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Can Engineers Learn To Manage?

Give Your Engineers The Skills To Succeed As Managers Or You Lose Twice.

By Steve Schumacher

In my work with mining and aggregate companies over the years, I’ve found that they tend to be filled with engineers.

It is very common for both plant and corporate positions to be occupied by chemical, structural and mechanical engineers with varying levels of experience and knowledge. I’ve seen many of these engineers move into management and fail because the company didn’t have enough foresight to understand that being a good engineer and being a good manager require different skill sets.

Moreover, even if the company did understand that, they still promoted the engineer and said things like “They will just have to get their feet wet,” “They’ll figure it out,” or “We all have to learn sometime.”

I was personally called into a company to coach a plant superintendent who was about to be fired because he was not cutting it as a manager. He had started out with the company as a project engineer. He spent several years being successful at that job and got promoted based on his ability to get projects completed on time and under budget.

As the plant superintendent, he had the majority of the plant employees reporting to him along with several supervisors. Within a year he was stressed out, employee turnover had increased and plant production was at an all-time low.

When I looked into what was happening, I found out that he wouldn’t delegate, told everyone to do things his way and was not a team player with the rest of the plant management team. Here he was, in charge of nearly all the employees in the plant and he had never been given any management training. No wonder he was failing.

If you promote an engineer into a management position and don’t give him/her the skills to be successful as a manager you will lose twice – you will have lost one of your top engineers and the odds are you will have a lousy manager.

Clearly, many engineers and other technical employees are happy staying right where they are and contributing in a technical capacity. However, for those that want to move up the corporate ladder in to management, there are some things you can do to help them and the company:

1. Create a profile of a successful manager.
Identify some of the successful managers in your company and list the types of skills that make them successful.

Talk to employees and ask them what good managers do and what they like to see in a good boss. Look for things like delegation, leadership, and communication, management and self-management skills. Make sure these are behaviors, not traits. It’s tough to teach someone to be conscientious, but you can teach them to delegate.

2. Conduct a management skills assessment.
Take the behaviors that you have identified and create a Management Skills Survey. Have employees fill it out on the person you are considering for promotion.

Make sure they fill it out anonymously. If you have a human resources person in your company enlist their help. Have them administer it, score it and analyze it. One of the best types of assessments is called a 360 Degree Leadership Survey. You can find a lot of information about that type of survey online.

3. Give the candidate feedback.
Meet privately with the candidate and go over the survey results with them. Ensure them that the results are to be used to help develop them, not to punish them.

Focus on strengths along with areas of improvement. It’s always nice to hear the good news. How the person receives the feedback will tell you something about them. A good leader accepts feedback willingly and learns from it.

4. Build an action plan together.
Identify the areas that the candidate needs to work on to be successful as a manager.

Work with the candidate to come up with ways to fill those gaps. Training, coaching, role-playing, mentoring, and networking with other managers are all ways that the candidate can learn to be successful as a manager.

5. Use the performance appraisal.
Build expectations for the candidate to acquire the skills into their performance appraisal. Remember, in some cases, these will be new skills and will be different than the problem-solving and analytical skills they are already good at.

Acquiring solid managerial skills is a slow process, so be patient and don’t set the initial expectations too high.

6. Follow-up regularly.
Don’t wait until the annual performance review time to see how the candidate is doing with their new skill set. Check in with them informally from time to time to see how they are doing and how you can help.

For engineers and other technical types to be successful as managers and leaders of employees, it takes a great deal of patience and willingness to deal with ambiguity. There are no schematics that explain exactly how to deal with every possible employee situation that might arise. The technical, process and problem-solving skills that make an engineer successful are not going to make an engineer successful as a manager.

You wouldn’t send a mechanic out to fix a piece of expensive machinery without the proper tools, so don’t move your engineers into management without giving them the proper tools. You, the new manager, the employees and the company will all benefit from this investment in their future.