5 Key Shifts That Turn Good Engineers Into GREAT Leaders!

I admit it  I have a professional soft spot for engineers.

I respect them tremendously.

Maybe it’s because I’ve coached so many of them over the years. I just know, the world is truly better for their deep-level thinking, impeccable mind for details, and passion for solving interesting problems.

That’s why, whenever I hear people imply that engineers make “terrible leaders,” I think “That’s nonsense!”

Engineers as leaders are highly capable, innovative, and outcomes-driven and I’ve seen projects, departments, and entire companies rise to new heights with an engineer-turned-leader at the helm.

Granted, engineers do tend toward certain personality traits and work styles that make the transition from solitary individual-thinker to motivating team leader a bit challenging … for themselves and for their new reports.

But, when they approach stepping into their new leadership role with the same tenacity and curiosity signature to the engineer mindset … they (and their teams and projects) thrive.

So, if you’re an engineer transitioning into a management role, here are 5 big shifts you must make to secure your footing as a trusted leader:

1. Redefine “being right”

Yes, engineers do hold tight to their way being “the right way.” Why? Because often there are critical consequences when they’re not right.

Engineers work diligently to find innovative (yet sound) solutions … and along the way, they’re judged on whether they successfully identify and circumvent any challenges hindering that solution’s success.

As a manager, you’re still accountable for final outcomes … but now, you must step back and let your team complete detailed tasks and make critical decisions. And that’s tricky to do, especially when someone on your team champions a path, protocol, or technology different from the one you would choose.

But, don’t instantly insist that your technical solution is the only right way. Now, there’s more to consider … like company goals, team morale, speed of execution, cost-effectiveness. “Being right” must now reflect the big picture. If there are multiple ways to achieve the outcome or solution, your job is to consider all of them.

2. Be “the expert” in new ways

You will no longer spend your days delving into the hands on aspects of engineering, but there’s still plenty for you to learn and keep up with.

Harness your instinct to problem solve, organize, and refine at a detailed level into strengthening the ‘how’ of project operations. Identify the processes and procedures in place and see where they need refining. Trim the fat, tighten up procedures and make individual and team workflows as efficient as possible.

Also, new technology and industry practices emerge constantly. Be on the lookout for what’s coming. What’s the future? It’s now your job to know and plan accordingly so your company remains relevant, nimble and well-positioned in the industry.

How will staff cope when their tools need to change? How will they decide what to do adopt and what to abandon? Will they be ready? (Your company now trusts you to make sure they are!) So know what they’ll need to feel effective and not lose momentum when the time comes.

3. Let go of control

Just like you used to hate it when your manager told you what to do, your reports dislike you doing the same. Don’t micro-manage your people.

Setting direction yourself and then doling out narrow tasks to the team to ensure they complete the project “your way” leaves no your team no room to be creative. This robs them of their prime motivation and inspiration. Your best engineers WILL leave and go somewhere else if you keep that up. And that’s on you!

Instead, as a leader, your job is to set vision, organize the team, and clarify the “what” and “why” of the project  “how” is your team’s job to solve.

So, what can you do with that need to control details? Micromanage yourself! Learn to master how you structure each day, as there are now expectations on you from those above you and those below you. Efficient management of your time and energy takes a lot of control, as well as intuition. A good engineering manager knows what their priority responsibilities are each day and can adjust well when things come up (as they always do).

4. Encourage often and communicate preemptively 

You’re a leader now and keeping everyone engaged and in the loop is essential for project success. So, get to know your team!

Each member of your engineering team is different and needs feedback and encouragement in a unique way. They also count on you to help them work together effectively. Your goal is to learn who they are so you can successfully navigate personalities and work out the best strategy for each person ensuring that each member feels valued, works effectively, while keeping the larger project goals on target.

Want to truly earn their loyalty? Communicate preemptively. Check in with your team before the big deadline and presentation and see how you can support or give feedback rather than only giving them what they perceive as negative feedback after the fact. Your job is to set them (not just the project) up for success.

5. Ask for help

Engineers never want to look like a novice, preferring the hard-earned role of trusted expert. But, now you’ve stepped into vulnerable territory where you don’t readily know all the answers.

So  ask for what you need. Find a successful former-engineer-turned-leader to mentor you. Ask them what major shifts in approach and mindset helped them succeed with their teams.

Likewise, if people skills are not your forte, don’t bury your head in the sand because you feel awkward. Dive into learning about understanding people with the same tenacity you did while learning the technical aspects of your job. Use your commute to and from work to read (or listen) to books, talks, etc. on leaders who manage people well. Work with a coach to master people skills quickly.

The most important aspect of transitioning from engineer to leader is the act of ‘letting go.

Recognize that productivity and success is now a long game that can take months to see results (rather than seeing tangible success each day). Being content in the successes of those around you first, that’s your true measure as a manager.

Nathalie Salles helps global leaders and diverse teams elevate their innate excellence in order to make dynamic progress toward their specific goals, strategies, or vertical growth vision. Visit her website to learn more.

This article originally published on LinkedIn.

Categories: Career Happiness, Coaching, Leadership, Organizational culture, Team Building

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