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1st Time Engineering Managers: Key Insights for Success

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

This is first in a series of articles that will share key insights gleaned while leading an Engineering Management Academy over the past 3 years. These coaching sessions involved over one hundred engineering professionals from the mobility industry (Automotive, Aerospace & Off-Highway).

Great engineering managers can create enhanced employee engagement and enable a huge advantage for their organization. These managers can be key enablers in attracting, developing and retaining talent.This is especially useful in light of the current talent shortage faced by the mobility industry. Any company, whose managers are able to take "average" talent and use their superior leadership skills to coach it to an exceptional level of performance, stands to gain a significant edge over the competition. The superiors of first time engineering Managers as well as the organization's Human Resources Department can enjoy huge ROI in the learning & development for their first time engineering managers.

Perception- “What comes to your mind when you think of engineers?”

Before you read any further…

…please make a mental list.

Most people I ask this, tend to mention the following…

  • Over 130 credits of rigorous education spread over 4 years or more of college

  • Analytical, Logical, Problem Solvers, Process driven, Innovators

  • Love solving problems

  • Love figuring out how things work & how to make them better

  • Good in Math and Science

Very few, if any, say…

  • Good managers

  • Great E.Q. (Emotional Quotient)

  • Awesome people skills

  • Great leaders

  • Great coaches

Self rating

Engineering Management Academy attendees were asked to rate their skills as High, Medium or Low in the following managerial areas: Communication Skills, Conflict Resolution, Negotiation Skills, Coaching & Mentoring, Building High Performance Teams, Decision Making, Giving Feedback, Selection & Interviewing. The distribution of their responses is shown in the chart below:

The truth is, engineers CAN and DO make great leaders. According to a Harvard Business Review report from 2014, 24% of the 100 Top performing CEO’s had educational background in engineering. Efficiency, reliability and the ability to navigate through trade-offs comes naturally to engineers. Their educational training helps them master the art of making things better and more efficient. The HBR report argues that engineers can apply this skill to organizations and people just as they apply it to machines and things.

Yet, stereotyping of engineers persists.


Here are some observations that may help explain this:

  1. Only 16-20 credits during an engineering degree are for non-technical topics. The majority of Universities require minimal or no “soft” skills courses for someone pursuing an engineering degree

  2. This lack of focus on developing people skills seems to be the norm even among employers. So even after joining the business world, most engineers don’t have this skill set

  3. Engineers may get promoted to lead teams due to good performance as individual contributors. Yet, most organizations don’t have formal learning and development programs in place for such first time managers. 

  4. Without proper engineering management learning and development, even great engineers can struggle in their new role as managers, feel less confident and inadvertently end up being “inadequate” or “bad” managers and leaders

The Ground Reality

The reality is that organizations and people pose a unique challenge. Dealing with people is not the same as dealing with machines and things. The importance of E.Q. and people skills for ensuring engineering management success cannot be over-emphasized. A strength (engineer’s analytical and logical competency) if overdone and especially done at the expense of EQ, can become a constraint. Therefore, engineers’ analytical strengths and IQ have to be supplemented with ‘soft skills’ and developing EQ so that they can deal successfully with people and organizations and prove to be good managers.

The 24% mentioned in the HBR report, perhaps had better opportunities than most engineers, to develop their people skills. My hypothesis is that if more engineers were guided and coached properly in engineering management skills, this % of engineers among top CEO’s would be even higher than 24%.

Here are some other interesting facts from the Engineering Management Academy

Started                                            : Dec 2013

Audience                                        : Engineering professionals from Automotive, Aerospace

and Off Highway industries

# of participating companies : 75

# of Engineering professionals

that have attended the academy : 120

Reasons listed by engineering professionals as to why they attended the academy

  • Roughly 1/3rd were about to be promoted but were uncertain of what to expect in their new role & wanted to be confident that they would manage well after the promotion

  • Approximately 1/2 of them had been in the management role for a while and were doing a good job. However they had never formally attended an elaborate learning session for engineering management skills. They recognized that further improvement was needed for them to go from “good” to “great”

  • The rest had been overlooked for promotions. They recognized and acknowledged the feedback of their HR and superiors and were eager to address skill gaps

One Need

In all these cases, the biggest trigger for change and attending the engineering academy, was a “Need” – a pain point. Personal growth is impossible if that need and pain point does not exist OR if it exists but the courage to embrace that vulnerability and seek intervention is missing. First time engineering managers, who perceive this need when presented with a leadership role, and take remedial action through proper training, can reap rich rewards in their career.

Lifelong Learning

The Engineering management academy fulfills this need over a period of 5 days in a safe learning environment that provides practical tools, techniques & road-maps to deliver results & higher productivity through:

  • Better talent acquisition

  • Better listening, written, verbal & presentation skills

  • Awesome meetings: Remote & face to face

  • Performance reviews that work

  • Creating and improving processes & tools

  • Conflict resolution

  • Creating a high performance mindset to ensure project success 

Experiential learning, role playing, activities and exercises that help:

  1. Handling direct report(s) who are having performance issues

  2. Improve employee engagement with situational leadership coaching, active listening and effective positive feedback

  3. Being self-aware of blind spots, personality styles & impact on others

  4. Successfully drive organizational and cultural change

  5. Panel discussion: Senior leaders from the industry who share practical tips

The learning tools, templates and road-maps covered in the academy are applied to real work related projects to show business results. This process is a continuous and a lifelong learning endeavor enabled by:

  • Access to resources: Materials, readings, books, online content

  • Peer discussion groups

  • 1 on 1 coaching that continues even after the academy, to increase the probability of success

This brilliant mixture of learning, support systems, guidance and hand holding in applying the skills back on the job, is the key enabler that builds confidence & helps deliver results. 

Infinite Possibilities- Engineering professionals that have gone through the program over the past 3 years have narrated amazing stories of workplace success:

  1. Improved self confidence

  2. Recognition from C level executives and superiors for becoming a star player

  3. Delivering Business results leading to promotions

  4. Hiring exceptional talent that delivered more and stayed longer with their employer than the talent selected by others

  5. Coaching & mentoring direct reports and new hires so that they not only enjoy working in the culture created by the academy attendees, but also achieve exceptional results

Infinite possibilities, thus, arise from a need & a focus on lifelong learning! Sky is the limit for engineers and organizations that augment their engineering skills with management abilities.

You can be the next person to be in the league of top CEOs with an engineering background. Take charge of your career!

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