From Engineer to Manager: Mastering the Transition (Part 3)
June 27, 2016
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Young professionals and students in the engineering and technology disciplines are predominantly focused on developing their technical attributes in order to succeed in their careers. As their careers progress, they find themselves facing the daunting task of rapidly transitioning into a management role and realise that they need a set of skills which they haven’t developed sufficiently. We delve into this topic with a series of articles with Claudio Insaurralde the IEEE Victorian Section TEMS Chair and Region 10 Industry Relations committee member.

This article is a part of the series on Engineering to Manager and a continuation of http://yp.ieee.org/from-engineer-to-manager-mastering-the-transition-part-2/

When transitioning from engineer to manager why is delegation so important?

As you progress in your career, your responsibilities start increasing dramatically and on top of that, you start having people under your responsibility. The truth is that you can’t do everything alone, so at a certain point you need to start delegating tasks to your employees. Usually, young managers try to micromanage every single activity they delegate, trying to know what’s going on at all times. Of course this situation isn’t sustainable in time, especially when the groups become larger and the projects and problems more complex. So the key here is to delegate effectively, trying to minimise the possibility of an error.

When I was in the military, I learned from the beginning that when we want someone to do something, we have basically to ways of doing it. We can give him an order detailing him exactly what to do, or we can delegate him the task. Both approaches will get the job done, but from a management perspective, most of the time delegating tasks will bring much more benefits, mostly because leaves more room for creativity and initiative.

How do engineers ensure that they are effectively delegating? (Please use the six points outlined in your presentation – Politeness, Present a reason, describe the goal, setting a deadline, Resources & Support, recognise a good job)

Of course, there is no magic recipe for this. However, during my career I’ve seen that people usually struggle in delegating tasks because they don’t pay attention to some basic points.

The first one is politeness. In the past, the boss used to be a grumpy person that usually gave orders to his employees. Nowadays, everyone knows that a polite request is much more effective than a strong threatening order. This sounds pretty obvious, nevertheless there are still many people who rely in that old style to get things done. The reality is that it might work at first, but only works when the boss is present.

So, using “please” and making a request instead of giving an order won’t make you less of a leader. In fact, as I mentioned before, respect is one of the top qualities of great leaders.

The second point is Present a reason. When possible and necessary we need to briefly communicate the reason or the final purpose of the job to help the person feel more motivated.

I really like a well-known story that illustrates this. It’s about a man in the middle age era, that during a journey meets three different men who were piling up stones besides the road. He asked the first one what he was doing and the man, who was in a really bad mood, cursing every stone he moved, answered that he was piling up stones. The second man looked upset and tired but not as much as the other. He asked again what he was doing and this one replied that he was making bricks, that he didn’t like it but he was making a living on that. The third man looked really happy and enthusiastic, smiling and whistling while working. This last man, when was asked the same question, answered that he was ‘building a cathedral’. The task was the same, but knowing the mission behind his task, feeling part of something greater made him happy and eager to contribute.

In this point, it’s important to find the right balance, otherwise you might find yourself explaining every single task you delegate. Whether or not is convenient to explain the reasons or mission behind the tasks depends on every situation, but some factors that contribute to the decision are:

  • Type of task. Is it a regular task or a one off request? Is it a repetitive or boring task?
  • Type or personality. Some people are self-motivated while others need a small boost to be motivated and do a good job.
  • Is the person overqualified for the task? in that case it’s good to acknowledge the situation and tell him why we are giving him the task.

The third point is describing the goal properly. This point is crucial because it will define our style when delegating tasks. We need to find the balance between just telling our employees every step they should do and delegating the task letting them do it in their way.

The main problem about giving always precise instructions is that you will end up with a group of instruction followers instead of a productive team. So, delegating tasks is a great way of promoting initiative and creativity. On the other hand, if you explain your idea in a too general way you may not get the results you want at the end.

Everyone needs to find their own way at the time of delegating tasks, but some aspects to take into account may be:

  • Be specific about the outcomes. People need to know what do you expect to receive at the end of the task.
  • If possible, use measurable results and characteristics for the outcomes. For example, the extension, level of detail or the need of using a specific format or standard, etc.
  • Encourage your people to ask for doubts or give the opportunity to make suggestions. You can even discuss their approach to the task if necessary.
  • For complex tasks, it’s a good practice to set milestones to review the progress of the task before the deadline and have the opportunity to make corrections along the way.
  • It’s important to leave room for the employee to undergo his/her own experience and develop a sense of creativity and style to do the job.

The fourth point is setting a deadline. This can sound too obvious but you would be amazed about how many times I’ve seen tasks assigned without mentioning when the job should be completed. Not setting a deadline is a big mistake. Firstly, because we might not get the job done on time or it may have quality issues because the employee rush to finish it. The second reason is that we don’t give the employee the opportunity to manage his own time. If he has several tasks without deadline, how can he organise and prioritise his work?

In contrast, giving the worker a tight deadline to have an excessive margin for corrections, is also undesirable because leaving too much time would put unnecessary pressure on your employees. When managers do this it is usually because they are afraid of not having the job ready on time, especially if the job is important.

An extra option for complex or long projects could be setting milestones. If that is the case, we need to be sure to define objectives for them, otherwise we might find out that the employee hasn’t been working enough in the task and we don’t have anything substantial to review. We need to tell the person what we expect to see at that point: a draft, a plan, some test result, etc.

The fifth point is giving the necessary support and resources to get the job done. You need to check if the employee has everything he needs or at least that he can procure it by himself. This resources could be:

  • samples and templates
  • information related to the task like standards, normative, guidelines or papers related to it
  • Other resources like facilities (to have meetings, to test elements, etc.), tools or special equipment, even uncommon stationery.

In case of delegating tasks to junior employees it’s also useful to consider:

  • Giving them tips about where to find information
  • Referring them to senior employees to get some advice with some aspects of the job
  • Remind them about upcoming deadlines in case their time management is not well developed

The sixth and last point is recognising a good job. A good leader always shares the merits. Of course you always need to verbally thank the worker; but it’s also important to go a step further and try to put the name of the author on the work. If that is not possible, try to mention the author during the presentation meeting.

For great achievements, a public recognition in front of his peers it’s another good way to acknowledge the employee, but do not overdo it because people will quickly get used to it and it will lose its value.

Correctly managed, effective delegation not only will increase the efficiency of your team, it could be used as a powerful tool to empower your people. It’s true that as a manager you have many things to worry about and the easiest way of getting things done is giving the difficult tasks to your senior employees, leaving the easy simple ones for your junior team members. This is an effective practice, but many times junior employees get frustrated because they do simple tasks without the possibility to show their full potential.

So, when you come across a complex task with enough time available, you can assign it to one of your junior employees to challenge him and give him the opportunity to show what he is capable of doing. In that case, you should schedule intermediate meetings to review his progress and you can even assign a senior employee to coach him but always leaving enough room for him to do it in his own way.

My final advice about this matter is: don’t do it yourself. Many managers struggle in delegating tasks and end up doing the job themselves to meet a deadline. It happened to me in the past, but we need to learned from it and identified what went wrong to avoid that situation in the future. Usually, if you try to follow the six points I mentioned, you will dramatically increase your chances of getting the job done.

About Claudio

Claudio Insaurralde is an independent Reliability and Asset Management Consultant and has over 10 years’ experience in engineering management within the defence aviation and manufacturing sectors. He graduated with honours from the Argentinean Air Force Officers Academy and holds a Bachelor degree in Electronics Engineering and a postgraduate certificate in management. Claudio is the TEMS Chapter Chair for the IEEE Victorian Section and a member of the IEEE Region 10 Industry Relations Committee.

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