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The transition from engineer to engineer/manager.


Of all the changes that occur in the career path of a professional, none is more significant, yet less understood, than the role change from professional knowledge-based employee to supervising manager of other professionals. The importance of effective management practices is acknowledged in and exemplified by formal management training programs, yet little attention traditionally has been devoted to developing strategies to deal with the role transition from professional to manager of professionals.

This change of duties is unlike any other role modification one may have experienced in the course of professional advancement. Data suggests, for example, that a manager of engineers must not only assume new supervisory duties but, at the same time, retain hands-on involvement with technical matters. This dual responsibility is not unique to engineers; in numerous industrial settings there are "working supervisors" - individuals who have supervisory duties and yet work alongside those they supervise. Indeed, the very term "engineer/manager" connotes the need for professional as well as managerial competencies.

In any field, advancement initially results from enhancing existing competencies. The football player who does well in the lower leagues is promoted to the major leagues; the chorus dancer who performs well earns a leading role; the associate engineer who does well becomes a junior partner; the estate planning attorney who does well in handling modest estates eventually assumes responsibility for large estates. In each of these scenarios, one factor remains constant: to be promoted and to do well in the higher position, one needs to do more of what one did in the past, and do it better. The recipe for success in the new position is increased competence in existing skills - the same skills that led to success and advancement in the old position.

But there is another level of career advancement - promotion to management. Moving from engineer to engineer/manager - just like moving from football player to team manager - requires not simply doing more of the same and doing it better at the same time, but also letting go of the old skills, the old attitudes and expectations, the old characteristics and behaviors - the very things the one promoted knew well; enjoyed doing; and for which he/she received respect, recognition and initial promotions. The practitioner must learn and accept a whole new set of skills, attitudes and behaviors. In as very real sense, the engineer/manager is like the actor who is both starring in and directing the film. The change in roles requires not only new competencies but also an understanding of the new role and responsibilities.

Five main differences exist between the former job of staff engineer and the new job of engineer/manager. Each must be addressed to ensure effectiveness in the new position.

Doing through others

The old job was one of doing. One did a specific task or performed a clearly defined function. The practitioner represented specific clients or was assigned a specific case or a specific role in major projects. In short, one was responsible for a certain set of duties relating to specified activities.

In contrast, the new job of engineer/ manager is one of overseeing doers as well as doing. No longer can the practice of skills that were so successfully performed in the past be the sole factor relating to effectiveness. The new accountability for performance is dependent upon the performance of others, not just self performance. The ultimate objective is to have a unit function in an effective manner. An engineer/manager cannot be successful if the work unit is not performing well, no matter how competent an engineer he/she may be.

The old job of staff engineer meant learning a specific profession and mastering a technical field of expertise, which could be applied to the task at hand. The new duties of engineer/manager require understanding and practice of new behavioral skills-dealing with motivation, discipline, training and an entire range of factors associated with why people work and behave as they do. Engineer/managers are held accountable for the behavior of those they supervise.

It is difficult to think of any supervisory responsibility that can be performed effectively without productive human relations skills. No one can coach without meaningful communication processes, trusting relationships and positive human interaction. When the actor becomes a director, human relations skills are essential to ensure that other cast members can be coached to act. In the new role, human relations skills are essential to ensure that staff engineers are producing in the most effective manner.

Broader number of tasks

While the old job of staff engineer focused on the skills of a single individual performing relatively well-defined but narrow tasks, the supervisory job eventually will entail a broader variety of tasks. Staff engineers function as a single individual performing research and analysis, or advising clients with respect to engineering issues. The role change to engineer/manager will entail new duties. For example, in addition to working on a specific technical matter, an engineer/managers also may prepare annual budgets, write an annual plan for a unit, submit quarterly reports, deliver periodic presentations to higher level management, meet with outside vendors and devise new operating procedures. In addition to the number of tasks being broader, some tasks will become more abstract, such as being responsible for the morale of a work unit.

Pride in those supervised

The job of staff engineer allows one to focus on the pride taken in individual performance. In contrast, the new job of engineer/manager requires taking more pride in the workmanship of others. Team performance, not individual performance, determines the engineer/manager's effectiveness.

Involvement in conflict resolution

The job of staff engineer entailed no direct responsibility to deal with problems or solve conflicts beyond the immediate work effort. In the normal performance of a direct task, a staff engineer may deal with conflict daily, as an advocate, negotiator or mediator; but those tended to be impersonal conflicts. A staff engineer is not required to address general performance problems or resolve disputes among peers or with other units. That was the supervisor's responsibility.

A manager of other professionals must resolve conflicts among personnel and ensure that all employees within the unit are functioning together and in harmony with other units within the office. It is the manager's responsibility to see that the unit works effectively with other divisions and managers, and with the section as a whole.

All in all, the new job is quite different from that of staff engineer. The skills are more varied and more complex, and the attitudes and expectations require a whole new set of assumptions and behaviors, The successful transition to the new role means understanding and satisfying new job demands.

Success directly depends upon the actions of subordinates. An actress can win an Academy Award for the best performance in a movie even if the movie is a bomb; a player can make the All-Star Team even if his team is in last place. But the only way an engineer/manager can succeed is if the unit performs up to or beyond expectations.

New responsibilities require new values - values that can guide one smoothly through the transition from staff engineer to engineer/manager.

Making the transition

To make this transition effectively, the new engineer/manager must step out from the crowd. The behavior that led to success as an engineer and the accompanying security in outstanding technical performance is no longer sufficient.

The most difficult aspect of the new role as engineer/manager is supervising former peers, passing judgment, appraising, disciplining, and, yes, sometimes removing those who remain behind. The following guiding values can aid in making the transition.

Just as the teacher is an example, good or bad, for the student, or the coach for the player, so the manager must be an example to those under supervision. The question is not whether one chooses to be an example; the question is what type of example he or she chooses to be. Managerial attitudes will be perceived as performance and behavior guidelines by those managed.

Subordinates will learn more from observing what a manager does than from listening to what he or she says.

Engineer/managers cannot be - and are not expected to be - the best at every technical aspect of the job: they are expected to get the best performance from the people they supervise. Indeed, something is radically wrong if the engineer/manager is the best at everything in the unit.

Managers need to possess the inner belief that they will succeed in their new roles. Self-confidence is not a desire to impress others. Simply put, self-confidence is an internal belief that a person has been chosen for this position because of specific skills, abilities and accomplishments.

As previously discussed, the engineer/manager is vastly different from the staff engineer. An awareness and acceptance of new role demands are critical to success in the new position.

Managers may be friendly, supportive and accessible to former peers, but some distance needs to be maintained. You can't go home again. It is impossible to lay down a hard and fast rule as to where functional accessibility and dysfunctional closeness merge. Perhaps one way to negotiate the boundary is for managers to ask themselves if they are apologetic in dealing with the performance or work demands of a former peer.

Promotion to manager should be viewed not as the end of a journey, but as the first step in a new journey. Managers should continue to be the best practicing engineers they can be, and continue to develop and enhance their professional engineering skills. But, they should also give the same priority to development of management competency.

When managers step out from the crowd, their relationships with their peers change. It is to be expected that such aspects as lunch patterns, communications, intimacy levels and sharing of feelings will become different. Often these social changes will be very subtle.

Sometimes, when a person moves into management, the ego runs wild and there is a tendency toward the "command" style of management. On the other end of the spectrum is the "as if no rank" style, by which the engineer/manager seeks to have subordinates take action as a result of reasoned decisions rather than commands. In essence, the ultimate test of management is whether subordinates would implement the decision in the absence of a command. Would the logic, clarity and general sense of the decision allow it to carry the day and gain the commitment of the staff engineer even if one could not state, "Do it that way because I am the boss and I say do it that way?" A true leader will march in front and people willingly follow.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Institute of Industrial Engineers, Inc. (IIE)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Rimler, George W.
Publication:Industrial Management
Date:Nov 1, 1991
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