Professional development is crucial for engineering managers
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Professional development is crucial for engineering managers climbing the career ladder, to enable them to progress as their work and responsibilities change.
For Katherine Jackson, technical director of energy at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, professional development has played a crucial role throughout her career.
Originally sponsored by engineering congolmerate GEC Alstom to study electrical engineering at UK-based University of Manchester, she leapt straight into the company’s power station projects division after graduating. Within ten years, she was heading up a group of power systems and protection engineers, she then went on to join engineering consultancy Kennedy & Donkin.
In the late 1990s, the UK consultancy was acquired by Canada-based engineering design consultancy WSP | Parson Brinckerhoff and Jackson took the role of principal power systems engineer.
“Here I was tackling a wider range of power system work for a variety of clients and again progressed into a line-management role while still delivering technical work,” she says.
“Along the way, professional development has helped me to develop the skills I needed to progress my career,” she highlights. “In the last 12 months I have moved to the role of technical director of UK energy business.”
Throughout her career, Jackson has participated in numerous industry activities and conferences, presenting reports and papers. She has chaired IET committees, taking on strategic and budgetary responsibilities, sat on editorial advisory panels for peer-reviewed journals and interviewed candidates for professional registration.
“The professional development gained through the IET and industrial activities has ensured that I have continued to learn and remain up-to-date technically,” she says. “This is crucially important when working in engineering consultancy, since we are selling our expertise.”
Jackson’s colleague and learning and development specialist at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, Emily Mahoney, concurs, saying: “Our technical excellence and quality of delivery relies on our expertise... so it is important to that our employees achieve professional registration.”
To this end, the company has forged links with many professional institutions and sends employees to regularly accredited training schemes developed by the IET, IMechE, ICE, CIBSE, IChemE, CIWEM and more. The company also ensures senior staff are ‘at the top of the professional registration ladder’ so as to help other staff members become professionally registered.
“We recently launched an in-house soft skills workshop to equip senior staff with the tools to support others through professional registration,” says Mahoney.
Like WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, global design, engineering and project management consultancy Atkins first encourages workers to achieve professional registration. Employees work towards a range of statuses including Chartered Engineer, Incorporated Engineer, Engineering Technician, Chartered Surveyor and Chartered Scientist.
“These qualifications are an independent recognition of competence and so have national and, in many cases, international currency with our clients,” says Phil Davis, Atkins’ director of technical learning and development.
“They provide a helpful target for the initial professional development of apprentices and graduates and signify the individual is ‘consciously competent’,” he adds. “This means the employee is aware of their limits of competence, which is vital in managing risk.”
Beyond professional registration, Atkins offers apprentice and graduate development programmes, which include technical report writing and compliance training as well as the chance to develop ‘softer’ skills such as client engagement. Three-month electives in different company sectors are available, as is online career support, with high recognition including continuous professional development and fellowships encouraged among more senior staff.
“Our leadership development is focused on equipping our leaders to meet future growth challenges,” says Davis. “Areas such as adaptive leadership, commercial innovation, inspirational leadership, client value propositions and digital technology are all key in achieving our strategy for growth.”
Likewise, WSP | Parson Brinckerhoff provides a myriad of professional courses to apprentices and graduates and ensures that progress continues to senior managers.
As Mahoney points out: “We need our senior staff to be at the top of their game regarding their technical capability, so we are focused on providing continuous technical training to ensure staff are up-to-date with the latest technological advancements in their industry.
“We also offer a multi-layer leadership programme, bespoke senior team development, advanced project management, career development, and impactful communication,” she says.
Indeed, Jackson has taken advantage of her company’s leadership courses, adding: “A future leaders programme, run off-site by a university business school, was most useful. This used modules from the school’s MBA programme and included material on developing business strategy.”
What if you want your career to stay firmly on an engineering path, rather than venturing into management? According to Martin Hottass, general manager of Siemens Professional Education UK, many employees at Europe’s largest engineering company fall into this category.
“A lot of engineers choose engineering as a career as they want to be an engineer, not a manager,” he says. “So we can develop a career path that allows them to become specialists in a particular area while receiving the same reward and recognition as managers.”
As part of this, the company provides what it calls a ‘virtual university’ for employees, offering the necessary technical training and project management for engineering disciplines as well as, if desired, leadership tools and more.
“Depending on seniority, these courses may actually run globally, and we have found that learning from people in different cultures is very beneficial,” says Hottass.
In a similar vein to other global engineering firms, Siemens ensures employees receive the necessary professional registration with appropriate institutions. “This is very important as institutions offer a very structured professional development that develops the individual technically,” says Hottass.
Without a doubt, Siemens’ provision of employee learning opportunities is nothing short of breathtaking. Whether the focus is on engineering or management, many courses are available via the company’s own national training academies, university technical colleges and the Berlin-based Technik Akademie.
“All development is within Siemens; we intend to develop our company collateral so this is only open to Siemens’ employees,” says Hottass. As employees rise through the ranks, learning opportunities and professional development become more bespoke. “The more senior you are in the organisation, the more of a ‘helicopter view’ you will be taking so here we do a lot of career coaching,” he explains.
Given this, throughout the year, senior professionals identify key areas for growth. “We have formal developmental discussions two-to-three times a year, and we may identify that the manager wants to choose, say, public speaking,” says Hottass. “We then talk about how to achieve this and the senior manager would be expected to identify ways of doing this.”
Whatever an employee’s status, Siemens advocates lifelong learning. Hottass believes this ensures staff remain ‘fresh’ and able to develop competitive products. The process is also believed to engender loyalty – a characteristic critical to a company keen to maintain high employee retention and growth rates.
“As we continue to develop our people through their careers, they stay with us, which gives us a really good age distribution throughout our business,” says Hottass. “This has helped us to avoid industry spikes and troughs. For example, come the 2008 downturn we had already invested ahead of the curve so we didn’t have to make cut-backs.”
Hottass emphasises that any engineering company is only as good as its engineering solutions. “Engineers drive these innovations,” he says. “So it is essential to provide professional development to ensure you have the best engineers available.”
Indeed, at WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff, Katherine Jackson’s professional development is set to take her onwards and upwards. Right now, she is working with technical staff to further develop expertise in energy storage – a pressing issue in the power industry – while also looking at formal media training for her increasing role in external communications.
“[Professional development] courses have equipped me with the knowledge and competencies to progress quickly, and succeed in increasingly responsible roles,” she says. “I have also seen how important professional development has been for the electrical engineers working for me, to enable them to progress and adapt as the nature of their work and responsibilities change.”
Working on making managers into leaders
In 2014, ABB UK launched its ‘Leadership for Managers’ programme in a bid to turnaround the company’s failing Power Systems arm in just five months. Inherent to this, ABB’s managers were trained to instinctively think and act like leaders.
As Mike Sonley, ABB’s UK head of learning and development highlights: “Delays within ABB’s complex supply chains meant some projects were falling behind... and we were running the risk of having to make redundancies across the 400-strong workforce.
“No-one was keen to take ownership of problem projects, while the emergence of a blame culture meant that grievance procedures were draining management resources,” he adds.
To tackle the issues, ABB leaders developed leadership principles to encourage greater responsibility, respect and determination among managers.
Meanwhile people development consultancy, Hunter Roberts, was appointed to deliver a programme to teach all 60 managers to think and act in new ways.
This included guided self-reflection, 360-degree feedback, psychometric personality profiling and review with line managers, as well as a two-day management best-practice workshop. Peer-coaching and further 360-degree assessment followed, with the entire programme deployed through successive management layers every four-to-six weeks.
“The development programme has been credited with completely transforming the Power Systems division and is now being rolled out across two other ABB sectors,” says Sonley.
“Morale and teamwork have improved, everyone is talking enthusiastically about the Leadership Principles... and the number of employee grievances has fallen by 75 per cent.”