Learning to Lead as an Engineer

While some people have a natural aptitude for leadership, it’s also a teachable quality, one that every engineer whose career is on an upward trajectory needs to know. Whether you’re in charge of product strategy, research and development, or an entire department as a C-level executive, leadership skills are an often unwritten prerequisite. Here’s how to round out your CV with the skill-set every goal-oriented engineer must have.

Know Your Team’s Strengths – and Challenges

No one’s a master of every engineering skill, but knowing where you excel is vital to your success as a leader. Building your team to capitalize on strengths while hiring personnel to shine in areas you find a challenge spells success for the entire group. As you rise in the ranks, you may have multiple tiers of staff under you; at that point, it’s even more important to know your own and your team members’ capabilities. Pair your meticulous coders with your idea generators, your big-picture thinkers with your efficiency experts, and everyone benefits.

Don’t Conflate Leadership and Management

Not every leader needs to become a manager. In fact, keeping some of your key team leaders in place instead of promoting them is essential to long-term stability. It’s tempting to round up your top personnel and turn them into your next management tier, but be careful: Too many promotions at once could act as a brain drain on the rest of your team. Instead, let your leaders take charge without saddling them with managerial responsibilities.

That doesn’t mean no one should ever advance from within, but there are other ways to reward high performers without promoting them away from the very positions in which they excel. Talk with HR about other ways to compensate your star coders and developers. By promoting prospective managers thoughtfully and at a measured pace while ensuring they’re rewarded for excellence, you keep your top talent and maintain stability.

Support Your Staff

While you want to retain your best and brightest, you also want to clear a path for them to rise. Leaders bring out the star qualities of others instead of keeping the spotlight solely on themselves. They give credit where it’s due and encourage their team members to spread their wings. Think of yourself as blazing a trail not only for yourself, but also for leaders who will come after you to follow.

Engineers learn constantly throughout their careers; having a manager who supports that ongoing education and clears the path for valued employees raises everyone’s ceiling higher. As a leader yourself, you’re taking on additional responsibilities to free others to work unencumbered by distractions and give them a more productive environment in which to grow their own skills.

See the Larger Picture

The higher you rise within an organization, the broader your viewpoint must become. Leaders in engineering work as part of a larger context, not just within their own departments. That means interacting with other C-level executives and understanding how your projects fit into the grander goals of the organization. Your broader perspective also gives you greater agility, allowing you to steer your team in directions that align with where the company as a whole is headed.

Foster Discussion

The best leaders know they aren’t alone in their leadership roles. They have advisors and supervisors who feel comfortable telling them when the team should reevaluate an approach or how to incorporate new information into a project. Encourage dialogue and even respectful, constructive disagreement at times; ideas that are never challenged may be weaker than you know, so see dissent as valuable. When employees feel like active contributors to the team’s success, they become more invested in their work.

Leadership isn’t a secret or an inborn talent. It’s a skill you can hone like any other, and with practice, your leadership can take you anywhere you want to go.

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