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Unlock your inner leader: management skills for engineers

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Rising through the ranks doesn’t automatically make an engineer the type of leader their organisation needs.

You might be the very best engineer you can be: you make great products, always meet deadlines, get on well with colleagues, and even park in the right parking space every day; but to lead a team, a department or an organisation requires something extra.

More often than not, moving into leadership, or more senior leadership, means change. This could be a change of perspective, a change of approach, or, if someone is looking to be promoted within the same organisation, a change in their relationships with colleagues.

Many good engineers will already have many of the attributes they need to become effective leaders. Engineers tend to be forward thinking, know what to look for when hiring other engineers and have an eye for efficient, creative solutions. They are also excellent problem solvers, have good attention to detail and are adept at balancing what is desirable with what is possible.

However, to actually become a good leader requires adding extra attributes and skills to a résumé. A leader also needs to get to grips with matters that wouldn’t concern them as a team member. What’s more, they need to achieve all this without losing what made them the good engineer they were in the first place.

If that sounds like a challenge, the IET’s Diploma in Management and Leadership might be worth looking at. Run in association with the Chartered Management Institute, the IET has courses for existing managers, senior leaders and engineers who are not yet in leadership roles, but who want to push their career in that direction.

The CMI’s Jean Dowson, who leads these courses, explains that engineers need leadership training because often they can get to a quite senior level just because of their technical expertise. “Then they come up against having to manage a big project or manage a big team and that can prove quite difficult,” she says. “Engineers are very detailed people, but as they become more senior they move away from that detail and have more strategic conversations.”

According to Professor Neil Hopkinson, director of 3D-printing with Xaar, engineers need to develop a more diverse set of skills as they move into leadership. “Leaders need a more rounded experience and aptitude to be able to deal with people and understand the nuances of people’s behaviour,” he says.

Hopkinson, who formerly ran Sheffield University’s Engineering Leadership Academy, adds: “A leader needs a broader understanding of different aspects of their company’s work, not just knowledge of, and proficiency in, the technical engineering side.”

Dowson believes that one of the biggest challenges for leaders and aspiring leaders in engineering is managing people who aren’t engineers. “Engineering leaders need to understand the motivations of non-engineers and find out how these people think,” she says. “In a large project that could be an accountant, or HR and supply people. We all think and take in information in different ways – some people like to hear, others to see it visually, in numbers or graphs.”

Hopkinson adds that engineering projects are becoming increasingly complex, which provides additional leadership challenges. “Often you have integration of mechanical or thermal systems with software and control, or electronics. So the range of disciplines becomes more diverse,” he says. “Projects increasingly involve a range of suppliers or companies all working together.”

When engineering projects involve individuals, groups and organisations from other parts of the world, the scope of knowledge and understanding leaders require widens further. “As we become more connected through digital means, it is easier to run projects across a number of geographical locations,” Hopkinson adds. “This means that leaders need to be conversant with a broader range of people. Understanding the drives of people in different cultures is as important as some of the technical aspects.”

This, according to Dowson, can be difficult because individuals, whether they’re engineers or not, tend to see the world through their own eyes. In this light, Hopkinson believes that the role of leadership is to knit together a broad team > < of diverse people: to try to get them working towards a common understanding and a common purpose.

Dowson explains that when leadership candidates take one of the IET’s diploma courses, they first learn how to motivate people. “You have to actually find out how people like to be motivated, because not everyone is motivated by money,” she says. “Also, in the current economic climate, some companies are not always able to give out massive bonuses.”

Dowson adds that some people are motivated by being given new working or development opportunities, others by working with a particular individual, or by achieving something specific or learning a new skill.

“Someone motivated is more productive, incentivised and they feel that they’re being rewarded by their organisation,” she says. “It’s that psychological contract whereby a team member thinks that they work hard and get rewards. It’s important that a leader recognises this.”

The IET diplomas also have sections on assessing performance and giving feedback. “Line managers and team members should agree how objectives are to be measured,” Dowson says. “Whether by a specific outcome like improving sales or developing a product, or improving a process, getting more clients in or building a specific platform.”

Lead like this, Dowson believes, and the team member being assessed knows how their level of success will be measured. “That will involve regular feedback so the individual isn’t sitting there all year wondering how they’re doing, or worse still they go to their annual appraisal and find out for the first time that things aren’t going too well in their boss’s eyes.”

Different people like getting feedback in different ways, publically, in private, written or verbal. The most important thing about feedback, Dowson says, is that it’s evidence-based and delivered constructively.

“We encourage line managers to get individuals to bring along their own evidence,” she says. “They may have had a letter from a customer, client or colleague saying ‘that’s a fantastic piece of work’ and the line manager hasn’t seen it.”

On the courses, leadership candidates also learn how to encourage the best behaviours within their team, in line with company culture and values, and how to deal with those behaviours that aren’t working so well.

There’s also a focus on leadership styles and the implications of chosen styles for individuals. During these discussions, a number of questions can come up. For instance, might a focus on outcome alienate certain people who think that the company is not interested in them as individuals? Does a leader need to be more directed, say, if someone new joins the team, or in urgent situations? When is it better to coach somebody? What does it take for you to delegate? What has to be in place for you to trust people? How do you manage conflict?

Dowson says that through the IET diplomas, leadership candidates come to understand themselves better and gain insights into how they like to learn. She believes that greater self-awareness, as well as helping people do their assignments, also assists with the masses of information that they have to get through at work.

“We look at time management, how people might conduct themselves in meetings, how to prepare for meetings, how your own performance and notice maximise when it’s not going well and what to do about it,” she says. “Some people I’ve taught have got two or three degrees, sometimes a PhD, but they’ve never actually sat down and thought about how they, themselves, learn best.” 

Read more details about courses available from the IET.


What does it mean for you?

Policy change

In October 2013, the Engineering Council announced that by January 2017, it would like to see all professional engineering institutions introduce a policy of random reviewing of members’ continuing professional development. In other words: mandatory CPD for engineers. The IET has decided to meet this aspiration and extend this as a benefit to all IET members.

Dick Bacon, IET professional development manager

“This is just rationalising what most members already do. It doesn’t have to be a burden, or overload workloads. We’re just asking that people systematically record what they do and log its benefits.

“The IET’s online tool, career manager, can help people do this efficiently. It doesn’t have to be time consuming.”

Jean Dowson, CMI course leader

“CPD doesn’t have to be complex and arduous. You don’t necessarily have to go on courses, you can just log things as you do them. You can do that using a simple app. All you have to do is log how that learning helped you and how it will be useful in the future. Reading a book or watching a video can be CPD.

“The thing about CPD is that it’s personal to each individual. So, a team leader won’t necessarily have more work to do, managing other people’s CPD and their own. As a team leader, I would give a team member an objective and tell them that they need to maintain it. I’d show them what I wanted but I wouldn’t do it for them.

“On the courses, we provide an online management system that helps people produce CPD quickly and efficiently.

“As a leader and a manager it’s important that your CPD reflects that part of your job, too, and not just your technical engineering objectives.”

For more details on how the IET can support your CPD, see: www.theiet.org/membership/career/cmanager/

Chief Executive, GKN Driveline

Case study: Phil Swash

Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is essential for anybody interested in their own personal progression and in having a long, rewarding career. Without it, I would definitely not enjoy the job I have today.

The key to my personal development has been a mix of work-related learning and a more academic approach – I read a lot of research and attend specific training modules that help me develop specific new skills.

CPD need not be challenging for managers and organisations. The mistake is to see it as a paper exercise or a routine commitment to annual training. CPD is a mindset that successful professionals and companies foster because it unlocks huge opportunities.

At GKN, CPD is a key part of how we do business. To grow any company, you need people ready to take things to the next level, to strive for improvements no matter how small. You have to develop those skills and foster that confidence in-house as much as possible.

We make a point of understanding what it is that our people want to achieve in the coming year and also to know what their longer-term objectives are. You can then figure out the competences that need developing and can identify the skills that will benefit your people and the company.

For CPD to be truly effective, it should develop the personal skills that make professionals more effective team players. At GKN, CPD isn’t just about getting the best from individuals. Effective communication, and knowing how to get the best out of others, is what enables professionals to deploy their skills with the fullest possible impact.


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