It happens to just about all of us eventually. So you're a mid-career engineer, possibly a project leader. You've been with the company for many years, receiving very good performance reviews and above-average pay raises. You're pretty confident and excited about what you do, and you've hit your stride. Your project's moving along, and people come to you for technical advice and assistance. Then the other shoe drops.
The company's launching a new, technically challenging product initiative that needs someone to take it from design to market. In particular, management wants you. Your supervisor recommended you as the best on the team. Others concurred after reviewing your background and experience. But you haven't been chosen as a line engineer, which is the way it's been for the last ten years. Instead, you're tapped as the engineering manager.
Your first thought is to be flattered that your skills and efforts are being recognized. Now, you'll finally have some influence over a product's design and implementation. In addition, the extra raise will come in handy toward a new home and the children's college education.
The decision isn't as easy as it sounds, however. It's one that may well affect the entire future of your career. Hiding underneath the added authority, increased salary, and recognition by your peers may be pitfalls liable to make both you and your employer dissatisfied.
Even if you aren't particularly interested in the job, you're worried about the perception of turning it down. It may not be the right project for you, or you may think it necessary to have another year or two of experience. But if you reject the offer, that might send management the wrong message. The opportunity may never come again.
Then there's the question of what your colleagues will think. One engineer who started about a year before you is already at the director level. The new project managers coming in look younger than you do. You enjoy your work and feel challenged by it, but you're starting to feel left behind in the career race.
It won't be the last time you'll be faced with such a decision. And there's no clear right answer to it. But asking yourself some direct questions about yourself and the opportunity being presented can be helpful. You can determine if the opportunity is your next career step, or your first step away from what you really want to be doing.
What do you like to do? A career can span 40 years or more. To remain productive, day in and day out, it's essential that you truly enjoy your work. Many bad managers are that way at least in part because they dislike being a manager to begin with.
To help determine what you like to do, analyze your current tasks. Decide which give you pleasure, which seem like chores, and which you make every attempt to avoid. Categorize those that are hands-on, solitary, decision-making, or collaborative in nature. Then talk to or observe other managers to ascertain their typical duties.
Maybe independently solving lab design problems provides you with the greatest satisfaction. In this case, working on the project will be more rewarding than managing it. On the other hand, if you like assisting others with high-level design decisions, then a management position may be the logical next move.
What is it about the new role that interests you? If the answer is money or prestige, it may be best to pass up the opportunity. A higher salary or impressive title may stimulate you initially, but they won't carry you through the long term. You need enthusiasm and confidence in your ability to make a difference in order to remain motivated.
If you feel that a career's natural progression involves climbing the corporate ladder, seek alternatives to expand your professional horizons. A project offering new challenges, or the chance to work with top professionals, may inspire you to reach the subsequent level.
Does the promotion fit in with what you expected to be doing careerwise? This is a particularly important question if the offer moves you from engineering, into say, product management or technical marketing. Is your self-image tied to being a hands-on engineer or designer, or can you redesign your outlook to fit a less technical role?
If, however, you conclude early on in your career that you want to move beyond engineering as a way of broadening your skills, or to get recognition with different responsibilities, the move may be appropriate. You should also recognize that such a move may mean putting in longer hours, working with different people, and even changing your wardrobe.
Would the new job substantially alter your lifestyle? Sure, a raise may mean a new car, or vacations in Hawaii rather than Lake Havasu, but there's much more to your lifestyle than material upgrades. A promotion may involve increased business travel, working later hours, or on weekends. You may have to wear a pager or carry a cell phone and be available for decisions or business trips at a moment's notice.
Discover what all of the job responsibilities are. If you're going to be wearing a pager, find out what goes along with wearing it. Talk to people in similar roles in the company to learn about their responsibilities and time constraints. Many management positions also require visits to customer sites, travel to trade shows, and weekend retreats.
Once you're able to gauge what those commitments are, you have to decide if they mesh with your outside obligations. If you have a family, consider how having you around less often or your being on call would affect them. Ask yourself if you can adjust to the potentially increased demands on your personal time, or if that time is too valuable to sacrifice to your employer.
Are you stepping into a political minefield? Corporate politics are a fact of life that many line engineers are shielded from by virtue of their jobs. As a manager, you may have to not only see your project through to successful completion, but also work the system for engineering talent, financial resources, and marketing and distribution help.
It may be that none of the current engineering managers want to take on the project because they know something about it that you don't. Or maybe it's of little importance to the company and lacks the visibility needed to make it a success. Even if the project is a good one, maneuvering through the corporate hierarchy to get what you need for it may not be something you care to do.
Perhaps the most important thing is to not kid yourself about the answers to any of these questions. If you despise meetings, don't think that your attitude will change just because you're in charge. Explaining your reasons to management will help them better understand your goals, and how to help you achieve them.
None of this means that you shouldn't take the promotion. It could be the next logical step in a successful career, or a way for you to regain a passion for your work. But many engineers don't think about the consequences beyond trading up to a new car and exchanging the cubicle for an office.
This is the point at which, more often than not, you fail at a new job. It's simply not right for you, or you're not willing or able to change to meet its substantially different needs. There's usually no stigma in failure, but success is always better, for you, your career, those around you, and your employees. Make every move with your eyes open and an honest assessment of your strengths and limitations.