The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

The problem with most managers

Here’s a tale of two managers. Can you relate to either?

Shontelle: She was one of my top engineers. She analyzed each problem to the nth degree. She was thorough and logical. A real problem solver. That’s why she was promoted to a team leader position. And that’s when things started to go wrong. It didn’t happen at first. I began to hear disgruntled team members complaining. Eventually, they were at my door. “She disregards my input. I don’t know why I even try.” “She never tells us anything. She keeps everything to herself.” “She barks orders like we’re trained seals.” Ultimately people left for other positions or transferred to another part of the organization. We were left with those who had no other options.

Edgar: There was a key opening in my office. It was a high-level position in our engineering organization. Until now it was filled by an engineer with a background in our work. But the new hire wasn’t an engineer. It was the buzz of the office. Could a non-engineer be successful in this role? The answer was yes, a thousand times, yes. The staff loved him. He empathized with their work struggles. He listened to their dilemmas and helped them sort out project decisions. And he knew the names of all their kids. Everyone wanted to work for him and we drew in top talent.

This is not an unusual situation. What is unusual is that we replay it over and over and make the same mistakes. The core problem is a misunderstanding of the skills needed to be successful at management. There are three mindset shifts needed to transform from technical professional to manager.

Leadership attributes and competencies

Recently, I interviewed 18 leaders in the transportation engineering industry. Leaders came from private companies, associations, universities, and public agencies. I asked them to describe the skills that make technical staff (like engineers) good at their job and I asked for the skills needed to successfully manage in an engineering organization. While I will write more about those interviews in the upcoming months, I replicated their answers with several groups of technical professionals.

When asked about the skills that make technical people good at their job, I hear:

When asked about the skills of successful managers, I hear:

The difference is The Gap. Technical organizations continually misunderstand and underestimate The Gap. To better understand and mitigate The Gap, the interviews pinpointed three areas where technical professionals need a mindset shift if they are to become successful leaders.

How to become a successful leader

Mindset Shift 1.

Get the right answer becomes get the best answer for the circumstances. Engineers, in particular, are taught to be precise, thorough, and analytical. That’s what it takes to get THE right answer. After all, whether it’s surveying, concrete beam design, water system design, statics, or dynamics, there IS a right answer. Find it, we succeed; get it wrong, we fail – literally. But in management, there is rarely a single, definitive right answer.

Management decisions – which are riddled with people issues – are seldom that precise. Non-technical factors must be considered with equal importance as factual information. The successful leader integrates factual and non-technical factors to find the best answer for the circumstances. It requires letting go of the need for THE right answer.

Mindset shift 2.

A structured approach becomes a flexible approach. Technical professionals are taught to use a logical, analytical approach to problem-solving. We define the problem, gather the data, do an analysis, evaluate results, determine the answer. Then we craft an equally logical, step-by-step briefing approach. We assume that everyone will want to know ALL the details about each step because it’s important (and, to us, interesting).

Frequently, clients, elected officials, citizens or the big boss have little tolerance or need for that level of analytical detail. Eyes glaze over and they say, “I only want to know what time it is, not how to build a watch.” The successful manager reads the room and adapts to meet the interests of the audience. They may need to spin on a dime to reorder the briefing, skip the analytics, and get to the bottom line. It’s tough for us engineers to “skip the analytics” when that’s the part we love best. It’s another tough shift in mindset for the tech professional.

Mindset shift 3.

Just the facts become consider relationships, too. Technical professionals come with an internal operating system that understands, craves, and values factual information. We can logically organize complex issues and get to sound, rational recommendations. We love this stuff. And we sometimes forget about people. We don’t entirely forget them but we overlook them because our heads are elsewhere.

Managers on the other hand flip that approach. “Empathy” was one of the most common words I heard in describing a good manager. Managers learn to value and cultivate relationships with others. It’s not that tech professionals don’t want relationships but in an over-subscribed day, something has to give. That something is usually talking and connecting with colleagues to learn about and support them. One engineer who successfully bridged the gap into leadership said, “I had to learn that spending time developing relationships isn’t wasted time it is invested time.” This, too, is a big mindset shift and one that is critically important to becoming a successful manager.

Technical people can be great leaders

In the coming months, I’ll write more about bridging The Gap and I’ll share the wisdom of these leaders. For now, consider the big three mindset shifts that an individual technical person must work on to be successful in management. These shifts are not trivial. Each requires rewiring brain patterns that are long-standing and have, in the past, led to rewards. These existing patterns must be replaced with new patterns that, over time, develop a new track record for success.

Technical professionals, we can do this. And we need to start now.

If you need support with these shifts, call or email Shelley.

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