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SPIE Student Services and SPIE Professional Leadership Series

What Every Engineer Needs to Know about Leadership and Management

Continuously developing leadership and management skills should be a high priority for all engineers.

By Gary C. Hinkle

Eric's first week on the job as an engineer after graduating from college was full of leadership and management challenges-but he didn't realize this at the time. He was just getting the work done that he was told to do. Just ordinary work for an entry-level engineer.

On the surface, Eric's assignment didn't seem very challenging. He was asked to assist the lead engineer with the testing of a new product. A breakdown of Eric's tasks that first week, however, reveals the aspects of engineering work that are very much leadership and management oriented. His assignment included challenges such as:
  • Negotiating with Manufacturing for delivery of test units
  • Planning the flow of test units through the engineering lab
  • Influencing external resources to serve his needs quickly
  • Directing technicians regarding test procedures
  • Estimating time for completing tasks
  • Resolving conflicts and issues that were impeding progress

Eric was well-supported by the lead engineer, other senior staff members, and his manager. The senior engineers would take care of difficult issues related to Eric's work, but Eric was accountable for the fundamental tasks described here.

Skills such as negotiating, planning, and influencing are examples of leadership and management competencies. The technical skills that an engineer's job requires are really a small percentage of the competencies that are needed to be successful. Interpersonal competencies, business acumen, and, yes, leadership and management skills are all required in engineering work. As engineers advance in the profession, leadership and management competencies become more important, regardless of whether or not they are on the "management" track.

What is Management?

Two of the most fundamental definitions of management are "judicious use of means to accomplish an end," and "the activity of getting things done with the aid of people and other resources." Neither of these basic definitions of management is exclusive to people who hold jobs as managers.

"Management" includes the tasks we all do on the job to keep our work organized, on track, and efficient. Many competencies are required for successful management of work, and people serving in management roles need to be especially competent. A good manager of tasks must be good at:

  • Organizing
  • Planning
  • Estimating
  • Communicating/Documenting
  • Prioritizing
  • Self-management/Discipline
  • Assessing and mitigating risks

When managing people to any degree is involved, these competencies come into play:

  • Interpersonal skills
  • Conflict resolution
  • Mentoring
  • Coaching

These are just some of the skills that fall into the category of management competencies that apply to virtually all engineers. These skills are all important, but not everyone can be good at all of them. Just staying sharp from a technical perspective is challenging for most engineers because technology is complex and advances rapidly. Do the best job you can balancing technical skills with other important competencies, and be grateful that people who are better-suited for management generally have the bulk of these responsibilities.

How Leadership is Different than Management

Just as all engineers need management competencies to get work done, an entirely different set of skills are also important-leadership skills. Leadership is entirely interpersonal, but at a different level than the interpersonal competencies that are described above as "management."

Leadership is about influencing and directing others for a positive outcome. Dozens of individual characteristics pertaining to leadership are important. We'll address a relatively short list here. The table below shows the general expectations for leadership competencies in engineering and technical management roles.

These are generalized expectations, and shouldn't be viewed as being absolute. Engineers, for example, might demonstrate several of the characteristics that aren't checked. Executive leaders don't all leave a legacy.

Who Can Possibly Be Good at All This?

Almost nobody. Unfortunately there is an expectation at many tech companies for people to be superhuman. Engineers are often expected to lead complex projects while doing technical work. Technical managers are expected to manage and lead, while remaining technically proficient. It's only reasonable to expect proficiency in a broad range of competencies to a certain point. The solution for covering all the necessary leadership and management functions is not to hire superhuman employees-the sensible solution is distributing the workload.

When this isn't naturally occurring under the guidance of upper management, middle managers and individual contributors need to take charge of ensuring that people aren't stretched too far above their abilities and that all the project responsibilities are covered by someone.

How to Distribute Responsibilities

Managers should fully understand the leadership and management competencies that are needed to execute projects and objectives, and delegate responsibilities that are not the best fit for their own skills and interests. Team members should be open and honest about their interest level regarding opportunities for leadership and management responsibilities.

Engineers need to keep in mind that leadership and management are part of their job, so not having these responsibilities is not really an option. What is optional, however, are the specific leadership and management characteristics they will be accountable for in their engineering roles.

When managers delegate responsibilities, team members should communicate issues and concerns when they are recipients of delegated assignments. Managers should be sensitive to any issues and concerns, and make appropriate adjustments. Sometimes negotiation is necessary. Yet another leadership competency!

If your job description sounds anything like Eric's, leading and managing is an important part of your role. Continuously developing leadership and management skills should be a high priority for all engineers.

Gary C. Hinkle
Gary C. Hinkle is president and founder of Auxilium Inc., where his 23 years of engineering, management, training, and consulting experience help clients improve their business and interpersonal skills. You can reach Hinkle at gary@auxilium-inc.com.  

Posted August 2007.

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