by auxiliuminc-admin


no escaping engineering leadership

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—ordinary assignments for an entry-level engineer.

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 the work 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 more experienced team members. While the senior engineers took on the more difficult issues Eric encountered, he was responsible for the all these activities.

Abilities such as negotiating, planning and influencing are leadership and management competencies. The technical skills that an engineer’s job requires make up an essential but small percentage of the abilities an engineer needs for professional success. Interpersonal competencies, business acumen—and, yes, leadership and management ability—are all part of engineering work. As engineers advance in the profession, whether or not they’re headed into management or formal leadership roles, leadership and management ability becomes increasingly important.

Leadership vs. Management

I’ve been mentioning leadership and management together, but they’re not the same. Leaders often are visionary, influential, able to inspire others to share the vision. They communicate well—especially listening, they care about people and put effort into understanding others’ perspectives. They are adaptable and able to build consensus. They’re willing to take risks, knowing that risk is involved to achieve the vision. They support teams and enable success.

Managers, meanwhile, keep work organized, on track and efficient. They’re good at planning and facilitating team involvement to plan for successful outcomes. Managers must also facilitate good communication, prioritization of work, and removing obstacles.

This is just a short list of leadership and management oriented abilities. A common problem to be aware of is that in organizations that have project managers, those managers typically aren’t managing every day-to-day engineering detail. Someone must do that, and the responsibility often lies within the engineering team. Engineers should have exposure to practical, relevant project management best practices.

Balancing Technical, Leadership and Management Duties

Just staying sharp technically is challenging for most engineers, because technology is complex. It changes constantly and often rapidly. Adding leadership and management responsibilities to that can seem like a lot to ask. It only is if managers expect superhuman performance—leading complex projects and performing significant technical work. Technical leaders must manage, lead, and continue to be technically proficient, but it’s unrealistic to expect a heavy workload as both an individual contributor and a leader to continue indefinitely. Few exceptional leaders can do this, and expecting superhuman ability is not a good model.

A better model is to support leadership development so that engineers can always perform near their full potential, and to distribute leadership and management responsibilities.

How to Distribute Responsibilities

Ideally, functional managers recognize the full scope of leadership and management responsibility needed, and staff well-balanced teams. When that isn’t the case, technical leaders who know how to delegate and are comfortable doing that can negotiate with team members to accept responsibility. An important part of delegation ability is encouraging team members to be open and honest about how interested and prepared they are to take on those responsibilities. If delegation ability isn’t already part of your leadership toolbox, focusing on delegation competency should be a priority.

Also, engineers need to keep in mind that some aspects of leadership and management are already part of their job, and should be open-minded about increasing their abilities through opportunity for hands-on experience.

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 and managers make it a priority to continuously improve their leadership and management ability.

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