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Helping Engineers Become Leaders September 14, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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This week I attended a panel discussion with a group of high-level managers from a local company who shared training and coaching strategies for developing the leadership skills of their engineering staff. Generally, leadership training assumes that leaders can be made (and aren’t just born), and there are some specific challenges associated with leadership training targeted for engineers.

Many engineers are not interested in leadership and consider management to be an unwelcome career path. I have a lot of respect for people who have the self-awareness and emotional intelligence to know that they aren’t “management material,” and can resist the usual financial or status rewards that go with the management track (see Happy Not to Be a Manager). However, engineers may find themselves attracted to leadership positions in order to have more control and influence over outcomes in their organization that have nothing to do with an individual’s technical knowledge or skills.

Leaders add value at all levels in a business, but even engineers who resist leadership or management can benefit from learning leadership skills and other soft skills that are outside their immediate technical domain. Engineers tend to be analytical, logical, and they rely on fact-based arguments. Effective collaboration typically requires a range of communication, alignment, and influencing strategies.

It’s hard to directly measure the success of leadership development in any organization, but two indicators were suggested during the panel discussion. One is the availability of qualified internal candidates for promotion to open positions in the business. At the company represented at this week’s meeting, managers are encouraged and supported to develop leaders within their teams, even though that could result in the transfer of talented people to other teams. They understand that it’s a win for the business, not a loss for their department.

Another indicator of a successful leadership development program is the performance of new leaders in their first efforts. If more-experienced managers or leaders are forced to intervene and take over from a struggling new leader, that’s a sign that the development program (which should include post-training coaching, mentoring and monitoring) has failed.

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