The engineer in transition to management

Aug. 1, 1998

The engineer in transition to management

Technical skills give you that promotion--but other skills will make you an effective manager.


The traditional role of the engineering manager is undergoing significant changes in many industries. These changes stem from the use of multifunctional teams and meshing of staffs onto these teams, all of which mandates a shift in focus from "content" to "process." Previously, emphasis was placed on "what" was being worked on. Today, the focus is also on "how" the work can best be performed.

To get results through others requires expertise in four dimensions: (1) technical, (2) managerial, (3) leadership, and (4) process.

Technical skills represent the traditional engineering knowledge and abilities gained academically and by professional experience. Managerial skills are those administrative skills, (e.g., time or project management) necessary to orchestrate the effective use of resources (people, time, and money). Leadership skills often center on "soft" skills such as interpersonal, motivational, and management skills. Finally, process skills require the engineering manager to be the process owner for his/her department to make sure the staff use systematic processes and best practices.

If your company is moving in this direction and you are in a leadership position, or find yourself transitioning into a new managerial role, you need to become an expert in several areas:

understanding systematic processes for solving problems, making decisions, planning, and identifying and prioritizing concerns;

identifying and deploying those processes necessary to assure "best practices" are used;

motivating, communicating, and using effective management styles.

New challenges

There is a high probability our technical skills helped us gain recognition as potential leaders. Most companies equate technical excellence with leadership skills. However, a word of caution is necessary: Just because you were an excellent technical contributor does not guarantee you will be an effective leader. Your technical skills may even get in the way.

The first step to becoming an effective manager is to recognize the challenges you will face.

Setting goals and establishing priorities--This requires the skill for establishing clearly defined objectives that are meaningful, realistic, and measurable. Priority setting should consider the criteria of the seriousness, urgency, and future impact of concerns facing your team.

Management and motivational style--Technical knowledge is no longer the sole deciding factor in achieving success. Your behavior patterns are important. Your management style in dealing with and motivating people may often play a more significant role than your technical skills.

New data--Information will be less familiar because it no longer comes only from the "comfort zone" of your area of technical expertise. Data will now come from the "twilight zone" of the unknown. The information you must process--some factual, some fictitious, some objective, and some subjective--will come from all directions.

A new sense of urgency--You will be expected to get results "now." Time is money, so you will have to solve problems quickly. Furthermore, you must be right the first time. Being responsible for more resources, expect more scrutiny.

People problems--Since one of your key resources is people, you will need the skills to optimize their performance. Like production equipment or machinery, a worker`s output can vary for many reasons. You will need new skills to solve people`s performance problems, which is difficult because the data often comes from opinions and not necessarily from observed behavior or facts.

No longer just one right answer--As engineers, we have been trained to solve the equation--to find the one right answer. As managers, we must understand there are many "right" answers. We must select the best option depending on the circumstances. A common trap for the engineer-manager is to fall into the "analysis-paralysis" mode, searching for the one right answer and wasting time, when a less than optimum solution will suffice.

Delegating or working through others--Your accomplishments are only as good as the accomplishments of your people. A good manager asks not only, "What have my people done for me today?" but also, "What have I done for my people today to help them perform?"

Juggling multiple tasks and using your time wisely--You first need an approach for identifying and prioritizing concerns. Be sure your team is working on the right jobs at the right time. Expect to spend more time in meetings, making presentations, preparing, and reporting on your team`s progress.

Process versus content--The biggest mistake of new managers is to misunderstand the difference between "process" and "content." Consequently, they will rely on "content" knowledge. This leads to a focus on what is being done rather than the "process" of how the work is done. An example is the engineer-manager who still attempts to perform the design without concern for how the design might better be performed (using best-practice processes).

Ron Read is director of process development at ITT Cannon (Santa Ana, CA) and teaches "The Engineer in Transition to Management" short course at UCLA and the University of Wisconsin. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected].

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