People: How do you get technical people to lead and manage?

Tips on encouraging engineers with leadership skills to explore this valuable trait – from the 2018 series of Threads discussions.

Discussion host: Peter Cain, change and growth Consultant at Anamosys


It’s usually better to grow your own managers as they will already have the respect of the existing technical staff. They will understand your products and technology, and you will know them. It’s harder for a new manager brought in from outside to do these things, particularly when the team is small and the relationships are close.

Some engineers have innate managerial traits

Look for management skills whenever you hire engineers, and check whether they see themselves moving into management at some stage. Hiring people like this will give you options in the future, as well as the technical skills that you need right now.

Hiring in managers from outside can bring in new skills that may help others within your organisation to learn.

What engineers think of management

Engineers often have a poor opinion of management. This can be because they’ve seen it done badly – but that can be turned into a reason to have a go and to do it well.

Sometimes engineers see management as paper pushing and political, but really it’s just getting a job done via more people that just yourself. Sell it to engineers in these terms. Don’t call it management and let them work out what paperwork is essential – give them the freedom to work out how best to get the job done.

Let your engineer bring their own management style

One of the things that engineers dislike about management is the notion that there are too many rules. So think carefully what you need as outputs from your managers, and let them find their own ways to provide these. This is better than following a process that you, or their training, has laid down.

Some people like a structured career path, others like the freedom to make their own way. Which is right for your organisation depends on its culture, size, and state of development. A mixture is possible, with an outline career path as a guide, but the flexibility to accommodate individual skills and aspirations.

Attributes for becoming a good manager

Keep an eye on which of your engineers might want to do management. Not all will want to or will have the aptitude. Some who may want to should not be managers. There are those who think they don’t want to manage but, actually, they do – the ones who get frustrated when things go wrong and want to make a difference.

Look out for opportunities to allow those engineers who you think may be up for management to dip a toe in the water. Don’t call it management, and give them the freedom to work out how best to do it their own way, with a little coaching.

Look out for people who find their own jobs. These are the ones who are likely to have management potential.

Designing people systems is much like designing technical systems. There are a bunch of objects whose behaviour you need to understand so that you can link them together sensibly to achieve a goal. The objects don’t always behave as advertised and sometimes you have to work out what they really do.

Debugging people systems is much like debugging technical systems. You need to test and probe – sometimes circuitously – and engage in problem solving – which is fundamentally what engineers do.

Trying on the management hat

When an engineer takes their first step into management they will usually be doing some of the technical work themselves. They will also still be working closely with other engineers who are working directly with the technology. Influencing the way others carry out technical work can be a big incentive to move into management. This first step is really just doing more design and development but doing some of it through others.

The move from engineer to manager involves a gradual widening of scope and a reduction in focus (less detail). This process needs to be driven by a desire to influence a wider scope, and to focus only by exception, and it should be a gradual process.

It can be hard for engineers who have moved into management to distance themselves from the engineers. Both in terms of the need to direct the work of others and the need to avoid jumping in and doing the engineering themselves.

Pay people according to their value to the business. Make it possible for them to progress in status and salary along a technical path as well as a management path. Engineers shouldn’t choose to move into management in order to increase their salary alone. Managers need to accept that some of the engineers they manage my be paid more than they are.

Don’t assume that your line management must mirror your operational management structure. It can be useful for staff to have line managers who are not their day-to-day operational managers as it gives them a route to resolve operational problems.

Remember that people’s career aspirations can often grow faster than the growth of opportunities presented by the organisation.

Published by Andrew Gifford

Co-organiser of Threads South West. Founder/MD and people person at techfolk. Interested in the people aspects of running a progressive business.

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