Can Good Engineers Make Good Managers?

February 5, 2008

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The world today needs creative leadership and technological entrepreneurship. So why do so many companies still believe that effective, science-minded engineers invariably will fail as good managers?

"Most engineers become managers in their careers, and typically they are unprepared for the transition," according to a paper that appeared in Engineering Management Journal in 2002.

Why, after all these years, is this view so widely held? Especially in large corporations?

Perhaps this view flows from an assumption that engineers prefer working with things (materials) and the laws of physics rather than managing people with their complex mix of emotions, passions, habits and some logic. Those who hold this perspective may not realize that many engineers enter the profession to help people meet their basic needs for lodging, food preparation, mobility, communication and health. Architectural engineers, food-processing engineers, transportation engineers, biomedical engineers and many others simply wanted to solve human problems technologically.

Engineers can make good managers as long as they are willing to continue enhancing their skill-set beyond academic study. On the job, an engineer can develop "a broad understanding and a clear vision of various administrative, financial, and psychological issues," regardless that some people feel an engineering education hinders such learning, says Manufacturing Engineering Magazine.

"Understanding how to recognize and evaluate market opportunities has become crucial," according to a 2005 editorial in the magazine. It lists many management skills in which engineers must excel, including (edited):

  • Ability to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity;
  • Possessing effective lateral (functional) thinking and vertical (in-depth) thinking;
  • Maintaining a team player's attitude;
  • Explaining and persuading;
  • Thinking internationally;
  • Flexibility;
  • Taking reasonable risks and responsibilities;
  • Possessing knowledge of foreign values, attitudes and customers;
  • Communicating well orally and graphically;
  • Using various types of software and hardware; and
  • Having a quick grasp of new approaches and ideas.

Perhaps most important, however, is passion and the ability to lead.

Let's start with leadership, because "leadership is moving beyond management," as the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) puts it.

In a 2007 Engineers & Technology paper, Robin McGill described some steps he took between engineering and becoming chief executive at IET, an international society for the engineering and technology community. He got through his first experience of supervising by "engaging people and not being frightened to ask for help."

The real challenge, he said, "was getting people aligned, getting them to function at the highest possible level and getting them to identify with the strategy we were following."

Ou Shian Waei, managing director of IBM Malaysia, recently told The Edge Daily:

You need to know where the company's and even the staff's weaknesses are — you can't be shy and defensive about that. It needs to be properly conveyed to the staff. You can then identify your strengths and preserve as well as build them at the same time. It's all about trust, which eventually leads to the formation of passion. With passion, opportunities could be found whenever a problem occurs.

This leads us to passion in problem solving.

"The root of passion comes from understanding," Waei said. "You must have interest in the subject and want to explore it – and that's where your passion comes from – exploring," Waei said. He added, "it's passion that drives people to success."

Have you ever known an incurious engineer?

History is on the side that engineers can evolve into roles of managerial responsibility. After all, it was a young engineer named Kiichiro Toyoda who some 70 years ago founded the Toyota Motor Company. And today's Toyota Production System, not to mention a very strong management philosophy that exemplifies the success of engineers as managers, emerged from Toyoda's Company.

Since then, engineers have proven time and again that those in their profession possess the characteristics necessary to lead, never mind to manage. Why, then, does the view that good engineers invariably will fail as managers continue to be held?

We've only scratched the surface here. And while the question can only be answered based on the individual engineer, there is no good reason for professional engineers to imagine a glass ceiling holding them back in a management position as long as they can prove that when they take responsibility, success will follow.

Resources

Do Great Engineers Make Good Managers? by S. Rao Vallabbaneni IEEE, Nov. 7, 2002

The Passionate Manager by Joyce Au-Yong The Edge Daily, Jan. 7, 2008

Inventive Leadership by Ephram Suhir Manufacturing Engineering Magazine, Nov. 2, 2005

Leaders Lead by Luke Collins Institution of Engineering and Technology, February 2007

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