Being A Great Engineering Leader

In a recent related article on engineering careers, we quoted a HBR report highlighting that a quarter of “The Best Performing CEO’s in the World” were engineers. We outlined that “leadership” does not necessarily mean the top of a corporate organisation, leadership for engineers happens on a daily basis.

Great engineering leaders combine strong communication ability with analytical skills, providing clear direction for successful outcomes. Often, teams will be multi-disciplinary. A leader must ensure team members, irrespective of expertise, have common clarity on goals and tasks, to ensure maximum resource utilisation and solution effectiveness.

Being an effective leader demands a strong results orientation. It requires the ability to attract, retain and develop high performing talent, which in technical verticals is challenging. We notice today an increase in the number of client organisations assessing their leaders on employee engagement factors. Engineering leaders need to know how to energise their team and leverage the discretionary effort of direct reports.

Over the 25 years that HRM has been recruiting engineering talent, much has changed and Engineering careers have become incredibly diverse. Throughout that time,  we have observed and developed a set of traits that we consistently see in those leaders whose careers flourish. They are found not only in experienced leaders but also in some senior engineers, of whom it is apparent, will have great leadership careers. These engineering professionals:

1. Demonstrate empathy and the capacity to explain complex technical concepts to non-tech professionals.

2. Set clear objectives for those whose work they are directing. They provide context and regular feedback, along with project/ team discipline to ensure outcomes are accurate and sustainable.

3. Are as comfortable with a big picture strategic view as they are with minute complex details. They know how and when to balance these and never get bogged down in the latter.

4. Make tough decisions without prevaricating. Whether it is a human resource issue or to do with project tools, great leaders spot the gap and swiftly resolve it. They ensure that other project elements or contributions are not held back.

5. Constantly ensure effective communication, while focusing on knowledge share to help team members see around corners. This sharing applies also to other functions (Marketing, Finance, HR, Supply Chain etc.) who have a vested interest in the project/ programme deliverables.

6. They pile all the credit for great ideas and outcomes onto their team.

Not all engineers make great engineering leaders. The same of course can be said of any professional discipline. My colleagues in other areas of our Science and Technology Practice regularly point out that it is sometimes those with lower technical prowess that make better people managers.

Managing the inevitable tension that arises between people, performance and project effectiveness without sacrificing any of the three is a considerable leadership challenge. Relationship building therefore, is the ultimate factor in being a great engineering leader. The greatest engineering leaders use those relationship skills to enable team members to be the best engineers that they can be.

Aisling clements is an Engineering  Selection lead in HRM’s Science and Technology practice.