How an engineer becomes a manager

communicate management Jan 06, 2020

My guide, ‘From Engineer to Manager’ details 5 important issues and 8 key success strategies for engineers that have recently moved into a management role. But how does an engineer become a manager in the first place? The skills worth developing if you want to be a great manager are also behaviours that can be practised as an engineer prior to taking on the additional challenge of managing others.

Here are 8 areas to focus on in your career for your own benefit and if you want to be ready for the step up to management.

1. Be good at what you do and let people know

Being good at what you do is, of course, the first way you get noticed as an engineer. However, too many engineers aren’t very good at blowing their own trumpet. Of course, it would be great if your manager took an active interest in your development but many don’t or are simply too overloaded to notice your achievements. So when you’ve finished a qualification, learnt a new skill, delivered a project particularly well or any other accomplishment then find ways to let people know. You don’t need to be arrogant about it and I’d recommend putting it in writing. 

Here are some examples to get you started:

“Just thought I’d let you know that I’ve now completed the PRINCE 2 qualification. Thanks for funding the course and I’m looking forward to putting some of my new project management knowledge to work as soon as a suitable opportunity becomes available...”

“Good news. Project X has now been fully signed off by Big Company Ltd. They were delighted the project was completed two months early and in budget so I think there’s a good chance we’ll be working for them again. FYI, some of the strategies that worked particularly well were…”

“We had a complaint from production yesterday while you were out of the office. I’ve dealt with it and they now have the information they need. We had a chance to review what went wrong with the handover and I’ve attached a revised handover procedure for your review. Nobodies fault, just some details that both departments had missed…”

Get the idea? Just don’t forget to do it!

2. Make your manager look good

Making your manager’s life easier is a surefire way to get noticed and to be seen as someone who can be trusted. This doesn’t mean being a creep or playing ‘teachers pet’. It means taking time to get to know your manager, working to their strengths and helping them to cover their weaknesses. It’s what any good manager calls ‘managing upwards’. Think of it as a process of getting to know the people you need to work with and rely on to get your work done. Your manager is just one of those people and it’s worth taking the time to do it well. 

What if you don’t like your manager? Tough. We often don’t get to choose who we work with. When we have to work with someone who we wouldn’t normally get on with then I’d recommend taking on the responsibility to find a way to work together.

‘Difficult people’ are often great teachers. If you get curious and pay attention you’ll notice that the ‘awkward squad’ has a lot to teach you about your own flexibility and bias. 

No one wants to do a bad job. Help all those around you to do their best work - just as you would as the brilliant manager you could become.

3. Be proactive and solutions-focused

People who spot problems and sort them out without being asked are gold dust in any organisation. When I was a manager in the last major leadership role I used to have a sign by my desk which said, “I’d much rather have solutions than problems”. If people did come to me with problems the first questions I’d often ask is’ “What have you thought about doing?” or “What options have you considered”. This seemed to work well and, over time, my team would, more often than not, come to me with well-thought-through solutions and came to simply tell me what was happening and what they needed me to do to help. This is the ideal management scenario.

You also must be proactive about your own learning. You should be regularly asking:

Where do I want to take my career next?

What do I need to learn to be able to do that?

What’s the first step to making that happen?

Don’t wait for your next performance review to start making things happen. Take charge of your own development and start now.

4. Be self-aware

Easier said than done perhaps as most people don’t take time to reflect and think about self-awareness. There are many freely available profiling tools that will give you a good starting point. I recommend taking a look at which is a comprehensive take on one of the most mature profiling tools available, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI™).

There’s no doubt that great managers are very self-aware and actively work to both their strengths and weaknesses to be effective. You don’t need to be a manager to do so.

5. Appreciate difference

It’s a useful assumption to think that everyone else sees the world as we do but we miss a lot of fascinating difference when we do. The more you take time to reflect on your own preferences and biases the more curious you’ll become about the differences around you. Learning to appreciate and work with difference is key to being a great manager and it’s never too early to start.

6. Mentor and coach

Mentoring and coaching others is one of the most rewarding things you can do in any role.

When you coach those less experienced than you there are a number of benefits:

  • You get to practise your coaching skills
  • You help others learn
  • You learn more

The people you help are much more likely to be on your side when you get promoted

You don’t have to be a supervisor or manager to develop your mentoring and coaching skills and, again, it’s never too early to start.

7. Under-commit and over-deliver

This sounds like an obvious thing to say but there needs to be a health warning here. As a super-keen engineer, aspiring to management, you might fall into the trap of over-committing and working your socks off to live up to that commitment. You may fall into the even worse trap of not even being sure of how to deliver what you’ve promised and not being willing to say you’re not sure what you’re doing. As a manager, you will need to be able to set priorities and manage your workload. You also need to be able to know your limits and regularly ask for help from others. Being a good manager is about learning to say ‘No’ sometimes (diplomatically) and choosing what you focus on. As a new manager, I once complained about the number of ‘problems’ I had to deal with. My much more experienced manager said to me, “Managing is all about which problems you choose to focus on”. Very wise advice.

A good manager wants a healthy employee who delivers what they commit too rather than someone who is stressed out and doesn’t deliver. Over-deliver but look after yourself.

8. Network

Many people hate networking, largely because they think about it in the wrong way. The dictionary definition of networking is a ‘supportive system of sharing information and services among individuals and groups having a common interest’. Good networkers do one basic thing - take a genuine interest in the people they are talking to. Practise doing that and you’ll start to enjoy networking, learn a great deal more and, most importantly, create a valuable network of connections. You never know where an opportunity will crop up and who the decision-makers might be so it’s always worth getting to know people. 

Where to start? For all engineering disciplines, there are professional bodies you can join and this is a great way to expand your network, keep up to date and do some continuous professional development (CPD). I’d even go further and say it’s a waste of money joining a professional body and NOT networking. That’s where the value is. It might be nice to put letters after your name and get regular news updates but you should really be meeting other members in person if you want to get the most out of being a member.

Being in a large organisation has its pros and cons. One great advantage is the ability to network with people working in a similar role to yourself. The best engineering companies actively encourage this as its a great way to spread best practice, build valuable cross-company connections and it’s a very cost-effective way of training people. Be proactive, get involved and make sure you’re talking to people (actually talking, not just emailing) that you can share valuable knowledge with.

Something like 40% of engineers and managers find new roles through their existing connections. The number is much higher (maybe double) if you also consider internal company moves. Make sure you’re making enough connections of the right quality to be aware of all the career options available to you.

That’s it. Keep these 8 principles in mind and I’ve no doubt you’ll accelerate your career development. You’ll also set yourself up for a great career in management.

Let me know if I’ve missed anything. Any and all feedback is always appreciated. If you have any questions that please do connect up and ask.

Want to know more? Connect up on LinkedIn. You can also join 100's of fellow engineers in the Engineer to Manager LinkedIn Group I host.


50% Complete

Two Step

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua.