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How to Innovate and Accelerate Leadership Development for Engineers, Part 1


Thu Dec 07 2017

How to Innovate and Accelerate Leadership Development for Engineers, Part 1

It is said that an engineer is hired for technical skills, fired for poor people skills, and promoted for leadership and management skills. If your organization depends on engineers to step into leadership positions, and you have been frustrated with their progress, there is good news for you.

Organizations that employ engineering professionals almost universally depend on them to grow into management and leadership roles. However, engineers commonly resist these roles as contrary to their identity, and few organizations provide adequate support in the critical transition from engineer to manager or leader. Innovation in an organization can languish, and with it financial performance. Fortunately, new approaches show engineers how leadership is the natural extension of engineering, therefore making it attractive to become a leader.


While an engineer may be hired for technical skills, these skills become obsolete within a few years without considerable updating as technology advances. Nevertheless, other aspects of their skill set, notably problem solving and systems thinking, readily transfer to leadership. When an engineer can see an organization as a system, he or she can readily appreciate how finding good leverage points can bring about dramatic and beneficial change.

Contrary to stereotype, engineers make excellent leaders, and they can be quick students. In the 2017 Harvard Business Review ranking of the 100 best-performing CEOs in the world, it was no surprise that 29 MBAs made the list. But who would have predicted that a greater number, 32, of these top CEOs had engineering degrees? As a second touch point, Colin Funk of the leadership development faculty at the Banff Centre in Canada says that of all the people who complete their arts-based programs, it is engineers who “get” leadership the best. The key is in how leadership and the organization are presented to engineers.

Three important themes must guide the leadership development of engineers. First, leadership is not only compatible with the engineering identity, but it is the fulfillment of that identity. Second, an organization is unlike a technical system; rather, it is a system that evolves and self-organizes. Accordingly, approaches used to exercise leadership in such a system are different than those for design and direction of a technical system but nevertheless readily understood by engineers.

Finally, leadership very much involves problem solving and optimizing—two skills that are squarely in the engineering skill set. These considerations make leadership attractive and familiar, which can greatly accelerate the transition from a technical role. In fact, leadership development works best when facilitated by a leader-engineer for two reasons:

  1. Leadership is most meaningful to an engineer when presented in context to engineering work, for example, a relevant engineering project.

  2. Engineers give more credence to other engineers than to non-engineers.

    Investing in leadership development for the engineering staff can offer dramatic ROI in many respects, notably improved project outcomes and time-to-market.

    Part 2 of this series will demonstrate how to implement this engineering leadership development framework across the various stages of talent development. This innovation in leadership development illuminates a bridge from engineering to leadership that augments an engineer’s identity and professional practice. Indeed, the implementation of this engineering leadership development framework becomes an important element for an organization’s talent development strategy and branding.

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