10 Golden Rules for Managing Engineers

Golden rules? Principles, more like. These are lessons that I have learned thus far in my career. Some the hard way, i.e. making mistakes, as I’ve managed engineers myself. Others I have learned by observation, but when I was pretty close to the action.

(1) Refuse to manage. Lead instead.

It’s unfortunate that in a world of knowledge workers, we insist on giving people managers.

It’s an inherent part of being a knowledge to worker, that no-one else knows how to do the job better than the worker him/herself does. What they need is someone who will set them clear goals, give them the necessary tools and training, and protect them from distraction. That’s leadership.

I have not come across many leaders in my career. Lots of managers. Few leaders.

I think that’s because leaders have to periodically stick their heads above the parapet and get shot at. They must put the needs of their people above their own. Indeed, they must serve their people. And that runs counter to human nature. We all tend to look to our own needs first.

Look around your life, and spot the leaders. They are usually the objects of criticism. But they will also have a loyal band of supporters.

(2) Give them clear direction, then get out of the way.

Too many managers behave as if they are indispensable. That’s often because they fear they might not be.

Engineers need to know what’s expected of them, and what their priorities are to be. Then (unless he/she is a newbie), leave them to it. Remain accessible, but out of the way. Newbies, on the other hand, generally need some regular, almost daily coaching. But you’ll sense when they’ve found their feet. Then give them free rein.

(3) Let them contribute.

The authors of The Starfish and the Spider (highly recommended) report extensively on the factors that drive de-centralised organisations. One of them is that people naturally want to contribute. This is true irrespective of whether people work in centralised or de-centralised organisations.

So when your people come up with bright ideas, listen. And if you can, let them implement their ideas.

(4) Know your people.

My father had probably managed several hundred people in his career, most of them scientists and engineers. He retired at the top of the corporate ladder, and sadly died not long thereafter. At the funeral, one of his senior managers told how on his first day on the job, my father invited him into his office, closed the door, and talked over coffee and doughnuts for the rest of the morning, about everything under the sun. Never before, said this man, had a manager shown that much personal interest in him.

Now that’s sad.

As a manager, you are, like it or not, something of a parish priest, imam, rabbi, etc (insert your own spiritual leader). If you remain aloof from your people, they will quickly get the message that the gods of your particular organisation don’t care a whit about them as long as they just deliver the goods. Don’t be surprised if your people are unproductive.

A happy engineer will be your friend for life. Learn what makes them tick. Know when they’re hurting, and cut them some slack when they are. They’ll remember it, and repay you in years to come.

(5) Play to their strengths. If you can’t, find someone who can.

Early on in my time at at a large corporate concern (I won’t name it here, but if you’re a regular air traveller, you’ve heard of them!), I got promoted to lead engineer for a small group of about four engineers, one of whom was a young newbie. Janet has done two degrees at Oxford, specialising in computational aerodynamics (I just gave it away, didn’t I?). Two years on with the company, they stuck her in my group, doing routine structural load calcs. Woopee. She was bored out of her tree, and though she didn’t voice it, she was looking for the exit.

When time came for her performance review (a concept which is a waste of time, but that’s a future blog), I didn’t mince words. There was an aeroelastics group where her math skills could be put to better use. I got her a place in it, despite the fact that it would inconvenience me. (Filling vacant positions in a large corporate concern can take months.)

The look on her face was my reward.

Eight years on, and while she’s not doing CFD or heavy maths stuff anymore, she’s still with the company, and in the same department. Whether they’re still making effective use of her, I don’t know. I do know that my efforts made one engineer’s life happier, and more productive, and saved the company the cost of recruiting another engineer. I wasn’t as fortunate myself, and eventually decided that if they weren’t going to make optimal use of my abilities, I would. So I left.

(6) Protect them from bullies.

I read somewhere that about 1% of the population are so-called office psychopaths. Urk.

Do the math. How many psycho’s should there be in your office? I bet you don’t need to do any math. You already know who they are. They get their kicks out of making other people’s lives difficult. Like schoolyard bullies, their main tool is intimidation

Fortunately, office psychopaths rarely stay in any one place for very long. They usually dig holes for themselves, get found out, and jump before they’re pushed. But they do a lot of damage in a short time. Protect your people from them. Stand up to the bully. Yes, it’s possible you could be a casualty, but by failing to stand up to the bully, you allow the problem to persist. Either you or some of your people (or both) will end up going on stress leave.

(7) Create a productive environment.

Let’s face it, offices are dull, lifeless places. Allow your people to give it life. They want to paint the walls green? Big deal. (Though please not that shade of green, it’s hideous.) Someone wants to bring in his latest piece of artwork? Sure, go ahead. Turn it into an office competition, and award prizes.

Small things go a long, long way to boosting productivity. Free tea and coffee. (Good tea and coffee, not the paint-stripper you can get from some machines.) Fresh-cut flowers. (And let one of your employees arrange them.) Unexpected delivery of doughnuts and muffins. Sudden team announcements offsite at the pub or coffee shop. The authors of Beermat Entrepreneur used to throw everyone out of the office Friday afternoons to the pub, and award prizes like the Bonehead Move of the Week, Funniest One-Liner of the Week, etc.

Small things cost little, but make a huge difference to people’s enjoyment of life and work. If the company won’t fork out for them, you fork out for them. (And tell the bean-counter he/she is being chintzy.) Conversely, when someone higher up kills these small things, it will look like a cost saving, but there will be a disproportionate cost increase from lost productivity (which unfortunately will never show up on the books.)

(8) Manage your personal life well.

To be effective at work, you have to be undistracted. If your home circumstances are a mess, your work will suffer.

(9) Be a control freak when you need to be. But only when.

Most of the time, you don’t need to be.

Different situations call for different kinds of leadership. Get good at recognising which need which.

(10) One poison apple can ruin an entire barrel.

This is one of those Control Freak times. Get rid of him/her quickly and decisively. It’ll kill you to do it, but do it. Before your other engineers start looking for the exits, and before your products (and customers) start to suffer.

The poison apple can be one of the psychopaths referred to earlier, or it can be someone who has mentally checked out of the office. Someone who has lost interest in the job, and no longer pulls their weight.

Sometimes it’s not easy to distinguish between a poison apple and someone who simply needs a change.

When times are hard, include them in the cost-control effort. Be up front with them. Make forced layoffs the last resort.

At the same time, every layoff cloud has a silver lining. When you have to, you have to. Be kind, quick, and decisive.

A friend of mine worked in human resources for many years. One of the things he had to do time and again was laying people off. He reckoned later he’d laid off at least 200 people. It killed him every time. But, as he told me later, “then I watched almost all of them go on to do extraordinary things. Things they’d never have done if I hadn’t laid them off.”

Now that’s cool.

Come to think of it, I’m a case in point. I was laid off from my first engineering job. A firm called RWDI, in Guelph, Ontario. (Still going strong.) After three years, I’d lost interest. My performance and attitude had slipped badly. Instinct told me it was time to move on. I ignored it. I’d become a poison apple. They rightly canned me.

Look at me now. (OK, maybe you’re not impressed, but I am.)

I’m much obliged to you, Anton.

16 responses to “10 Golden Rules for Managing Engineers

  1. Hi David

    Good start! The 10 principles you have just listed are amazingly perfect! Great, I’d loved them. Iwill be drinking from it. Well done!

    Your friend


  2. Thanks Nilson. I’ll be posting on related topics over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

    • Hi David.
      The problem is that the management approach that you propose is only possible within an ideal context. However, the corporations are highly driven by money, and only that/ and so are their managers as well…
      We have less and less support for the free invention spirit and more and more screwing up of the engineers, just because the managers are even more screwed…

  3. Pingback: 10 Golden Rules for Managing Engineers (and Engineering Students) « BERT MAES

  4. Glad to see I’m not the only one thinking about this topic. Bert’s tweaked my post a bit to make it relevant to engineering education. Looks like he’s got a few other ideas as well. Check out the link to his blog!

  5. Thank you, David, -first of all- for writing about engineering and HR/management. I hope that your positive views, practical solutions and entrepreneurism can change the (often poor) public image of our industry – a minuscule crumb is enough. And second: thanks for the promotion of my writings!

    Bert – http://bertmaes.wordpress.com
    About the future of manufacturing and manufacturing education

  6. Bert:
    There are too few blogs out there that speak about engineering, and for engineers. (Or maybe there are plenty out there, and I just haven’t seen them yet – if so, post the links here, I want to see them!)

    I read an article this week about Dean Kamen (http://www.dekaresearch.com/founder.shtml), who argues that engineers are their own worst enemies when it comes to the public profile of our progression. We don’t blow our own horns, we don’t think highly enough of our own work, or of ourselves. We are more comfortable just keeping our heads down and doing calculations that we are arguing or debating. Until we get out of our comfort zones and do more than just “traditional engineering”, nothing will change. Dean Kamen is quite an inspiration in that regard.

    I don’t think what I propose is idealistic or impossible. There are companies around that do practise business this way – Gore and Google in the USA, and Semco in your own backyard in Sao Paolo! They experience high profitability and growth, and nearly zero employee turnover. Some of them are even publicly-owned. What makes them different is that the managers are willing to relinquish control in order to increase employee freedom and creativity. That’s the price these companies pay.

    And that’s the price most companies refuse to pay. I’m constantly amazed how many managers value control much more highly than company profitability. Huge amounts of company funds get wasted in this way.

  7. Great principles, and I think they are applicable to other knowledge work professions (such as librarianship). I have independently discovered several of them and apply them in my current job.

    I would add, know your stuff and be upfront about the things you don’t know.

    • Surprise. So this is what’s called a blog? This is the first one I’ve read . I’m delighted to see Pat Riva’s name here. Could you send me her email address? I’d like to know where she is now and doing what. Your mother.

  8. I totally agree. And I’m not surprised they apply across many professions, but I can only claim the one. Thanks for the feedback, Pat!

  9. I could’ve done with these tips when I was working whilst studying for my Engineering degree! (Or at least the management could’ve!)

    I know all too well what it’s like being in a job that doesn’t capture your interest (I’m sure we all do) and all we need are managers/leaders who harness these skills you mention to help us be more productive and innovative…!

  10. The practice of engineering has moved on a lot, and indeed, is morphine almost continuously. The practice of management, on the other hand, hasn’t really changed much in decades.

    Several years ago, the BBC’s Peter Day reported a conversation he’d had with the great management guru Peter Drucker, not long before Drucker’s death. (See http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/4459546.stm).

    Drucker and another management expert Marvin Bower agreed that the most regrettable thing about American business (and I think business in the western world generally) was the “continued prevalence of command and control”.

    Innovation in management, I think, will need to be the next big super-innovation, after the Industrial Revolution and the Internet.

  11. Thank you very much for such usefull article! Very practicall and indeed applicable to engineering firms. Are you planning to cover the mentioned topics in more detail?

    • I hadn’t planned on covering them further, mainly because nobody had asked. However, I guess I can’t say that anymore now! Will give that some thought.

      In the meantime, I do cover related material in my other blog, which is http://AerospaceNation.com. Have a look at that, if you’re interested.

  12. Pingback: Tips for managing engineers | Ian Martin

  13. Pingback: How can managers get the best out of engineers? | Ian Martin Group

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