The Art of Engineering Leadership

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

If you’re an engineering techie, whether you’re a senior engineer or raw recruit, whether you’re an instrument technician or maintenance mechanic, you can enhance your job, your results – and your pay – by acquiring some leadership skills.

This article was published by:
Check out, August 2004

We previously discussed the propensity for engineers to focus on details, rather than the overall, broad picture. And that's why too few engineers become leaders. I’d like to follow on with some positive ideas on what engineers can do to develop their own leadership skills.

Understand the objectives

A leader must understand goals and have the capacity to plan the steps needed to accomplish them. This does not imply trying to understand grand corporate objectives. It means projects and schedules within your own scope of work. And go beyond that, as far as you can: Who generated the need for this project? How was it budgeted? What are the maximum and minimum results expected? What is the real urgency?

Success involves identifying the correct results required and knowing the right steps — which includes recognizing the wrong steps. Leaders must have a clear understanding of what it takes to accomplish the overall objective effectively. And that means doing the job quickly, and well. On budget, on time.

A leader does not require detailed knowledge; it suffices to have someone on the team who has the required expertise. It’s important for the leader to recognize what is needed, and where to get it. The broad knowledge is important, not the details.

Willing followers

First and foremost, leadership involves willing followers – people who are motivated to work with you to accomplish the objectives. When workers put in their best efforts, leaders must offer something in return – respect, encouragement, appreciation and reward. Getting the best out of people is the hallmark of a good leader.

Different people have different needs and motivations. Spend some time with each person on your team, listening to their ideas. Here’s an old axiom that helps: “People like to do what they’re good at, and good at what they like to do.” Understanding what a person enjoys will go a long way towards getting the best out of that person.

The days of the slave-driver are long gone; intimidation achieves very little beyond immediate acceptance by timid followers, or angry rejection by good workers. People who are yelled at may go back to do the job correctly, but it’s never their best effort. Leaders have the ability to inspire and motivate people to do their best.

TORI – Trust, Openness, Respect, Interdependence

A good leader trusts, which engenders trust. Don’t hide mistakes. When there is a setback, share your problems openly and get the team involved in solutions. Respect peoples differences and needs, their weaknesses and their strengths. Use people for their skills, and provide teamwork where experience is lacking.

Celebrate small successes. Give credit when it’s due. Get the team involved in recognition of jobs well done. When extra effort is put in, recognize and reward it appropriately. Don’t bribe – motivate.

For some, winning an argument provides a false sense of control and leadership. Good communication seeks to achieve and resolve, not to defeat or humiliate others. Never back anyone into a corner. Don’t seek to prove the other person wrong. It is important to remember that no one is always right.

Leaders have confidence in themselves, and the people working for them. No matter what the situation, when a problem comes up the leader takes responsibility. The best way to solve problems is to resolve it by focusing 100% on the solutions. And after the problem has been resolved, review the “lessons learned.” The benefit of leadership is that everyone can learn from both success and failure – bad and good experiences alike. Problem solving can be a good experience and a great builder of character and leadership.

Taking responsibility

Recognizing mistakes is often the best sign of leadership. Leaders stimulate teamwork, without blame. They expect results, and look for solutions when results are below expectations.

Think about this – taking the blame, means taking responsibility. When I was a CEO, I learned quickly that “finger-pointing” was an unfair way to shirk responsibility. I looked for people who accepted the blame when something went wrong – I promoted them quickly for taking responsibility.

If you make a mistake, admit it. It is surprising how quickly people will support someone who accepts the blame. A team quickly closes ranks and solves the problem behind a person who admits failure. Indeed, failure is “experience” which is unlikely to be repeated.

A successful senior executive at HP relates this insightful story: He was product manager for a calculator which developed keyboard reliability problems. He was called to CEO Dave Packard’s office to explain the problems, the reasons for failure and the solutions. After he presented the truth, expecting to be chewed out, he was told that he was promoted to lead the product management team on the next major product” When he asked why he was chosen, Dave Packard said simply, “You failed on your first project; it’s unlikely that you’ll fail on this next, more important project. Someone new would not have your experience.” That next product turned out to be a best-selling HP calculator.

Rewards follow success

Good leaders don’t need status to inspire support and best efforts. More money and titles follow good results. What counts most is the ability to bring out the best in others. Leaders rely on good people, and good people deliver because they know that they are relied upon.

Most important – know your customer. These are the people (inside or outside your company) for whom you are doing the work. Leaders know and care for their core customers, because they recognize that the impression they make on a customer today will dictate the tone of their relationship with that customer in the future. Satisfaction with a job well done brings customers back to generate success for all involved.

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Copyright 2003 : Jim Pinto, San Diego, CA, USA