• From Engineer to Manager: Mastering the Transition (Part 1)

    Stock photo of 2 men at the end of a boardroom table
    April, 12 2022, Robert Sacks

    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 in a two part article with Claudio Insaurralde the IEEE Victorian Section TEMS Chair and Region 10 Industry Relations committee member

    Claudio started his career in the defense and aviation sector. He graduated with honours from the Argentinian Air Force Officers Academy and then got his degree in Electronics Engineering. After that, he worked in helicopters maintenance management at many levels, where he had the opportunity to lead groups of 80+ highly skilled technicians. He also worked as Maintenance and Engineering Manager for United Nations for 2 years. After 15 years in the Air Force, Claudio moved to the private sector working 5 years for Volkswagen Group as Reliability Engineer. In 2014 he moved to Australia and currently works as the Operations and Maintenance Manager at Quarrie Stone Pty. Ltd., a manufacturing company in Victoria and as Sessional Academic at La Trobe University.

    Claudio became an IEEE member at the University. He was the treasurer, vice-chair and chair of the Student Branch. He has lived in several countries and thanks to IEEE, has always found friendly and passionate people welcoming me and willing to help. Australia wasn’t the exception. He started working as a Victorian Section Committee member-at-large and currently serving as the chair of the local Technology and Engineering Management chapter and also a member of IEEE Region 10 Industry Relations Committee for Asia and Pacific.

    Why is the transition from an Engineer to Manager so important?

    When we are studying at the university and then as we start our career in engineering we are focused in succeeding in our profession so we tend to focus on the technical knowledge and skills. But one day we find ourselves facing a leadership or management role and we realise that we now need a completely brand new set of skills to succeed in this new role. So, in this sense it’s important to start paying attention to this set of skills earlier in our careers, so we can be better prepared when the opportunity comes up.

    In your opinion, do you feel that this transition is often not given enough transition and that engineers are often expected to make the leap without formal training/education?

    Unfortunately, I think that is usually the case. Maybe some large companies have some kind of career path to prepare their employees to face management roles. But even in those cases the training is really limited and usually not enough. That is why I put a strong emphasis during the workshop on the idea that, besides learning about many management/leadership topics, the main objective of the workshop was to increase the awareness of young engineers about this different set of skills so they can start developing them from now on.

    Are good managers also good leaders and why is leadership important for managers?

    Leadership and Management are two different but complementary things and I think that ideally, managers should be also good leaders. A person could be a good manager, fulfil all his responsibilities related to the position, even have a great vision and elaborate an effective strategy for his business or department. But in most cases, your team, your people are the ones that will make that plan, that vision happen. Of course, in many cases, managers can achieve their objectives without being great leaders. In normal situations people will just respond to their authority. But when they are facing really big challenges, when they want to achieve ambitious goals and they need their people to go for the extra mile, they will need to be good leaders so the people will follow them towards their goals.

    A person can be a good manager, fulfil all his responsibilities related to the position, even have a great vision and design an effective strategy for his business or department, but at the end of the day, it is his/her team, the ones that will make that plan, that vision happens. Of course, in many cases, managers can achieve their objectives without being great leaders and in normal situations people will just respond to their authority. But when they are facing really big challenges, when they want to achieve ambitious goals and they need their people to go for the extra mile, they will need to be good leaders, so they can genuinely engage their people to follow him/her towards their goals.

    In your presentation/workshop you talk about the 6 qualities of a leader Can you please describe to us each of these and give examples and why they are essential?

    If we search the Internet, we’ll find hundreds of list and qualities of a leader. Generally speaking, we can divide them in two kinds:

    skills and abilities (time management, delegation skills or problem solving capabilities) and
    core values (moral standards and principles that guide the way the leader behaves).
    These last ones are usually independent from the environment where leaders are working and are the ones I addressed during the workshop, picking the six I think must be present in leaders to succeed in their role.

    RESPECT – Of course a leader needs to treat his people with respect, but I broadened this concept to other three aspects of leadership and management.

    The first one is respecting your people’s knowledge. In the past “the boss” was supposed to know everything and he was never wrong. Nowadays, we know that a leader doesn’t necessary need to be the expert of the team. Although sometimes that will be the case, as soon as the project grows in complexity and becomes more multi-disciplinary, leaders face the fact that they can’t be experts in everything.

    That’s why leaders need to learn to appreciate, respect and use their people’s knowledge focusing on getting the most of the team to and achieving the objectives. Sometimes this is difficult for young engineers on leadership roles, especially when they need to deal with technicians and workers with loads of experience. In that situations, if they try to lead people with a “I know everything” attitude, they won’t get too far.

    Even your most junior employee can come up with an excellent idea, so you need to always take the time to listen to your people’s suggestions.

    The second one is being respectful when facing problems or dealing with people’s mistakes. Sometimes there are really polite leaders that suddenly get mad when something goes wrong. The key here is to focus on the problem and not on the person. Even when dealing with serious issues, if people feel attacked, they won’t be receptive to what their leader is saying. What is more, they will become defensive and the opportunity to find a solution or prevent the problem from happening again will be lost.

    Finally, there is the respect for other people’s authority. As you move forward in your career you will probably end up having supervisors and other managers under your responsibility. It is common to see a manager arrive to a place and start giving orders and reassigning tasks to the people around while the supervisor is there. Never go over your supervisor’s authority: you can delegate them what you want to do or eventually, acknowledge their presence and let him/her know that you are going to give some tasks to their people.

    TRUST – This concept is simple but also paramount for a leader. People need to feel that they can trust you. This is something really difficult to achieve and extremely easy to loose. Trust must be gained and the only way of doing it is proving it with your acts.

    There is no magic recipe for this, but some things that you need to consider are:

    Be honest and ethical
    Don’t promise what you can’t do, even when you are really busy and you want to agree just to keep working. This kind of attitude will damage your people’s trust
    Take responsibility for your position. This involves taking responsibility of your actions and mistakes (at least the ones that affect your people) as well as your team ones. In the past, a boss that recognised his mistakes could be perceived as weak. Nowadays, we agree that nobody is perfect, so taking responsibility for your mistakes as a manager will show your people that you are honest, human and will help in building their trust.
    INSPIRATION – This is a really important one. In fast-paced environments where pressure and demands are constantly increasing, managers can find themselves trying to achieve challenging and ambitious objectives. Consequently, they would need their people to be willing to go the extra mile and that cannot be forced.

    EMPOWER – Managers want the best professionals in the company or even in the market to be in their team. This ideal situation might be a bit far from truth and in reality we’ll end up having a group of people with their strengths and weaknesses.

    As a manager and leader you need to discover and develop the dormant potential in your people, you need to be a facilitator for then to achieve their best selves. There are different ways of doing this. The first one, and most common is by providing training. And alternate and interesting way is by giving a person the chance to show his potential.

    I came across this last situation many years ago when I was working in aviation maintenance. There, there was a woman who worked in the administrative area, in the last office down the corridor, doing only some simple filing tasks. She was extremely shy, always slouching and barely speaking. One day a new general manager arrived and he didn’t get along with his secretary, who in fact was a very efficient person, so he started giving some work to this shy lady. To our surprise, she did really good. In fact, the manager started giving her more and more tasks to do and she responded accordingly. We had never thought about her as an efficient person before and the only thing she had needed was an opportunity to show what she was capable of doing. That was a big lesson for me, managers usually put labels to their employees, this guy is lazy, that one is inefficient, and so on, while maybe the only thing they need is an opportunity to unleash their potentiality and excel in their job.

    COMMUNICATION – This is one of the most important. I left it towards the end, to make it easier to highlight that you use communications skills to do everything I told before. You use it to inspire your people, to empower them, to give feedback, to delegate, everything is somewhat related to communications.

    As a manager, you need to be aware of the power of words. You can develop the best possible plan but if then you fail in communicating your ideas to your team, the results will be far from what you’d expected.

    LEADING BY EXAMPLE – This is crucial for a leader because you can tell your people how good leader you are, but at the end of the day, people will get to know you through your acts.

    The situations where I’ve seen this contradiction more often is in safety issues. I’ve seen many supervisors that spend lot of time telling their team to use the personal protection equipment, to work safely, etc. to then, when they need to do some hands on job, they just jump into it without any protective element, like if they were some kind of super-employee. After seeing that, their team won’t take their recommendations seriously anymore.

    So, as managers you need to be the role model about what you expect from them in terms of safety, honesty, respect, attitude, passion and responsibility.

    All in all, the important thing is to find the style that matches your personality. While we can find some wrong leadership styles, most of leadership styles can be effective on the right person.

    Probably, as a young professional you won’t be able to put this in practice altogether, but a great way to develop your own leadership style is to start observing and paying attention to the leaders you have around you. In this way, you will identify what they do right, what they do wrong and start building your own leadership qualities and style.

    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.