About the Author: Jo Hutchins is an Engineering Recruitment Consultant at Interfacio, recruiting R&D engineers within the audio industry. Before focussing on recruitment, Jo spent 15 years’ in the industry as an engineer, developing software to control automated audio mixing consoles.

In the second of this two part series, she shares her thoughts on what makes a great engineering leader, pulling on her own experience progressing from a junior engineer to a project manager in one of the strongest research and development teams in the British audio industry.

In my last blog I identified when it might be time for an engineer to make the move into leadership. However, as almost every engineer will attest to, the thought of becoming a ‘corporate-style’ leader can put many off transitioning into a management role. While it might be much easier to identify what a good engineer looks like, the traits of great engineering leaders are more complex to pinpoint. 

This is perhaps exacerbated by the continued generalisation of what makes a good leader. The qualities that are most often cited as essential for leadership don’t necessarily match up to the traits that engineers are most valued for. Known for their pragmatic thinking, attention to detail, and sometimes social introversion, many engineers may feel they lack certain stereotypical ‘leadership qualities’.

As a result, many R&D engineers shy away from leadership, preferring to focus on the technical aspects of their jobs. However this isn’t always sustainable, and for whatever reason, engineers may find themselves heading down a leadership route at some point. What needs to be recognised by engineers and employers alike, is that there is a significant difference between what makes a leader successful in the commercial world to what works in engineering. So – what makes a great engineering leader?

The five qualities that make a great engineering leader

Technical Expertise

This is the essential benchmark for all engineering positions, and more than ever for a good engineering leader. You have to be able to work with your talented team of engineers, demand their respect and be empowered to make the right decisions. Work hard, know your subject, understand the challenges, and have the capability to apply your expertise to enable your team to create great products.

Communication skills

When it comes to great R&D engineering leaders, communication skills are a must. As an engineering leader you need to be able to communicate across multi-disciplines with co-workers who have different levels of technical understanding. This communication is not just about sharing your knowledge and expertise, you will need to be skilful at listening, understanding, reacting and empowering both your team and the business.

Drive and passion

While some individuals may feel they are not particularly suited to a leadership role – their desire to achieve a certain goal or see a product through to realisation may prompt them to step away from engineering into a management role. Ultimately, you are more likely to succeed and become a great engineering leader if your role aligns with your drive and passion.

Seeing the big picture

It’s this strategic capability that sets the best leaders apart – understanding business objectives and then ensuring that your team’s goals feed into those objectives. You will need to inspire your team to buy in to these goals and be able to take a step back and see the big picture in order to analyse how projects are going, co-ordinate your team and understand how your work implements the organisation as a whole. 

Desire to help others

Closely related to communication skills, great engineering leaders are often motivated out of an affinity for helping others. Empathy is incredibly important to successful management and understanding what motivates your team will be key to your success. Listen to individuals and help them to achieve their goals whilst feeding this into the goals of the organisation. Motivate your team by playing to their strengths and enabling them all to contribute to the common goal, so that they feel understood and valued. 

Could you lead?

If you tick the boxes above, chances are you could be ready for a leadership role that will benefit your career, your pay packet, your team, and ultimately, the scope of innovation you can lead.

However, not everyone will enjoy being responsible for other people, and designing a great piece of code may be just as much a definition of success as leading a great team. If you are unfulfilled but don’t see the right opportunity where you are, then your next career step may be to move to a new company where you can extend your existing skills, where there are new technical challenges and where the company culture fits for you. 

Ultimately be honest with yourself about what is important to you in your career, where your strengths lie and what will make you happy. Decide what you want, and don’t let someone else decide for you.

Whatever your career aspirations – whether at the bench or in the board room, 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.