Life at Benchling
Leading By Example: What Leadership Means to Benchling’s Dr. Lauren Shields
About Dr. Shields
Dr. Lauren Shields is the Regional Lead of Customer Success at Benchling. After first receiving her BS in Biology at MIT, she was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to research glucose-sensing neurons at the Université de Lausanne in Switzerland. Dr. Shields went on to attain her PhD at UCSF with the Gladstone Institute, where her research focused on metabolic pathways, mitochondria, and their influence in Alzheimer’s disease. After her PhD, Dr. Shields joined Benchling and has helped shape the company, lead the customer experience function, and support the research of countless scientists.
Dr. Shields's Journey at Benchling
Q: To start things off, tell us a bit about how you’ve grown with Benchling over the last four years that you’ve been working here.
I started as a scientist, which really meant I was on a science team of two. I was the second PhD we'd ever hired. About six months in, I found that I really had a passion for working with our customers and transitioned to working on our Customer Success team. My title didn't change, but my day to day really shifted, and I worked more in our customer success manager role at the time, which would be the most analogous.
When I hit about two years at Benchling, I was promoted to be our head of customer success for the East coast. So, I started building out our Boston office for implementations and building our customer experience team. Then a few months ago, as we started to build our true customer success organization, I transitioned to being a regional lead in professional services.
Q: That’s quite the trajectory! So, coming from academia, what were your expectations coming into Benchling?
I was very naive. I wanted to learn more about 'business'. I felt I had some soft skills that I didn’t get to use enough when I was in academia – working with people, presenting, communicating. I wanted to find a way to apply these and still use my science background. Customer experience was the right venue for me and six months in, I came to [Benchling’s President] Ashu one day and I said, 'I've really loved working with our clients. I think the team needs more people. Could I move into that space?'
And he said, 'Yes.'
"I wanted to find a way to apply these and still use my science background. Customer experience was the right venue for me and six months in, I came to [Benchling’s President] Ashu one day and I said, 'I've really loved working with our clients. I think the team needs more people. Could I move into that space?'
And he said, 'Yes.'"
Q: And then what did next steps look like after that? Is that when the team started to grow a lot more?
At that time we were a team of three or four. We were really trying to get our feet under us for how we did implementations with customers. Benchling Registry was only a year old. We were about to launch two new products, Workflows and Requests. And that was really, I would say, the first six, even twelve months of my time in the Customer Success team.
And then from there, we figured out our view on how we launch. ‘Okay, how do we scale? And how do we do that to support our next wave of big customers?’ When I joined it was four, we're almost sixty now as a team.
Fostering Professional Growth and Leadership
Q: That is an incredible accomplishment to grow from three to four to that large size. What challenges did you encounter along that trajectory? What type of support did you receive from the Benchling leadership to overcome and learn from those challenges?
One challenge is the scaling that our whole company is going through. I talked about it a little bit with the numbers of our team, a lot of that has been in recent days, over the past year, year and a half.
So the challenge is, ‘How do we bring in new people at such a rapid rate and make sure that they're successful? How do we also continue to evolve the team to handle all our new customers? When I joined, we had 15ish customers, and now we have more than 350. How do we make sure they all feel supported, while at the same time making sure our team feels supported? How do we make sure that they have their own growth paths and that we're maintaining the culture and the other aspects that we care about as the team grows?’
Q: So, how, as a leader in your department, do you enable that type of growth on your team?
I encourage my team to think through the same strategies that have made me successful at Benchling. Take a step back from your day to day. What things do you enjoy about your day to day and wish you could do more of? What would you want to do less of? What skills would you want to learn, and where do you get excited about learning those? And then I start from that point and we figure out, ‘Okay, what opportunities are there that match what you just told me?’
Sometimes I may not have a clear line of sight into what those paths could be. And so I encourage them to talk to other leaders. Go talk to the senior leadership we've been bringing in, or to other teams, or talk to our execs and get their perspective.
Q: Recently, we rolled out a new set of leadership principles at Benchling. What are some real life examples of how our leadership principles at Benchling guide your decisions as a manager?
One of our new principles is obsess over the customers, so obviously that's a big one for customer experience. As a leader, it’s on me to make it clear to our team that our ultimate goal is just making our customers successful, and going above and beyond to make that happen. By making that the North Star of our team, we’ve been able to build really strong relationships with our customers. Ultimately I think that’s a really big part of what makes Benchling special.
“As a leader, it’s on me to make it clear to our team that our ultimate goal is just making our customers successful, and going above and beyond to make that happen. By making that the North Star of our team, we’ve been able to build really strong relationships with our customers. Ultimately I think that’s a really big part of what makes Benchling special.”
Q: Are there any stories that come to mind of when you really saw this happening on your team?
I have a very recent one that's top of mind. So, we have a customer where very late in an implementation, they came up with a new set of requirements that they wanted to get on Benchling. I'll call out a couple of team members. One of them was Michael Wu, who went above and beyond both last week and this week as we're thinking about solutions for them. He presented them both internally and externally to the customer and did a great job.
Another one of our leadership principles – showing empathy – plays into this as well. Other team members are always happy to jump into these situations. So, Namitha, who's one of my newest team members – and who has not worked with this customer at all but has technical skill sets – was happy and excited to jump in to figure out if we can build them a light integration. And I think that that empathy helps our team bolster each other and also helps us obsess over the customer. It helps us deliver when people are always happy to jump in, help each other, and even just give perspective and advice, or even shoulder some of the work.
All of that really feeds into the ultimate leadership principle that I emphasize with my team, which is unite around the mission. That's why we're all here, across all our teams. Even if the day-to-day goals may differ between professional services and a different department, the end goal that we're working toward is always the same: to accelerate the pace of life science research.
Q: How do these values and culture set Benchling apart from past employers or past professional experiences?
The biggest one is us having a really clear, unified mission. As I think back to my time at the graduate level, obviously we're all trying to move science forward, but each of us are trying to finish our own body of work. And at Benchling, we take that mission higher than that. We're all trying to make our customers successful and have a positive impact on scientific research. It means that people are more likely to emphasize that greater good over their own individual needs, and that's stood out for me throughout my time. And it's something that's really been constant and maintained even as we've grown.
Q: So, I want to talk about the company’s stability and success over the longer term. How has Benchling’s leadership shaped the company during your tenure here?
Two particular ways that are important come to mind. One of which is leading by example. For instance, I remember in some of my early days, I was working really closely with Ashu at the time and it was me and him on the ground in front of this customer, as we were launching Benchling Workflows. Four different teams were implementing it all at once with this customer and I was handling all of them.
Frankly, Ashu saw me struggling as I was preparing to get in front of the customer. He said, ‘You know what? I'm going to run one of those four sessions.’ There was no ego. It was all humility, this mentality of, ‘I'm happy to step in, I'm not above any of my work, and I'm willing to lead by example.’ That's always the case with Benchling leadership.
“All of that really feeds into the ultimate leadership principle that I emphasize with my team, which is unite around the mission. That's why we're all here, across all our teams. Even if the day-to-day goals may differ between professional services and a different department, the end goal that we're working toward is always the same: to accelerate the pace of life science research.”
Q: And so, you’ve seen Benchling through a lot of growth and have seen its impact grow over time. Where do you think we’ll be in five years?
There are two visions that I'm shamelessly stealing from the mission and vision that Saji and Ashu have painted.
One of which is, let's talk about a big biopharma company, a Merck of the world or a Roche. We envision them having their entire research, development, and manufacturing processes all in Benchling. So, the tech transfer between those teams is seamless, understanding how a candidate gets from initial discovery all the way to formulation of a product that goes to a patient – it’s all interconnected, and it’s easy to find that information. That's one side of the coin of the vision.
The other side is - how do we help nascent companies? The overhead of starting in the biotech space is very high. It's a lot of money to open a lab. I’m envisioning a future where someone with a scientific idea and a way to help humankind and human health is able to set up a Benchling account and run their entire virtual lab through Benchling. Run experiments, send them out to CROs, find collaborators who they can work with who have wet-bench space, and reduce the friction of discovery and putting those ideas into action.