Managing your Transition into Management (Engineers Australia March 1998)
Managers Lead and Motivate Staff
Motivation and leadership skills are essential for effective staff management. Managers’ ability to motivate staff comes from their power to administer rewards and punishment. Engineers who manage badly tend to place an over-reliance on punishment to get results. This can create more problems than it solves. For example, I have seen (bad) managers use their power to suspend staff from duties as a punishment for absenteeism. Irresponsible employees saw this as a positive hoot, giving them an opportunity for yet another day off. At the same time, a conscientious father was similarly punished because he could not find appropriate care for a sick child. Good engineering managers have learnt to use rewards to motivate their staff: by recognising individual needs, by redesigning their jobs or by setting challenging goals. They are not afraid of using punishment when appropriate, but when they do, the punishment ‘fits the crime’.
The absence of leadership skills impacts very differently in different industries. In manufacturing, engineers who have not successfully made the transition to manager, (forgetting hat they are now controlling people, rather than machines), simply have no perception that leadership is anything more than barking orders. They usually get compliance, but at the expense of disempowered employees (and often lost production). In the more decentralised structures of the construction industry (where they are managing other engineers) they go to the other extreme. They delegate every decision to the point of complete abnegation of their own responsibility. For example, one manager I knew of defied his own manager rather than insist that a number of his direct reports change their work practices to suit the organisation’s new strategy. As a result they made themselves redundant by refusing to change while his more competent staff left the organisation in disgust. Managers that have successfully made the transition from specialists (in both industries) understand when its appropriate to delegate, and by how much. They lead change by example; modelling the new behaviours that they expect of their staff.
Managers Interact with their Peers
Possibly the most difficult part of the transition is the need for engineering managers to build constructive relationships with their fellow (non-technical) managers, suppliers and customers. Specialist engineers often work in isolation from non-technical professionals. They have considerable autonomy and are generally left alone to focus on their task. As a result they develop their own jargon and tend to devalue the other management professions of marketing, accounting and human resources usually labelling them simply as ‘admin’. Life as a manager could not be more different. Each day brings a constant stream of interruptions and the continuing need to negotiate (or compete for resources) with other management professionals. The good engineering managers are prepared to accept that engineering is only one of many critical competencies that will ensure business success. They quickly pick up the skills needed to communicate with their peers, customers and suppliers and to contribute as an equal (not superior) team member. By contrast, the managers who have not made the transition well adopt a bunker mentality, locking themselves in their office for long periods so that they can get some ‘real work’ done without being bothered by ‘admin’. Consequently, they are often excluded from critical discussions to the detriment of the function they manage, their staff and their own careers.
Managers Make Strategic Decisions
Another element of the transition to manager is the new requirement to make strategic decisions. Specialist engineers may be given autonomy as to how they work on a project, but they do not decide which projects they work on. Managers, on the other hand, spend much of their time making (or contributing to) decisions that determine which business strategies will be followed, which projects will be worked on and the budget that will be available for their completion. These decisions are extremely important, as it will not matter how efficiently any department works if it is pursuing the wrong strategy or completing the wrong projects. Strategic decision-making requires an ability to step back and see the whole picture. After a career of focussing on their own specialisation, some engineers find this very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. As a result, they tend to ‘micro-manage’ their staff, getting so lost in operational details that they completely lose sight of the big picture. For example, one Production Manager I knew insisted on personally signing every single purchase order despite the fact that his direct reports were conscientious, highly qualified people. At the same time he was blissfully unaware of an emerging industrial relations situation that almost totally destroyed the company.
The good news for aspiring managers is that all these skills can be learnt. Once learnt, they should be regularly practiced until they are applied automatically. If you still wish to become a manager, first acquire skills in strategic and people management and in managing relationships and then seek out every opportunity to demonstrate that you can apply them. If a permanent management position is not available, temporary positions eg. filling in for a manager on leave, may give you that opportunity. Good luck.
For further assistance visit Change & Perform's Management Development Services or contact Kerry Feldman See below).
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