Excerpts from the Speech given at Association of Professional Engineers Trinidad and Tobago 57th Annual Awards and Honour Function.
I have worked with engineers for most of my working career in the old and gas sector. These women and men are absolutely brilliant. Yet I have witnessed many A class Engineers struggle to become A class managers. Therefore I can only ask “Is leadership the Engineer’s Kryptonite?”
I reached out via Linked In to some of my engineering colleagues around the world and posed two questions:
- What are the challenges that engineers face when they get into management/ Leadership positions?
- What are the three pieces of advice that you will give an engineer who is moving into a leadership[/ management position?
I will reframe the feedback and the remedies using my Organisational Development language. The three challenges the engineer faces are
- Leadership style
- Thingification of the organisation
- Understanding the field
Engineers are promoted to management as a reward for a performing a technical job well ( thus far this is the way that organisations have figured this out). As a result the engineer steps into leadership, behaving the way that he always has, doing the things that have worked well for him, in the past.
She acts as a hero – A great engineer knows everything about her job. She has many years’ experience and knows exactly what to do. Just as Superman does not allow the firemen to extinguish the flames of the burning building, this manager tells team members what to do, without allowing team members to problem solve. She is impatient with failure, since she preferences success over failure’s value as a learning tool. She misses the field work and compensates by micro managing teams and getting involved with the minutiae of daily activities. Some of these heroes do not share knowledge and as a result, team members are often frustrated. While they admire and respect the manager’s intelligence and experience, they are concerned that they won’t develop the talents that will in turn make them great engineers.
He is a shadow leader – This manager stands with his back to the sun, casting a long shadow over the team. These managers want mini-mes, they want team members to act and think like them and to do things the way that they do them. They forget that they have the benefit of experience and that they were allowed to hone their own personal style.
He displays Paternalism This attitude is reflected in the manager’s thinking that he “knows best” or “it’s my way or the highway”. This leads to the stifling of the opinions and the eventual dumbing down of the team members. How would you know if you are paternalistic? If you find yourself saying “ after all I have done for them” or referring to team members as “ungrateful” or “selfish” then you may be paternalistic.
Some remedies for these afflictions are:
Be a Host not a Hero – if ever you went to or hosted a great party you know what to do. A great host selects the guest list, ensures that the food choices cater for religious restrictions and allergies, introduces people to each other, then leaves guests to enjoy the party even while keeping a watchful eye. The manager who acts as a host supports the growth and development of team members, helps them to network and keeps a birds eye view on what is happening with the team.
Let the sunlight fall on team members instead of casting shadows. Allow team members to develop their own style and support them to do so. Allow them to be recognised for doing great things. They won’t steal your thunder, because every win for a team member is a win for you as leader.
Build adult to adult relationships with team members. They are not kids. These are people who balance budgets, take care of households and care for aging parents. They deserve to have their intelligence and creativity honoured and to be treated with dignity in our interactions with them.
Thingification of an organisation – Engineers deal with things. Therefore leading teams provides a contradictory experience. Gone is the high probability of the consequences of actions and decisions taken, since an organisation is not a thing. An organisation comprises of humans who are interrelating and interacting through communication with each other along the parameters of process, function or department of the organisations’ structure. This creates situations of high unpredictability since different people react differently to different situations.
Engineers are great at fixing things and slowly he comes to realise that he can’t fix people, and there is no formula that serves all people.
A manager needs to work on his relationships with the individuals in his team. He needs to understand what makes each team member tick and motivate each of them from this place. The manager can view himself as a mentor and adopt this attitude when dealing with his people. Leaders can take the opportunity to self reflect and do the personal work that may be getting in the way of their own professional development. Wherever we go we take all of whom we are so the messiness of our personal situations if not resolved eventually seep unto the jobs.
Understand the field. Systems theorists share that we are all connected to multi systems. For example, an engineering manager is part of his engineering team, and also part of the management team, which is nested in your organisation. The organisation is part of an industry sector which belongs to all businesses operating in Trinidad. All businesses are part of Trinidad and Tobago, nested within the Caribbean and the wider world. This means that a manager now bumps up against other systems that he did not have to engage with when he was an engineer. When I worked in oil and gas I had many interesting interactions with engineers. When a piece of equipment needed replacing, engineers did wonderful research to identify what was the most technologically advanced piece of equipment. As an accountant my interest was in three things. Is it within budget? What is the return on investment? What is the payback period? My selection process was based on highest return on investment, the shortest payback period and the cost within budget. Engineer managers need to have similar dialogues with other non technical managers in their respective fields. As part of a management team he is expected to understand that the business needs are beyond the newest technology. He needs to appreciate that there are external and internal stakeholders who may not be part of the daily operations but whose decisions impact on what occurs on a daily basis. Those of us who operate in multinationals know that an event that occurs in China may impact on local business decisions.
The Manager is advised to expand his professional networks, both within and external to the organisation, to include non technical professionals. Expand the reading base beyond Popular Mechanics to include management and leadership information. And while in transition from technical expert to manager get a mentor or a coach.
All is not lost for the engineering manager because he / she can decide that he/she wants to be a better leader and this is a powerful first step. Some questions to assist with the transition will be:
How do you define leadership?
What is your reason for leading a team?
What is your stance as a manager/leader?
Maxine Attong is the author of two books – Change or Die – The Business Process Improvement Manual and Lead Your Team to Win. She works with leaders to create more effective and efficient organisations. She is a Keynote Speaker, a Gestalt Organisational Development Consultant, a Certified Professional Facilitation, Evidence Based Coach and a Certified Accountant.