Skills For A Successful Manager

March 19, 2001
A career as a manager requires development of management skills in terms of leadership, focus, and a less-controlling environment that fosters creativity. This article will lead you in the right direction as a manager.

Throughout my career, I've viewed the management ranks as a territory I couldn't quite figure out, and one in which I could never really participate. Although I have held minor management positions, I never felt comfortable in them, and I inevitably reverted back to the working level. But because managers can do very well financially, especially those who move beyond the project level, I always wondered what made them more valuable than me.

Some engineers become successful managers, while others flounder. But that's true of any type of professional moving into a management role. There's no reason why engineers can't make the transition into management. For some, though, it's a difficult process. Others do it and then decide the role doesn't fit very well.

So what are the characteristics of a good manager, and do engineers as a group possess these characteristics in enough quantities to carry success beyond engineering and up the chain of management? The following are a few qualities you might think would be important, but really aren't.

  • Intelligence: Management success isn't actually highly correlated with intelligence. There are a number of obviously bright managers, but you also will find some who aren't as intelligent. Although it probably helps to be smart, the not-as-sharp managers can become successful as well.
  • Education: While those responsible for hiring managers seem to place a premium on MBA degrees from top schools (few if any fast-track executives were ever hired from any of my alma maters), no degree automatically creates a good manager. In a number of cases, engineers became highly effective managers without any formal education on the subject. Some specialized courses, such as management accounting, can help. But many working engineers at the project level manage budgets pretty well.
  • Organizational Ability: If this is a prerequisite, then it's clear why I failed. For many years, I've used a good memory to overcome my lack of organization. Some managers, though, lack even my own rudimentary style of organization, and they can still achieve positive results.
  • Political Savvy: Decisions and actions in the management ranks aren't at all cut and dried. They require a sense of organizational power and influence, and knowledge about how to use that information to move forward one's own goals. This too might be my own downfall as a manager. I could never quite figure out which way the political winds were blowing, or if I did, then I couldn't make use of that information. Still, everyone would like to believe that managerial skill rather than influence or astuteness is the key to long-term success. An ability to understand the political and cultural climate of your company is essential to knowing what course of action to pursue, yet an excess of this quality decreases management ability.

A number of other personal characteristics might be important, but few seem to guarantee or even predict success as a manager. Certainly the attributes already mentioned here don't guarantee managerial ability or expertise. So, what do managers have to focus their attention on, and do these things matter in the making of effective management?

To put the question more succinctly, is it possible to pinpoint precisely how a good engineer can make a good manager? If there were a formula, most engineers would be able to analyze and follow it. There isn't exactly a formula, but it's possible to identify the factors that make management better or worse. Then, you decide if you possess these characteristics, or if you want to learn them. Here are a few qualities that should make a difference:

  • Leadership: A critical aspect of management is leadership, or the ability to get others to willingly follow your direction. In one sense this is easy to accomplish, because on an engineering project, most participants will want to follow a common direction to make the project a success. But translating this common direction into a means for completing the project is extraordinarily difficult.

    In my time in the military service, leadership was based in part on the power of a rigid command structure, and in part on the personal decisiveness of the individual. That's just one type of leadership. Most engineering organizations don't have a rigid chain of command, and giving orders is far more difficult without it. In fact, you may have to lead people who don't report to you and have little inherent reason to listen to you. It's unlikely that a military style of management will work, at least by itself. There are other ways to get people to follow your direction, although they tend to be subtler and more difficult.

    Sometimes people will follow you if you're interesting—that is, if you provoke their curiosity or their ability to think creatively. Another way to lead people is by successfully implementing ideas and completing products. A third method is to remove administrative roadblocks, like procuring components or getting technical information from other parts of the company, so the engineers can press ahead on the project with minimal interruptions.

    Essentially, these indirect means of leadership involve encouraging people to perform at their best instead of directing them to specific tasks. Leadership in high technology is a combination of coaching and setting an example, with no guarantee of the results. The downside to this is that it's likely to burden you with very necessary duties that seem uninteresting or trivial.

    To be a manager, engineers must be able to accept and operate with that type of uncertainty and mundane work. The problems are vague rather than well defined, and they rarely have a single good solution. While you can derive some satisfaction from navigating through management problems, you usually won't find the correct or best solution as you often would in engineering.

  • Focus: A manager can't focus on the details of the implementation. This is possibly the biggest hurdle for engineers to overcome. The urge toward involvement in design decisions and prototyping is very strong in most engineers.

    A manager has to focus on the process, rather than on the structure. The most successful managers operate similarly to conductors who guide the orchestra while enabling and encouraging improvisation where it enhances the music as a whole.

    This leads into the issue of delegation. Just as you delegate a power supply to produce a current with a set voltage, you have to delegate the details of the project to your team. The difference is that a power supply produces a known quantity based on physical laws, while your subordinates may produce results that greatly differ in quality and quantity. People tend to react with much less predictability and at widely varying levels of performance than electronic components. Nevertheless, without delegation, there's no management.

  • Lack of control: Despite many textbook references to management as a controlling function, there frequently is little control in the process. You don't control the business environment or your development tools, and you control the people least of all. Instead, your goal is to provide the resources and focus to the project so those doing the actual work can do it successfully.

    Management isn't about moving chess pieces around on a board. The people who work for you move back, and not always in the direction you wish. If you manage well, the best you can hope for is that people will follow your lead right up until the point you're wrong, be able to recognize the fact you're wrong, and continue in the right direction while still accepting your leadership.

Whether or not these kinds of activities appeal to you boils down to a personal preference. While there frequently are financial rewards for moving into management, many engineers find that it also has a significant downside. You have to direct the efforts of people who may or may not follow your lead, and operate within an environment over which you have little or no control, to bring about a conclusion that perhaps won't even be the one you had in mind when you started.

If this sounds appealing, or at least tolerable, then you're management material today, and there are ways to prepare yourself for that role. I will address some of those tactics in future columns.

On the other hand, if it sounds worse than a trip to the dentist, don't despair that you won't ever enjoy the benefits (and hazards) of management. During the course of a career (which spans about 40 years), your interests, skills, and career goals are likely to change. If you desire the financial and power rewards that middle managers and executives seem to have, but your skills don't appear to match those required for that role, give it a few years.

In the meantime, observe the managers you like and enjoy working for, and determine what characteristics make them good managers. Those observations will serve you both when deciding whether or not you have aspirations to management and after you achieve your position there.

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