destinations.

While overall, the pattern for female enrollment trends upward in STEM subjects, we must not let subject at or beyond gender parity mask the work that still so clearly needs to be done.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

It’s heartening to see more women successfully crossing the STEM hiring rubicon. What often lies beyond is the struggle for skill recognition, and it is a grueling feat to endure.

I enjoy getting involved with interdisciplinary projects. I like to learn a little of my collaborators’ world so I can make intelligent contributions in shared language where our previously unrelated expertise merges. In projects like this, women often have to spend their energy proving they can be innovative and can apply their expertise cross-discipline. It can feel that women must earn the right to exercise their roles while the same caution isn’t often afforded to male counterparts.

I believe the solution is two fold. The first part is about normalizing coaching and mentorship at all career levels, for all people. It isn’t easy to develop a personal reflective practice alone, but without it we fail to recognize where we need to do work on ourselves, be it communication skills, unconscious biases, or any other blocker to success.

The second is about companies creating time and space for inclusion and diversity training across the whole organization and not seeing it solely as a recruitment need. Without addressing inclusion, talented women will simply take their successful careers elsewhere.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

  • For a woman to be successful in STEM they must be completely committed to the work. STEM women are intelligent, motivated, and creative people. Of course they have other activities outside of work that re-energize and inspire them! Whether it’s quality family time, a good book, or my personal favorite of building and riding dirt bikes, it’s absolutely necessary for all women to enjoy non-work activities, whatever that looks like for them. While I recognize there are times where time reallocation for sensitive projects is needed, this absolutely shouldn’t be the norm. To avoid spending time and effort where we can’t or don’t want to, we can outsource aspects of our lives by hiring help or taking advantage of services, and it’s awesome we can do that. It doesn’t mean that we have to spend that bought back time on work.
  • Chronological age is a determining factor in a woman’s success trajectory. All people who want to raise a family have hard choices to make. Having your life and career plans placed on an ovarian timeline is an extra layer of negotiation many of us struggle with, but the career-family dichotomy is a false one. People and their priorities change, and we need to be kind to ourselves when considering what success looks like for us as unique individuals with rich lives.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Be consistent with your communication, especially if you’re remote. I learned that the collaborative expectations my coworkers built of me based on my emails and messaging communication was entirely inconsistent with their actual face to face encounters with me in meetings. On reflection, I realized that I took time to review and tactfully construct my typed communications whereas my in-person interactions were usually quick, full of ideas and very to the point. This disconnect was unnerving for people, and I was glad to have a mentor help me unpack the issue. I made the conscious decision to cultivate more flexibility in my in-person interactions and it was one of the most effective strategies for trust-building I’ve ever used.
  2. Listening is often more important than speaking. While we want to be taken seriously and deemed worthy in the workplace, I learned the hard way that listening to the needs and ideas of the team is a far more valuable leadership skill than the ability to precisely detail plans for team success. While meticulous planning is well-intentioned, those doing the do are infinitely more sensitive to the nuances of how to get things done than those who are not at the coalface. Undoubtedly teams have excellent ideas of how to collaborate with less friction and greater efficiency. Being open to workflow feedback and iteration is scary at first but the investment of trust and humility pays future dividends.
  3. Sometimes you have to let people fail. I’ve been guilty of trying to micromanage a process that should have been autonomous. By not creating space for people to fail safely, I was actively depriving them of the opportunity to learn deeply and effectively. When I recognized my perfectionist anxieties were a tension holding people back and not a mechanism for accurate delivery, it was much easier to let go and make the necessary space.
  4. Focus on the task at hand and create the time you need. This isn’t about outsourcing your life to create more time for work. It’s about negotiation, honesty and prioritization of what can be done in the day. The first delegation or work request you make is the hardest, and I initially struggled with being perceived as demanding or ill-advised. All it took to smooth the way was listening closely to the needs of the person taking on the work and providing support where they needed it.
  5. Success criteria are different for everyone, and that’s ok. What gets me out of bed in the morning isn’t the same as what motivates my coworkers. For me, I need to know that the work I do is valuable to the wider community, that it solves someone’s problems and that there is scope to keep learning about how and why we do things. Hitting those markers are my career success criteria, and there are a million things I can do to satisfy them. I recognize that compared to other people’s career success criteria, mine do not seem ambitious or expansive, and I’m ok with that. Whatever your success criteria are, make sure that they are truly and authentically yours and that achieving them brings you satisfaction.

What advice would you give to other women leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Be ready to have difficult conversations. It’s likely that you have the capacity to sense the tension in a project or to recognize when something seems off. Don’t put off addressing it. Miscommunication, especially in culturally diverse teams working across different time zones is practically inevitable. There have been times where teams have requested information from me and I’ve given what I thought was an articulate and concise response, oblivious to the fact that I had completely missed the mark. I found it helpful to have a trusted neutral colleague facilitate initial conversations where tensions arose to create space for all voices to be heard. Now I feel more confident in my ability to address such issues myself, I find sensitive one-to-one in-person calls to be an appropriate forum.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I am fortunate to have co-founded the Labster Podcast with my talented and sensitive colleague April Ondis. Together we’re creating a platform for tough topics in digital and virtual education like inclusion and diversity, founding institutional culture online and creating nurturing spaces for student success. I enjoy nerding out and swapping stories with our guest on best practices and biggest learning as we navigate a return to the new educational normal post-Covid.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This one comes from my Dad, who sadly passed in the final year of my undergraduate degree. I’m a natural worrier, though sometimes the compulsion for mapping out every possible outcome of a scenario can be handy when planning scientific experimental schemes! He’d tell me ‘there’s nothing to it but to do it’ whenever I was distracted from the task at hand by some worry. From him I learned that even when there’s a million things to do or you’re worried what people might think, to trust yourself and just do the thing.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I fell in love with the Foxfire book series that sprung from a 1966 educational project set up by Eliot Wigginton in Raban County, Georgia. The goal was to reconnect school kids with traditions and skills being lost with their grandparent’s generation and to empower the students to self-publish what they learned. Aunt Arie was a bright older woman that generously contributed her time and knowledge to the project. Through those books, I learned a lot from her despite being separated by time and distance. If the technology existed, I’d contribute tea and scones to a wood-stove cooked breakfast while she hopefully shared some of her stories with me.

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