A formidable challenge facing corporate management is successful transformation of technologists into managers. Yet, many corporations have abdicated this responsibility and instead, leave it to individuals to develop the requisite skills on their own. As a result, what prospective technical supervisors and potential engineering managers must realize from the outset is that to be effective, they must figure out how to develop professional skills that encompass technical, administrative, and interpersonal characteristics themselves.

Most studies repeat the stereotype that the chief cause of engineers’ managerial failure is poor interpersonal skills. Even though we can recite instances of engineering managers who are both better liked and more skilled than their non-technical peers, the belief still persists that many engineers and technologists are more comfortable dealing with laboratory matters than dealing with people. Even acclaimed expert Michael K. Badawy, of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Falls Church, Va.), repeats the hackneyed cliche that many of them are also "loners" and are used to doing things for themselves.

“Once promoted to management, however, they have to delegate responsibility to others," he observes, “and they often find this extremely difficult, especially if they have less than complete confidence in their subordinates’ abilities." Many engineers (and even some engineering managers), find that their advancement and managerial careers are limited more by human factors than by technical ability.

However, by becoming familiar with and following the guidelines assembled by Badawy in IEEE’s Engineering Management Review, engineers and engineering managers alike will enhance their chances for technical management success.

His program includes the following:

1. Understand the common myths and misconceptions about managing.

  • Successful leaders are born. Not so. While some traits, such as aptitude, intelligence, and talent are innate, considerable evidence suggests that managerial skills are learnable.
  • A good manager can manage anything. A myth from the MBA schools. Technology-based organizations have unique characteristics that differentiate them from other types of organizations. Managerial practices are contextual; their effectiveness depends on the context and the organizational setting in which they are carried out. A managerial style that might work in one setting might prove largely ineffective in another where the mission, goals, culture, structure, and the staff’s orientation and background are not the same.
  • In management, there is usually one best way to do things. Wrong. There are many ways and styles to carry out policies and procedures. Matching behavioral patterns and managerial styles to the requirements of the situation are the keys to managerial success.

    2. Avoid self-induced causes of failure. Because poor interpersonal skills are the single-most important cause for managerial failure, engineering managers and those aspiring to that level need to recognize and deal with the following traps:

  • Inability to get along. The engineering supervisor/ manager who finds it difficult to interact and build harmonious relationships with superiors, associates, and subordinates would be a big hindrance to teamwork. It is also an obstacle to the manager’s high performance and career advancement.
  • Failure to adapt and manage change. Current sweeping changes in business environments, corporate restructuring and downsizing, global strategic alliances, joint ventures, and mergers require corresponding changes in managerial styles. Technology supervisors and managers often find it difficult to adapt their entrepreneurial styles to the more team-oriented approaches to management.
  • The "me only" syndrome. While it is only human for managers to want personal rewards and recognition, becoming too preoccupied with themselves is not. They can quickly alienate associates and subordinates if they are incapable of selfless acts. Successful managers have to be authentic team players in today’s leaner environment.
  • Fear of action. Successful managers are usually action-oriented. Decisions often have to be made based on incomplete information. Managing ambiguity is part of their passion. However, half-hearted managers may be limited by their inability to put themselves on the line. Superb engineers and technologists might be diligent workers with new ideas, but without the passion or conviction to sell them. Underlying this lack of commitment, is a strong fear of failure. Such managers try to prevent a fall by avoiding action, but in doing so, they actually hasten their demise.
  • Inability to rebound. Successful managers have a strong capacity for learning by failing. They recognize their mistakes and try to correct them. The ability to handle failure well and weather a setback can make or break a climb to the top.

    3. Beware of the signs that your company might be vulnerable to bad ideas. The following features are valuable signs to look for. They are indicators that your company is vulnerable to bad ideas.

  • Upper management and middle management have little in common. If this is the case, then too much time will be spent trying to determine what is wanted and what is meant at the expense of paying attention to the value of what is being done.
  • Any disagreement with the boss seems to turn into an exit interview. Obviously, if the boss comes up with a bad idea, everyone will love it. This automatic blessing of bad ideas can permeate throughout the organization.
  • The organization is headed by a succession of CEOs, none of whom lasts more than three years. Under these circumstances, there can be no long-term policy, only a succession of quick fixes, which is a natural entry point for bad ideas.
  • There are more consultants than managers on the premise. Consultants are needed to provide expertise that is not available in the organization. When management goes beyond these requirements and tries to throw consultants at every problem, a withering crossfire of analysis and recommendation ensues. In the confusion, bad ideas often can slip in undetected.
  • Executive discussion is littered with jargon. In moderation it is relatively harmless, however, its excessive use can muddle communication. In heavy doses, it can make worthless ideas sound important. Enough, in fact, to be acted on.

    4. Learn the five premises for managerial skills development.

  • Technical managers are made and managerial skills can be developed. Managerial performance depends on fundamental skills rather than on personality traits. Desirable traits do not guarantee a good or superior performance; good skills do.
  • Managing is a skill; the only way to learn it is to practice it. Obviously the study and development of the technologist’s management knowledge and skills can be quite satisfying from a personal and professional standpoint. However, the only way to develop these skills is by putting the knowledge into action.
  • Management, unlike engineering and science, is an applied social science; it is also an art. Management, like engineering is an applied art; unlike engineering, it is also a social science. The field of management certainly offers the manager much less in the way of specific tools and techniques than physics offers the physicist. Due to the nature of its subject matter and the diversity of management problems and situations, the field of management does not lend itself to the application of the scientific method. The practice of management requires imagination, creativity, judgment, and experience.
  • There are no poor engineers, only poor managers. If managers have excellent resources but manage them poorly, they will get nothing but poor results. There are, admittedly, variations in abilities and skills among engineers. However, these variations are probably larger among technical managers than among technologists. While managerial principles and theories are transferable across organizations and cultures, managerial practices and skills must be tailored to fit certain situations and organizations.
  • The primary problems of managing technology are not technical, they are human. Many technical managers fail because they were never trained in managing people. Therefore, their interpersonal and social skills remain largely underdeveloped. Developing these skills is the key for preventing failure and achieving superior managerial performance.
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