Engineering managers act as the bridge between the straightforward realm of problem-solving engineers and the sometimes murky world of clients and executives. It’s a manager’s job to speak a common language that both engineers and clients readily understand. They must be expert communicators as well as knowledgeable engineers themselves – a set of skills that anyone with management goals must cultivate.
Leadership begins with vision, and that’s as true for engineering managers as it is for CEOs. To lead successfully means having a destination in mind and the ability to motivate people to go with you to that destination. By seeing a bigger picture, engineering managers can better visualize what clients want and what it takes to get there. While big-picture vision is important, an outstanding manager also has an eye for detail; that analytical perspective comes innately to many engineers, but managers can also put it to work in a broader context.
In STEM fields, answers are usually concrete. Calculations produce clear answers with relatively little tolerance for error, but management calls for careful discernment. Knowing how to assess competence is a key factor in any manager’s success, but for engineering managers, making that judgment call means having a firm grounding in a given industry yourself. Managers must also use their judgment when dealing with the interpersonal friction that can arise in even the most tranquil workplace.
Engineers who are more comfortable with mathematics or materials than communicating their ideas to others may need to work on their people skills, suggests Alexander Wolfe of Design News magazine. As a manager, you’ll be working with manufacturing personnel, project supervisors, technical leads, clients and executives. Facility with public speaking in meetings, interviewing candidates, issuing directions and rephrasing technical issues for people outside your industry is critical.
People in managerial positions invariably shoulder more responsibility, and engineering managers are no exception. Should your personnel make an error, it’s your responsibility to see that it’s corrected, ensure it doesn’t happen again and report any delays or additional costs to those above you in the organization’s hierarchy. Your engineers also look to you to speak up for them with the company’s officers or board of directors. They deserve credit for the work they do and rely on you to provide it. The most successful managers adhere to the “praise flows downhill and responsibility travels uphill” philosophy.
An arbitrary manager is one whom employees never know how to please. Consistency is key to any leadership position; without it, your staff members shut down to protect themselves from inconsistent instructions. They learn to conceal errors rather than openly bringing them to your attention because they don’t know what inconsistent leadership may do when presented with a problem. Develop a clear, concise and transparent set of guidelines and stick to them to keep lines of communication open with engineers.
If you could do everything yourself, you would be the sole engineer on the project, so it’s necessary to delegate responsibilities to your personnel. Some managers make the mistake of confusing delegating tasks with dumping, but delegation is more than just handing off work to employees. To delegate effectively, you must accurately assess your engineers’ strengths. By knowing your staff, you’ll be able to assign them where they can shine. Providing them the necessary training and being available for questions are also important aspects of delegation.
For an engineer with the right skills, management offers exciting opportunities. You’ve worked hard to build your technical skills, but honing your managerial skills will help you take the next step.