By Gary C. Hinkle
After graduating from college, Eric’s first week on the job as an engineer presented several leadership and management challenges— but he didn’t realize at the time that’s what they were. He was just getting the work done that he was told to do, just ordinary assignments for an entry-level engineer…or so he thought.
Eric was asked to assist the lead engineer with the testing of a new product. However, a closer look at his tasks that first week reveals aspects of engineering work that are very much leadership- and management-oriented:
Negotiating with manufacturing for delivery of test units
Planning the flow of test units through the engineering lab
Influencing external resources—that is, persuading them to get done quickly
Directing technicians, instructing them how to follow test procedures
Estimating time to complete tasks
Resolving conflicts that were impeding progress
The lead engineer supported Eric’s work, as did his manager and other senior staff members. While the senior engineers took on difficult issues Eric encountered, he was accountable for the all the responsibilities described above.
Skills such as negotiating, planning and influencing are leadership and management competencies. The technical skills that an engineer’s job requires make up an important but small percentage of the abilities an engineer needs for professional success. Interpersonal competencies, business acumen—and, yes, leadership and management skills—are all required in engineering work. As engineers advance in the profession, whether or not they’re headed into management, leadership and management competencies become even more important.
Leadership vs. Management
I’ve been talking about “leadership and management” together here, but they’re not the same. Leaders often are visionary and are good at inspiring others to share the vision. They communicate well, understand where others “are coming from,” are adaptable, and able to build consensus. They’re often good at assessing—and taking—risks, and making sure others are prepared to act. Managers, meanwhile, keep work organized, on track and efficient. In the words of Warren Bennis in his book On Becoming a Leader, leaders focus “on the horizon” while managers keep their eye “on the bottom line.” Managers “accept the status quo” while leaders challenge it. Managers “do things right”; leaders “do the right things.” Both are needed.
Many competencies are required for successful management of work, and people serving in management roles need to be especially good at:
Communicating / Documenting
When managing people is involved, resolving conflict, mentoring and coaching others are also essential.
Just staying sharp technically is challenging for most engineers, because technology is complex and it changes constantly and rapidly. Adding leadership and management responsibilities to that can be a lot to ask. Many tech companies expect superhuman job performance—leading complex projects and performing technical work. Tech managers must manage, lead, and continue to be technically proficient, but it’s unrealistic to expect a high level of performance as both an individual contributor and a leader to continue indefinitely.
The solution isn’t to hire superhuman employees, nor is it to expect that the current employees fit the superhuman profile. The way to do it is to:
1) Develop engineers’ leadership potential and
2) Distribute the workload responsibilities.
How to Distribute Responsibilities
Managers who understand the leadership and management competencies needed to execute effectively can delegate some of these responsibilities. Team members should be open and honest about how interested they are—and how prepared they are—to take on those responsibilities. Engineers need to keep in mind, however, that some aspects of leadership and management are part of their job, so saying “no” to these responsibilities is not really an option. What is an option is to develop the specific leadership and management characteristics they will need in their engineering roles.
When managers delegate leadership and management responsibilities, they should listen to any issues and concerns and make appropriate adjustments. Sometimes negotiation is necessary — and, of course, negotiating is yet another leadership competency!
If your job description sounds anything like Eric’s, leading and managing is an important part of your job every day. That’s why effective, career-focused engineers make it a priority to develop and improve their leadership and management skills, and engineering managers in successfully-led organizations make it a priority, too.