How To Make The Transition From Engineer To Leadership

Some people think that engineers don’t make the best leaders, though this isn’t necessarily the case. Engineers are known for being detail-oriented, problem-solving, deep level thinking and working alone. The challenge is cultivating the ability to motivate a team. Engineers who can do this are in an ideal situation, because their high-level perspective, curiosity and tenacity lead to solutions for the whole organization. Let’s learn how to make the transition from engineer to leader.

Change Your Definition of Being Right

Engineers are used to finding the one right solution by themselves. They also tend to see their one solution as being the only right way.

Engineers logically defend their solution, because their professional reputation depends on finding the solution and delivering it successfully. Managers are accountable for final outcomes, too. However, they have to be able to let the team come up with a solution and implement it. Engineers can lead teams when they’re willing to allow them to test many different possible solutions and come up with the best one, then give them the resources and plan to deliver it.

Understand Your Ideal Career Path

Technical managers are much more likely to be promoted from within and rise up the ranks than most disciplines. This is often a practical matter for organizations, since the technical expert is, by definition, an expert on the technology that the company relies upon. They can’t just drop an MBA into the IT department and manage it well. This also means that engineers and other technology experts can easily move into management by earning an MBA.

The next step in one’s career is generally heading a team or department of people with your same background. Do this well, and you could be promoted to general management. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can’t make this career move. Leadership is not something you’re born with; it is a skill that is cultivated – like your technical expertise.

Learn How to Manage People

Engineers are typically technical experts. Managers have to have additional expertise in managing people. An online MBA for engineers allows them to learn these skills in an efficient way. Then you can direct people in addition to planning every aspect of the project. You’ll be able to make individuals as well as processes as efficient as possible. You’ll be able to predict not just shifts in technology and industry, but how people themselves will act and react to changes.

There are a number of benefits to earning an MBA. Engineers earn on average anywhere from $60,000 to $80,000 a year. Project managers do a little better, coming in at $85,000 a year. An MBA prepares you for that role as well as engineering management roles. For example, the average engineering manager earns around $110,000 a year. If you’re promoted to a director’s position, the median pay is around $140,000. Engineers with less than five years of experience have an average pay rate of $90,000 a year. With five to ten years of experience, pay rates reach $110,000 a year on average. Median pay hits $120,000 a year once you have more than a decade of experience. That makes an MBA a worthwhile investment.

Adopt a Business Mindset

Technical experts tend to measure success based on metrics related to the technology. This isn’t good enough to lead teams working toward broader business objectives. Engineering managers must have a business mindset. For example, you can’t just go with the most high-tech solution; it has to fit the budget and offer a decent return on the investment. You can’t propose solutions without considering the impact to the rest of the company, either.

Learn to Let Go of Control

Managers don’t have to let go and let things proceed in a random direction. Instead, they need to let go of control. The manager’s job isn’t to micromanage every member of the team the way an engineer may have tightly controlled every aspect of their own project. Instead, the goal is to cultivate talent and empower people to do the right thing. And then the manager has to let go of control and hand it to the team.

This doesn’t mean the engineering manager has nothing to do. The manager’s job is to craft a vision, organize the team, explain the requirements of the project, provide resources and set the schedule. You also have to manage your own time and energy, because you’re going to face many competing priorities on a daily basis.

Another thing you’ll have to do is develop your human side and find ways to keep your team engaged. You’ll need to communicate issues and changes to your team, and you’ll have to encourage people to keep them going when roadblocks arise or they make mistakes.

In all cases, always make sure that they feel valued. Learn their personalities and identify their strengths so you can reinforce them. Communicate with them preemptively and encourage them often. Ask them if they’d like feedback before they turn in an important project instead of expressing your dissatisfaction after the fact. These are all things that will not only improve relationships between you and your team, but make them more efficient in their work.

Ask for Help

Engineers turned managers need to be willing to ask for help. They benefit from coaching from existing managers to improve their own people skills and handle issues in their team. Learn more about how to manage people and lead teams from every resource you can identify. An executive coach could help you in this regard, too. If you pursue an advanced degree, ask questions and learn.

Engineers have many skills that make them ideal managers. However, they need to cultivate expertise and skills that allow them to head technical projects or entire departments. Make sure that you have what it takes to be a strong leader, and add some feathers to your cap to fill any gaps in skills that you may have.


Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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