While engineers often rise to management positions on the basis of their technical ability, this career route often leaves them with insufficient time to acquire the key skills needed to assume leadership roles effectively.
“In any technical sector there’s a leadership issue,” says leadership coaching expert, Barry O’Sullivan. Barry has provided leadership coaching to over 550 leaders, following 22 years as a partner with KPMG.
Here, he outlines five key skills that can transform engineers undertaking management roles into outstanding leaders.
1. Leaders excel at time management
The distinction between a standard manager and true leader lies in the way they spend and manage their time.
In order to enhance time management, Barry O’Sullivan advocates the use of a four quadrant plan that divvies up how leaders can expect to use their time – 1) finding a better way to do things, 2) bringing people along, 3) making things happen on a day to day basis, and 4) dealing with the unexpected.
“Most people will be doing the last two things – making things happen and putting out fires. If leaders aren’t doing the first two things, the organisation and the team aren’t moving forward."
2. Leaders know how to delegate effectively
“Leaders understand how to let go of detail – they know how to be less preoccupied with certain detailed job tasks and delegate to others.”
Delegation isn’t just complete abdication of interest or responsibility, however – it also involves the use of mechanisms to ensure that delegated tasks are properly completed.
“The key to effective delegation is having protocols that mean you are still in the loop."
"When you’re giving a task you need to hold people to three things – time, budgets and reporting."
“You need to set out the time in which the task should be completed, the budget for the task in terms of people, dollars and resources, and most importantly, times for reporting back on progress.”
3. Leaders know how to communicate to staff clearly
“The biggest complaint I get during my coaching work is that some managers are hopeless at providing clarity, and that messages get lost in translation” says Barry O’Sullivan.
Leaders achieve effective communication by breaking down the message they want to deliver into their component drivers.
“I have a technique which involves outlining the drivers of success for any assignment that managers deliver to staff. If a leader can’t clearly outline those drivers of success, then good things aren’t going to happen - it’s about communicating the right information.”
Leaders subsequently need to ensure that their message has been clearly and effectively delivered.
“You also need a mechanism for looping back and checking that the message has been received – for example with a one month assignment, managers might follow up in two weeks time to ensure communication is clear.
“It’s not just a once off delivery– 'here’s what I want you to do', and then the person goes off into the darkness and goes on doing whatever they think is necessary.”
4. Leaders create a set of practical shared values for their teams
“This goes beyond the typical set of values found somewhere on a company’s website about trust, integrity, or commitment.”
"Managers need to sit down with their teams and work out how they conduct matters on a day to day basis – things like returning people’s phone calls, reading agenda papers, listening to people talk at meetings and not talking over them.”
In addition to establishing an initial set of protocols that teams will use going forward, leaders must also ensure that these standards are implemented.
“If a leader doesn’t patrol these values then we’re in trouble. As soon as a protocol is violated the leader needs to jump on it, otherwise you might as well cross it out.”
5. Leaders must be capable of converting strategy into action
“All of my coaching work demonstrates that many organisations spend a lot of money on strategic plans, but that most of them are not effectively converting strategy into action."
“A leader can achieve this, while standard managers just follow orders and do what they’re told.”
As with time management and effective communication, Barry O’Sullivan points to the need for clear and detailed planning.
“The tool I use, is a plan which converts a strategy into a set of priorities. Within that set of priorities, developing the drivers of success is achieved by realising each of them. Then it’s just a matter of getting up and actually doing it.”
Barry O'Sullivan facilitates Engineering Education Australia's Transitioning from Manager to Leader workshop.