Why Engineers Don’t Want to be Promoted

By Gary Hinkle

 

Most engineers are unhappy with the “promotion” to manager, according to Michael Aucoin in his book From Engineer to Manager: Mastering the Transition.

“Much of this frustration is the result of lack of preparation and training,” he writes. He also cites a survey conducted by the IEEE in which 70% of respondents said they were performing some supervisory work. Does that mean many engineers are frustrated in management and supervisory roles?

Maybe.

How can you help engineering top talent want to move into leadership roles? And once they’re there, how can you help them flourish? It starts by recognizing what the challenges are, and how your engineers view those challenges as well as your organization’s willingness to make it a place where engineering managers can be effective.

Here’s what makes engineering management such a challenging job:

* An engineering manager needs soft skills. Too much emphasis is placed on technical ability as a primary job requirement. But without the ability to influence others, make decisions, manage many priorities, and communicate well, all the top-notch technical skills in the world aren’t going to be much help.

* Senior management’s expectations are unrealistic. It’s unusual to find a perfect package—an engineering manager who has ideal technical, business and leadership skills all rolled into one. But it doesn’t mean organizations don’t expect to find this wonder-blend. Engineering managers have to be able to—and must be encouraged to—delegate. Their managers need to be supportive of delegating work to other qualified people. Expecting an experienced engineer to be the go-to person for the technical problems and a strong business manager and a visionary leader is unrealistic.

* The engineering manager role lacks P/L responsibility. Without direct responsibility for profit and loss, engineering managers aren’t viewed as strategic leaders. They often don’t receive the same level of support, recognition, raises, and promotions their peers in Sales or Marketing enjoy.

What can you do about all this? Some remedies:

1) Align resources well.

Encourage engineering managers to delegate so they can capitalize on their own strengths. If their strength is leadership, they can delegate “management” functions such as scheduling, project planning details, etc. The more experienced engineers should be serving as project leaders, maybe even taking on some of the “management” responsibilities.

If an engineering group is responsible for more than a couple of major projects, fully dedicated project managers should manage projects, rather than expecting an engineering manager to be responsible for managing all the projects.

2) Foster professionalism and trust.

Expect a high level of professionalism from engineering managers, and treat them as professionals. They are, after all, highly educated and well-paid. In my work with clients, I see far too many cases where executive management creates or sustains an environment where these highly paid professionals believe their professionalism is in question; they think they aren’t trusted. Management seldom realizes this perception even exists.

Trust makes all the difference. Teamwork expert Patrick Lencioni emphasizes the importance of trust, and he says lack of trust is the fundamental “dysfunction” that hinders most teams. Build rapport among associates, which includes open-door policies and executives who are available, who demonstrate MBWA.

3) Invest in soft skills.

While technical professionals need a combination of technical, business, and interpersonal skills, engineering managers should focus on the skills that will help them grow as key leaders of your business.

Yet some engineering managers hesitate to venture down the leadership path. Their technical skills got them where they are, and they’ll continue to place high value on those skills. When technically proficient engineering managers aren’t willing to expand their expertise and step up to leadership, maybe they’re not the best fit for the engineering management role.

Before sending your engineering manager to the next technical conference, consider sending an individual contributor engineer to the conference and send the manager to leadership development. Budget at least $3000 annually for the professional development of each engineering manager. In my experience consulting in engineering organizations, I’ve learned it’s not uncommon for companies to spend over $5000 annually to train and develop key individuals.

4) Be realistic.

There’s an Epidemic of Disbelief in industry—that is, project estimates (from experts who are actually doing the work) conflict with mandated schedules. Essentially, it’s a trust issue, or perhaps a distrust issue, when experts’ realistic estimates are questioned by eager executives who want things done faster. Engineering managers often find themselves between a boulder and a hard place.

Trust that estimates are valid unless there are real reasons not to. When estimates don’t line up with business priorities, put the effort into making project plans realistic.

Lack of trust works both ways. When business leaders set unrealistic expectations, it seems they distrust the estimates their experts provided. If leaders distrust employees, employees will lack faith in their leadership.

5) Offer benefits other than pay.

There’s more to appreciation than a paycheck. What else do technical managers appreciate? Recognition. That’s not the same thing as praise, but instead an informed recognition of a job well done. And they really appreciate when adequate resources are allocated to their projects.

It’s easy to figure out what benefits your engineering managers will appreciate. Just ask them! You’ll probably learn that some of the most important perks that will boost their enthusiasm are easy and inexpensive. Examples I’ve experienced as powerful morale boosters include informal recognition events, flex time or comp time, food items, and gift cards.

Recognition, reality-check, resources, and trust levels all taken together comprise an environment where engineers will look forward to leadership opportunities.

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