If you’re at the stage in your career that you’re writing grants, then the team that you build will define your success (or failure).

This is a slight but important digression: Getting a grant is all about leverage. The money that a grant brings in allows you to do things that involve other people’s time and energy. Hence you can accomplish far more than you would by yourself. (And if you’re a faculty member, you might be so overloaded with stuff like teaching and committee work that your time for actually doing research is approaching nil).

The leverage you get involves not only money, but people. That sounds obvious, but the way I see some leaders treating their teams of people, it is obviously not obvious to everyone.

Money is a motivator for people, no doubt. But if you try to motivate us humans to succeed with money alone, you will fail in the long run. We will loose motivation.

You have to motivate people with things beyond money, i.e. being involved in something important and meaningful, being appreciated for the work done, being flexible and appreciating that people are not machines that can work around the clock with no breaks, and other intangibles like that.

And here’s the relation to grant writing. If you can manage to build a great team by doing these things the right way, you have a far better chance of getting your grant funded.

This comes from some reflection I’ve done about why some people who write a great grant still struggle getting it funded, whereas others seem to breeze through review to get funding. I reflect on my own successes and failures in getting funding. I’ve noticed a key element in the successes I’ve had: Building a team, and talking about that team in my proposal.

One of the key things that must go into any grant is “Who” – i.e. who is the applicant and are you credible? I go in depth with this concept both in my online grant writing course and in an upcoming book that I’m finishing (to be announced soon). But suffice it to say, without a solid “who,” it is nearly impossible to get funding.

And reviewers are smart (because “they” are “we”). We realize that if you’re a busy academic, you probably don’t have time to do the work yourself. We realize that to be successful, you will need a team of great people.

This is why the old adage that “it takes funding to get funding” is so often true. If you have funding and use it wisely, you will have a team in place for your next grant application. If you don’t have funding, then it’s likely you won’t have a team. Then when you apply for funding, your personnel section will be notably thin.

I realize that not everyone wants to build a team. Some of us want to go off and do our own research without anyone bothering us. If you want to do that, don’t take a tenure track faculty position! Instead, find a research scientist or research faculty position… Because if you’re on the tenure track, you will have to build a team to be successful in balancing all the demands thrown at you.

Here are a few ideas of how to build a great team:

1. Don’t rush your hiring decisions! Take your time to find great people, it never pays to be in a rush on this step.

2. Don’t rely on graduate students as just a source of “cheap labor.” “Cheap” comes with multiple costs, including the toll it takes on the student, and that students have many other demands placed upon them aside from just being your employee, so they can’t always focus on the things you want done. Additionally, students will graduate, leaving no continuity. Instead, consider adding a permanent staff member to your team. If you get a good one, you will find they have focus and continuity that grad students don’t have. When you do have graduate students, you will have a staff member “built in” to help train them and mentor them (since you’re probably too busy to do as much of that as you’d like).

3. Don’t be afraid to get rid of unproductive people on your team. This is one of the hardest things many of us face. Sometimes we can turn around an unproductive person with some additional coaching and interaction. But don’t let a bad situation fester just because you’re afraid to do something. This doesn’t help you, nor does it help the unproductive person – because if they are unproductive, there is something about the situation making them unhappy. Letting this persist will only harm you in the long run. The times I have not made the “hard” decision early on, I have very much regretted it later.

4. Treat people like people, not machines. People have lives. They need breaks and vacations. They need a family life. They need inspiration from you. If you treat them like a machine, expecting them to work 60+ hours a week constantly without a break and without any positive encouragement or inspiration, they will burn out (and likely come to resent you as well). A burned out, resentful employee is not a recipe for productivity, even if they are physically present all the time (because you require it). In the long run, you’ll face many more decisions of the step #3 variety of having to let people go. It is no fun, and it is not good for your long term productivity, so don’t do it.

If this concept team building to improve your grant funding and leverage resonates with you, I suggest that you do a short exercise right now. Sit down for a few minutes, and write out the expectations you’ve put forth for your team. Then read what you wrote, and assess whether you’re treating people like people, or like machines. Then make a decision to do at least one thing today that treats people more like people. For example, talk to someone who recently accomplished something good (even if it is small) and congratulate them and thank them for their good work.

You will feel better, and you will be amazed how those little things will help reenergize the person on the receiving end.

    2 replies to "The power of a team for getting your grant funded"

    • Donnie Berkholz

      Nice post. Do you think it’s appropriate to talk about your management style and experience in a grant proposal? If so, where would you put it?

      On a somewhat related note, could you please enable full text in your RSS feed so I don’t have to click over here to read it?

      • morgan

        Hey Donnie,

        I do think that you should _briefly_ discuss your management experience/style in a grant proposal, just in a low-key, matter-of-fact manner (don’t make it sound hypey).

        That’s because your credibility (Who you are) is a key aspect of grant reviewer’s decision making. It is important for reviewers to know that you have the experience and capability to pull off the research. So reminding them of this (again, only briefly) is a good thing.

        Sorry about the RSS feed thing – I thought I had activated that before, but I just checked, and had to reactivate. It should be working now. Please let me know if it is not.

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