The Engineer* as Leader

*Insert your profession here

The corporate world is littered with former technical specialists who have migrated into leadership positions. Regardless of their former roles, the journey is often quite similar: An expert is employed to fulfill a role using a skill-set that they’ve studied for. For this example, let’s say our expert is an engineer. The expert is great at this role — it’s a direct vector from their university days and requires the application of specialized technical knowledge. The person stays in the company long enough, they get a few promotions, eventually leading other experts as a team leader. Their business card reflects this change — “Senior” or “Manager” are likely adjectives that have been added to their previous title.

But there’s a catch: their role has undergone a complete metamorphosis. The transition into the new role is so subtle, that our expert hardly noticed that there’s been a change. Until they look around and notice that a lot of their time is going into managing people, sitting in meetings, and doing everything other than the thing they were trained for. The world of engineering suddenly seems very far away.

To the technical specialist in this situation, the world of work can be daunting. The comforts of solving predictable technical questions makes way for vague inferences about human behaviour and getting things done through others. While leadership positions are important for the business, it is rare that there is adequate preparation for the profound change that’s occurred.

Let’s assume our expert actually wants to lead others. How should they transition into the new role ? Many line managers are at a loss of how to guide the novice leader, and that’s why we often get a call for help from the company to initiate coaching. Besides letting go of the temptation to carrying on as an über engineer, the new leader must get their heads around the demands of leadership. And leadership is much more demanding than most people think.

So what are some of the demands?

  1. Getting things done through others. It is way easier when your own Herculean efforts are the answer to every problem and you can just get stuck in and fix it. But when you have to get others to solve problems it requires some careful footwork. Leaders need to motivate their direct reports to get the job done, but they also need to ensure that it is done well, on time, and delivered correctly. So while leaders gain power, they simultaneously lose control.
  2. Collaboration is key. When you are the technical expert and can do it your way. But as a leader you need to nurture the kind of relationship that will help people feel consulted, that they have a voice and that you value their ideas. So sharing ideas, letting go of your own ideas, and facilitating discussions become key skills of the leader.
  3. People are complicated. Of course there are always those people who seem straightforward to lead. They are eager to please, highly conscientious and stay out of the politics. But that’s unusual. Leaders need to learn to deal with all types of people. Those who are motivated and unmotivated. Lazy and energetic. Slow thinkers and fast thinkers. The list is endless. The range of human issues that leaders have to deal with is huge and good leaders acquire the skills of leading many different types of people. The technical expert has to tune into this abstract world of people. The rules are vague, everyone’s different, emotions are all over the show, and answers which seem true one day, may not be the next.
  4. Leaders are business leaders. The more senior you become, the further away you move from your technical specialty, and the closer you move to leading the business. Leaders need to think about their roles differently. They need to think beyond their roles and to the implications their decisions have on the broader business. Good leaders will become a channel for the strategy of the organisation to become realized. For technical specialists who are used to reacting to problems in the here and now, this can be tricky. Not only are they lifting their eyes out of the operational detail, but their gaze must fall somewhere into the grey middle distance where the uncertainties multiply and there is far less control.
  5. Leaders are influencers. Technical experts make decisions based on technical knowledge and then apply their solution. Leaders however, have to persuade others and they need to be astute observers of human behaviour to know how to get others to go along. Influence comes naturally to some people, but many have to learn the art of persuasion. Becoming an influencer entails creating a context, building an argument, and selling your ideas so that they seem obvious and inevitable. The art of flexing your idea around objections, shifting its parameters, and underlining the key pay-offs are all part of being a leader and an influencer.

As we can see from the discussion above, leadership is very, very hard. Managers require considerable skill and practice to get leadership right, and it becomes particularly tough if they have to do it on their own.

The coach’s job is to induct the leader into this new world. To steer him or her away from approaching the world only with technical expertise, and to look at the world through the lens of leadership. The coach has to keep an eye on where the leader is placing his or her energy.

While we would never think it is okay to allow an untrained engineer to build a bridge, most of us would hardly think twice about adding “manager” to someone’s business card and sending them into the world of leadership without so much as a pep talk.

Coaching can bridge that divide. It helps new leaders navigate demands of leadership and guides them in making their way through its daily challenges.

Coaching is not forever

Think of it as an initial tour of a foreign city. The coach is the tour-guide who takes you on a walking tour of the city, being careful to point out the landmarks and best places to visit, and being on hand to whisper in your ear when dealing with local customs. Sure, you can wander off into the wilderness on your own, but it won’t be half as productive or likely to produce a good result as having a good guide.