Engineering leadership transition

About the Author: Jo Hutchins is an Engineering Recruitment Consultant at Interfacio, recruiting R&D engineers and managers within the audio and media technology industry. Before focussing on recruitment, Jo spent 15 years as an electronics engineer, and software team leader, developing audio mixing consoles and automation systems.

Working in one of the strongest research and development teams in the British audio industry, Jo has experience in roles through from being a junior engineer to a project manager, and therefore has a unique insight into the processes, personalities and skills that make up a successful engineering team. In the first of this two-part blog series, Jo shares her thoughts on, if and when engineers should make the transition into a leadership role.

Making the move from a hands-on technical design role into a leadership position can be a difficult decision for a dedicated, capable and skilled engineer. Known for their pragmatism and introversion, leadership is something that may not be the top priority in an engineer’s mind. It is true that there are some engineers who are just naturally ambitious and from the start have aspirations to progress up the career ladder. However, many are totally happy immersed in the technical aspects of their job and therefore don’t even consider the opportunities available in leadership roles.

What makes a leader succeed in the engineering world can differ compared to the business world, and many engineers can succeed in a leadership position while staying connected with technology and innovation, and equally importantly remaining true to their own core values and personality traits.

The different types of engineer

No two engineers are the same, and all have different drivers and motivations in their careers.

Some engineers feel at home at the bench designing products and “getting their hands dirty”. Their understanding of engineering principles is backed up with a natural aptitude for exploring practical solutions, and they are most comfortable when allowed to apply this skill.

Others prefer to work at a theoretical level in research and at the computer performing simulations, using their maths skills, writing papers and attending conferences. Their motivation comes from being able to prove through knowledge and intellect what they see in the real world.

Some might excel at making things happen, getting their team on the same page and ensuring budgets and timescales are met. These engineers are organised and are able to motivate by providing clear goals and understanding the challenges that their team are experiencing.

And there are those that naturally gravitate towards a strategic leadership position – creating roadmaps and communicating across varying disciplines, continents and all levels of expertise.

Regardless of your drivers, at some point you should at least consider making the transition into an engineering leadership role and not assume that this will mean compromising your interests. Just because you prefer the more practical aspects of the job, it doesn’t mean you can’t be an effective leader.

So, when do you make the decision to move into management?

For R&D engineers, deciding when to transition into a leadership role can be influenced by a variety of triggers.

Perhaps you don’t excel at in-depth design. If you have realised that you are a big picture person and you want to let go of the technical detail then it could be time to make the transition, turning this into a strength rather than a weakness.  

If you can see a future roadmap and are goal driven, you may have realised that your vision is too big to achieve on your own. This is a great driver to raise your game and provide leadership for your team.

You might just find that you are absolutely the best person in your team to be leading them forward, and by stepping into this role you can not only progress your career, but also increase the effectiveness and productivity of your team

If you already find yourself taking responsibility for your peers, helping them out, advising and teaching – then it may be time to transition into an engineering leadership role and get the recognition (and financial reward) for what you are in essence already doing. The best leaders are often the least selfish and the most generous with their time, energy and support, so if you’re already ticking these boxes, you probably are a natural engineering leader and now’s the time to make the move.

Moving into a leadership position should involve higher compensation. For some, this might be a necessity and they may feel the need to step up to management even though they are not fully confident of their suitability as a leader. My advice here is to apply the same diligence to your career as a leader as you have to your technical training. Open your mind, learn from others, read, assimilate and apply. This gives you the best possible chance of success.

When it comes down to it, there is no single answer for what drives engineers to make this transition, and everyone will have their own individual experience and set of circumstances. Some people become leaders by design, and others become leaders by default or even by accident. There is no right or wrong path.

Transitioning into engineering leadership: There are no stereotypes

Ultimately, you don’t have to be a stereotypical ‘leader’ to be an ‘engineering leader’. Some of the drivers that are needed for successful commercial leadership are replaced by technical expertise and empathy for the engineering mindset. So, no matter whether you feel it’s time to transition from the bench or if it’s required out of necessity, rest assured you don’t have to be a suited and booted stereotypical corporate manager. You can still be a technically-focused R&D engineer, an expert in your field, and make a great leader.

So, what qualities make a good engineering leader? Check back next week for my next piece where I’ll share my views on this.

Whatever your career aspirations – whether at the bench or the desk, I have an in-depth understanding of your challenges and opportunities. Feel free to contact me for a confidential career discussion, or take a look at our latest roles in research & development.