If you want to become a credible manager in engineering, you’ll first need to prove yourself to be a solid engineer.
“Sound engineering judgment builds respect and trust from those with whom you work,” says Ken Ragsdell, professor of engineering management and systems engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.
But your technical expertise won’t make you a shoo-in for an engineering management role. In fact, it could hurt you if it’s all you have to offer.
“The black-and-white, right-answer-versus-wrong-answer mentality that engineers sometimes have is at odds with the skills needed to manage people,” says chemical engineer Jeff Lindsay, director of solution development for management consulting firm Innovationedge.
Adds Ragsdell, “Engineering management is at the intersection of things, people and money.” In other words, your technical skills will help you handle the things part of a future management role, but you’ll need to develop key soft skills to deal with the people part and a big-picture organizational perspective to navigate the money part. Here’s how.
Find a Mentor
Other engineers before you have transitioned well into management roles. Find them in your own organization and elsewhere, and tap their wisdom.
“Successful managers typically can point to a mentor, coach or role model who helped them in a tough situation, or to whom they could turn when they needed guidance,” says talent management consultant Michael Couch. So ask for advice, and be open to critical feedback from engineers who have already been elevated to management.
Potential mentors can include current supervisors, according to Julie Naster, who has been training and coaching engineers in management roles for more than a decade. “Let your boss and others know that you are interested in being promoted to management and willing to look at yourself and build skills in areas that may currently be weak,” Naster says.
Push Yourself Beyond Your Technical Abilities
At its essence, management is about supervising, leading and assessing people with diverse personalities, skills, experiences and motivations in an environment in which you yourself are being scrutinized by higher-ups. If you want to be viewed as ready to take on this challenging assignment, it only makes sense to accumulate a wide array of nontechnical experiences and skills.
“To increase your chances of being promoted, volunteer for new, different and challenging assignments, even if they’re outside your area or comfort zone,” says Couch.
But don’t confine such activities to your formal job description, stresses Alan Gee, manager of human resources for engineering consulting firm Stantec.
“If your company has an annual United Way campaign or some other charity event, volunteer to lead the committee or some aspect of the campaign,” Gee says. “This will help develop your team-building and communication skills and demonstrate to your leadership that you have what it takes to be a successful manager.”
Seek Out Project Management Experience
By focusing solely on building your technical skills as an engineer, you risk becoming so cocooned in your own work/role that you overlook or ignore the fact you’re part of a larger team, which is probably part of an even larger organization.
Companies, and their various divisions, have budgets to worry about, as well as deadlines, customers and clients, political realities and so on. So if you want to move into a management role, you’ll need to be willing and able to not only see the broader context in which your organization operates but factor it into your daily interactions.
Project management experiences and/or training “can help you break out of the minute details that you’re used to working with and see things from a little higher perspective,” says Gee.
And if the projects you manage are high-profile and viewed as critical to your organization’s strategic goals, all the better, says Tony Bako, vice president of technology for Cramster.com.
“When [companies are] reviewing candidates for promotion, being associated with important projects -- especially successful ones -- will put you above others working on less-important tasks,” Bako says.
Learn more about engineering careers.