Engineers: Are We Too Technical to Manage?

August 18, 2010 at 9:24 am 10 comments

Featured Guest Blogger: Anthony Fasano, P.E., CPC, LEED AP
Founder & CEO, Powerful Purpose Associates – New Website!
Civil Engineer and Professional Career & Leadership Development Coach
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Being a licensed engineer as well as a career development coach, I get the opportunity to coach many engineers in a one-on-one setting from entry level to high level executives.  Being able to wear both hats (engineer and coach), helps me tremendously in assisting engineers in both their career advancement efforts as well as developing their leadership abilities.  One of the most prominent challenges that I have found with engineers is their lack of managerial skills due to their technical backgrounds.

This isn’t the case for all engineers.  Some engineers prefer the managerial route to the technical, but in my experience those engineers are in the minority.  This issue is prevalent across the industry and impacts many organizations more than they realize.  Why?  Think about it.  Highly technical professionals managing large project teams with tight budgets and time deadlines.  To manage, and better yet lead, these types of project teams, certain skills are necessary including delegation, communication and the ability to gain respect from your team.  Many of us engineers, may very well have these skills, but they are buried beneath layers of analytical, problem solving, test taking, equation deriving exercises leaving us with a long windy road to navigate to become a good leader.

If you find yourself on this long and windy road, here are some recommendations to help guide you to the promised land:

  • Read and/or listen to books that will help you improve your people skills
  • Join a group or take a course on public speaking which will help you improve both your confidence and communication skills
  • Work really hard to start delegating (start by giving out small tasks at first to give people the opportunity to earn your trust)
  • Seek out a mentor that has already conquered the designer to manager transition and ask them to help you along
  • Try to slow your mind down whenever you can (i.e. take a walk outside at lunch, brain relaxing activities in the evening – working out, etc.)
  • Work with an executive coach regularly on overcoming this challenge

I hope some of these tips will help you in your transition, as I know how difficult it can be.  Just know that we are all leaders, it’s just a matter of developing those skills that we have buried beneath our technical layers.  It’s not as hard as you think once you get going!

I did refer to being a manager as the promise land earlier, but that’s only true if you want it to be.  If you’re happy going the technical route, good for you, keep going.  Managing isn’t for everyone; you have to follow your passion!

What are some things that you have done in your career to help transition from designer to manager?


Entry filed under: Career Development, Civil Engineering, civil engineering blog, Professional Registration, The Workplace.

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10 Comments Add your own

  • 1. bobgately  |  September 17, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Hello Babette,

    “Deciding where one is comfortable operating within the corporate continuum is a real source of frustration for many individuals. It does boil down to self examination and taking steps to chart one’s specific roadmap.”

    Employers that hire for job talent know where each employee will find job success and job satisfaction.

    It is sad that few civil engineering firms know how to measure job talent.

  • […] Based on discussions with many engineers regarding their challenges in going from designer to manager, this week I wrote a guest blog article for on this specific topic.  Read the full article. […]

  • […] Based on discussions with many engineers regarding their challenges in going from designer to manager, this week I wrote a guest blog article for on this specific topic.  Read the full article. […]

  • 4. Anthony Fasano  |  September 13, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Bob thanks for a lot of great feedback here. I agree with your thoughts on engineers being promoted for technical excellence, only to realize they need more than this technical expertise when they get to the managerial level!

    From your last paragraph, it seems to me that delegation is a major issue, which I agree with. “Old school” engineers, from my experiences, like to hold everything tight to the vest and simply don’t delegate, starting this whole technical chain. If engineers would delegate more, not only would they be better managers, but they would also develop better managers in their organizations.

  • 5. Bob Gately  |  September 10, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    After 40+ years of observing engineers in various management positions, I have to agree that engineers are generally selected for management positions for the wrong reason—that is, technical competence rather than managerial proficiency.

    Engineering managers are seldom educated and/or trained to understand themselves or other people, and, sadly, many of them do not realize the value of such knowledge. Ignorance may be bliss, but in the business of engineering that ignorance lowers productivity and profits—not to mention company morale.

    In “Transforming the Engineer into a Manager: Avoiding the Peter Principle” Civil Engineering Practice, Fall 1989, Neil E. Thornberry asserts that young engineers are judged on technical merit and accomplishment and that promotions go to the technically proficient and verbally expressive engineers, while less technically proficient and verbally expressive engineers wait their turn.

    What makes a good engineer? For many managers the answer is simple: a good engineer follows directions, pays close attention to details, does error-free work, finishes on time and personally does whatever it takes to get the job done. Young engineers receive recognition and rewards primarily through their own efforts by personally producing fast and accurate work and doing so over long hours when necessary.

    The reward for this is a promotion with a higher salary and more prestige. After more promotions based on technical proficiency, the reward for further outstanding performance is a promotion into management. There’s the rub! The personality traits and work habits that are common in good engineers often cause them to become poor managers.

    Managers, unlike young engineers, must know how to achieve their predetermined goals through the cooperative efforts of others, not by doing the work themselves. Managers must not focus on details all the time, only when necessary. Managers must be cognizant of what motivates others to succeed and then allow them to achieve success. Where do engineering managers learn—or fail to learn—these skills? On the job from older engineers, who learned on the job from even older engineers. The pattern persists and competent engineers become incompetent managers—a perfect demonstration of the Peter Principle: “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

  • 6. Anthony Fasano  |  August 20, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    Great tip Byron, everyone should volunteer into a leadership position, it’s invaluable experience! Thank You!

  • 7. Byron Lane  |  August 19, 2010 at 8:45 am

    Very good tips Anthony, thank you. I’d add that this phenomenon is not limited to engineering; I’ve seen it in law, medicine, academia, you name it. The key, I think, is that the individual AND THE HIRING MANAGER, understand as you point out, that the skill set that brings success as a practitioner in a given field is often not the same skill set that brings success as a manager. Despite all the resources out there on leadership and management, my experience has been that many still have not come to that realization.

    One tip I would add: try managing a committee or team in a volunteer capacity before pursuing it professionally. This will help develop the necessary skill set and give the person the opportunity to see if they would really enjoy it. I’ve found there to be plenty of opportunities for this in church, civic and professional organizations.

  • 8. Anthony Fasano  |  August 18, 2010 at 4:32 pm

    Thanks Babette yes everyone has their own way and timeline for transitioning!

    And Rita you hit it on the head, it’s all about P-E-O-P-L-E skills!!!!

  • 9. Rita Harris  |  August 18, 2010 at 10:22 am

    The problem that I find is that Engineers don’t mind managing the project, budget, schedule – number related things but most passionately dislike managing people.

    Thanks for the tips.

  • 10. Babette Ten Haken  |  August 18, 2010 at 9:32 am

    Excellent and thought-provoking post, Anthony! Deciding where one is comfortable operating within the corporate continuum is a real source of frustration for many individuals. It does boil down to self examination and taking steps to chart one’s specific roadmap.


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