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Statistical Leadership: Developing Leaders Through ASA Service

1 March 2012 1,710 views No Comment
Robert Rodriguez


Last month, I discussed the shortage of leaders in our profession and described innovative courses that prepare students for future leadership roles. This month, I focus on ways in which ASA service offers opportunities for developing leadership potential.

All of us should participate actively in chapters, committees, and sections as a way to give back to our profession. And for students, who wonder about the benefits of ASA membership after graduation, we need to emphasize how participation can result in leadership skills and experience that they are unlikely to acquire elsewhere.

Career-minded students and younger statisticians often ask me questions about how to develop as leaders. Because their questions are so thought-provoking, I decided to pose them to a panel of four highly accomplished statistical leaders. Two of them, Nat Schenker and Stephanie Shipp, are candidates for president in this year’s ASA election, and two of them, Roxy Peck and Jim Rosenberger, are candidates for vice president. Here, they explain how they became leaders and join me in encouraging younger colleagues to grow into leadership roles.

As a student and early in your career, did you envision yourself as a future leader?

    Voting: Your Contribution to Statistical Leadership
    Please cast your vote in this year’s ASA election and remind others to do so. It is easy to vote electronically, and you will receive instructions by email. By voting, you not only help select our leaders, but you ultimately encourage many members to serve in leadership positions.

      Voter participation is an important measure of the health of our association. The participation rate has doubled since we introduced electronic voting in 2008 (see table). This year, let’s set a new record!

        Roxy Peck: My graduate program was pretty traditional, and there was no course on consulting or ‘people’ skills. One course that helped was a required seminar course. We had to present several colloquium talks and then everyone would tear them apart—commenting on everything from presentation style to handwriting! It was very traumatic! The department chair at the time was F. N. David, and she repeatedly told us that the reason for this class was that she was determined that we were not going to embarrass her when we went on job interviews. But, I did learn presentation skills, how to face a rowdy group, and how not to lose my cool even in antagonistic settings!

        Jim Rosenberger: I was not actively involved in leadership positions as a student, but rather focused more on academic pursuits. One might now call me a nerd, spending more time in the library than the coffee shop, and also not actively involved in competitive sports. However, I was always motivated by my upbringing to try to leave the world a better place and contribute to the activities around me.

        Nat Schenker: The short answer is “no,” but I liked to interact with people, and I engaged in a few activities that gave me early leadership experience. As an undergraduate at Princeton, I organized and was captain of the statistics department basketball team (the Normal Deviates) in the intramural league. As a graduate student at The University of Chicago, I helped organize the statistics department’s spring picnics. And while in my first job after graduate school, at the U.S. Census Bureau, I organized a JSM invited paper session.

        Stephanie Shipp: I joined the ASA early in my career and began to participate in ASA activities. My favorite part of being an ASA member is to meet and get to know statisticians and work with them on different activities. My energy comes from working with new people and leading new initiatives. Perhaps my curiosity just led to leadership. I have always been interested in the principles of leadership, believing that both leaders and followers need to understand what makes a good leader.

        In your work as a statistician, what was your first significant leadership responsibility?

          Jim Rosenberger: My first work as a statistician was at NYU Medical Center, working as a data analyst, a job I acquired based mostly on my skills as a computer programmer after my bachelor’s degree. I earned respect in this work by my commitment to accuracy and integrity about what could be inferred from the data. This position convinced me to return to graduate school at Cornell to pursue the PhD degree in statistics.

          Nat Schenker: Perhaps it was teaching biostatistics as a faculty member at UCLA. Teachers lead students in learning, and many skills that are important for teaching—communicating well, motivating students, creating good learning environments, treating students equitably, “delegating” by encouraging students to figure things out on their own, and evaluating students’ performance—are similar to skills that are important for leadership in other jobs. Some of those skills came naturally to me, and I’d also developed some of them as a graduate student (e.g., as a TA). Others had to be learned on the job, and I found advice from more senior faculty members to be helpful.

          Stephanie Shipp: In one of my first jobs as a research assistant at the Federal Reserve Board, I was asked to organize and execute a project to track the history of economic indicators. I remember being given broad guidance but also the freedom to complete the task as I thought best. I learned from this assignment that leading is about creating an environment where a person owns the project, yet has sufficient guidance and resources to move forward—something I have tried to emulate during my government career and in leadership positions at the ASA.

          Roxy Peck: Early in my career, I was appointed to a lot of university committees. There weren’t many women on the faculty at Cal Poly at the time, but the administration believed every committee needed to include at least one woman. And I was too naïve to realize I could say no! But all this committee work did lead to visibility at the university, and my first significant leadership role was when I was asked to become chair of the statistics department. I was chair for six years and then became the associate dean for the College of Science and Mathematics. To be successful in these positions, things that were important were to listen, to be open to changing your mind, and to be organized and set priorities. These skills aren’t necessarily ones that can be taught, but rather things to be conscious of—I discovered I wasn’t always doing these things well at first and that these were things I needed to work on. I practiced saying, “That’s a really good idea that I hadn’t thought of. Maybe I should rethink this!”

          Tell us about your first leadership position in the ASA.

            Nat Schenker: While at UCLA, I’d been an associate editor for JASA Applications and Case Studies for a year or so when Cliff Clogg (A&CS editor) and Don Guthrie (Review editor) asked me to be editor for a JASA special section (published in 1993) on census undercount, a topic on which I’d worked in my Census Bureau job. This was a major project (e.g., I had seven associate editors), involving a lot of work, but I found it rewarding in many ways. For example, the special section helped to disseminate statistical science and publicize an important contribution of statistics to society. Moreover, I learned a lot about statistics, editing, organization, management, and especially diplomacy.

            Stephanie Shipp: Eva Jacobs introduced me to the Caucus for Women in Statistics when I first joined the ASA. The caucus leadership asked me to be the editor and produce a quarterly newsletter, which I agreed to do. This stretched me and took time, but was an important start in my evolution as a leader within the ASA. From that experience, I would advise anyone starting a new career to take advantage of these opportunities. As a result of this introduction, I have met and worked with many interesting and wonderful statisticians.

            Roxy Peck: One of my first leadership roles at ASA was as JSM program chair for the Statistics Education Section. This introduced me to many people that have since had a big impact on my professional life, including the folks in the ASA Center for Statistics Education.

            Jim Rosenberger: My first involvement with ASA was as a council member in 1983–1984. However, of more significance was volunteering in 1993 to co-edit the Statistical Computing and Statistical Graphics Newsletter, which was the first step toward a series of leadership positions in the Statistical Computing Section of the ASA: program chair-elect/chair in 1996–1997 and section chair-elect/chair in 1998–1999. My colleague Cliff Clogg was most encouraging of my stepping into these roles and demonstrated, by his own dedicated life, how much one can contribute to the world by volunteering in a wide variety of ways to the profession and society.

            How has your leadership ability evolved and grown by serving in a variety of ASA positions?

              Stephanie Shipp: Having served in a variety of ASA positions, I learned about leadership from leading and being led. I often think about what motivates me. I believe that I learned many things from these experiences and that good leaders set the stage to try new ideas, celebrate progress, get to know and understand their colleagues, and provide others with opportunities to lead.

              Roxy Peck: Because I enjoy working with the ASA and think that the association serves an important function, I have served the ASA in a variety of positions on committees, sections, and councils. Through this service, I have learned a lot about how to work effectively with volunteers that have many other demands on their time and who are rarely in the same place at the same time. This taught me how to ‘lead from a distance’ and has helped me to improve my electronic communication skills.

              Jim Rosenberger: Serving on and chairing various committees (e.g., Management Committee of the Journal of Computational and Graphical Statistics, ASA Publications Management Committee, and the ASA E-Publications Task Force) was useful for developing leadership skills. Working with other seasoned leaders (e.g., Fred Mosteller and Marvin Zelen) during a postdoc year provided great mentoring for me in my early years. Beyond the ASA, my leadership role as department head at Penn State provided many opportunities to shape the development of our department. And from 1998–2000, I served as a statistics program director at the NSF, during which I chaired the NSF Working Group for the Mathematical Sciences, an initiative that contributed to doubling the budget of the Division of Mathematical Sciences over the next five years.

              Nat Schenker: ASA service has helped to develop my leadership ability in many ways. In addition to the types of skills mentioned in my answer to the previous question, I’ve become better at leading meetings and creating assignments for people (e.g., by chairing committees and other groups). Working with volunteers who already have full-time jobs has also helped me to be more patient and considerate of people’s workloads. Finally, as I’ve progressed to higher-level positions such as ASA vice president, I’ve learned how to think broadly and strategically without becoming too bogged down in details. This has been helpful in my current position as a senior staff member at the National Center for Health Statistics.

              What advice would you give students or younger statisticians who are interested in statistical leadership, but don’t think of themselves as born leaders?

                Roxy Peck: The best advice I can give students or early career statisticians who are interested in statistics leadership is to volunteer. This is especially important for folks who may be isolated geographically or professionally. Seek out people who are doing the things you would like to do and ask them what you can do to get involved. Pick one ASA committee or section that interests you and let them know you want to get involved. Be visible!

                Jim Rosenberger: I like to encourage students to volunteer for positions in which they can contribute to the life of their fellow students. At the undergraduate level, this has been the Stat Club, which requires officers and volunteers to plan events. At the graduate level, our department, like many, has student-organized seminars, which are planned by graduate students, and a variety of social events so important to a supportive community that each year brings in new members who need to learn and contribute to the culture of the department.

                Most recently, I have run for elective office at the local level and find that, as a statistician, I have a useful perspective to add to the discussion and resolution of public policy issues. Being data focused and empirical in orientation is helpful in balancing the often competing interests that need to be resolved in setting public policy and budgets. I find it satisfying to be able to contribute to my local community in this way, similiar to how I have contributed in my professional life.

                Nat Schenker: Early in your career, volunteer for some smaller projects, such as organizing a session for a conference or helping with activities in your local chapter. If you’re diligent in those projects, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to take on more major roles later. That’s what happened to me, and as I ‘moved up the ladder,’ I found it helpful to observe and evaluate the leadership methods and styles of others, to learn both what to do and what to avoid. Serving as a volunteer leader can be time consuming, but it adds stimulating variety to what I do as a statistician and it’s been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career.

                Stephanie Shipp: Get involved with the statistics community. This can be at the local or national level. Attend seminars and meetings and introduce yourself. Organize a session for the Joint Statistical Meetings on a topic of interest to you. This gives you a reason to get to know experts in your field as well as improve your leadership and organizational skills.

                Always be learning. Whether reading or taking classes or talking with colleagues, make the time and effort to learn. Two pivotal events changed my focus—taking a course on quality assurance (by Deming himself!) and going back to school for a doctorate degree at mid-career, which led to new opportunities at multiple agencies and now the Science & Technology Policy Institute.

                Seek input from others. Often, those who are most skeptical or critical are your best teachers and your best sources of new ideas. And when you do seek input or others seek your ideas, focus and listen carefully. As a younger (and wise) colleague reminds me, to listen carefully is to lead.


                I want to thank Jim, Nat, Roxy, and Stephanie. Their stories illustrate three points about the path to statistical leadership that are especially helpful for students and younger statisticians. First, the skills you need can be developed along the way—you don’t need to be a born leader. Second, diligence in ASA service will increasingly reward you with valuable skills, advice, and visibility that complement your work experience. And third, the way to get started is to volunteer!

                Next month, I will conclude this series on statistical leadership by sharing the perspectives of several past ASA presidents.

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