It’s not uncommon for companies to tap a senior engineer to join management ranks and supervise other engineers and technicians. It’s usually seen as a promotion and comes with more pay and prestige. But the jump to management often fails, leaving both engineer and company dissatisfied. Steven Cerri, an engineering management consultant, takes a look at some of the wrong-headed reasons that keep this practice alive.
Reason #1: If you’re doing a great job as an engineer, you should be able to manage other engineers doing similar tasks. This non sequitur ignores the fact that technical management and engineering are two distinct disciplines. One deals with the laws of nature and physics; the other deals with people who aren’t as predictable and consistent as engineering principals and methods.
Reason #2: If you learn the basics such as manipulating spreadsheets, how to conduct and document performance reviews, and how to read a budget, you can be a good manager. But managers don’t fail because they don’t know Excel or other hard skills. They fail because they lack people skills. Management is a different career than engineering and it entails communicating, motivating, and dealing with people in good times and bad, which most engineers never studied in school.
Reason #3: If you spend enough time around other managers, you will eventually become a good manager. Management by osmosis doesn’t usually work. For it to work, engineers newly introduced to management must have good managers to work with, and those managers must also be good teachers. There are far too few of these kind of managers around.
Reason #4: Anyone can manage a small task. This myth is based on the falsehoods that management is not a discipline and that a person can be born with innate management skills. In fact, most engineers need training in the skills and techniques of good management, plus a few years of managerial experience to succeed as a manager
These reasons are often used as justification for why management promotes skilled engineers into the ranks of managers. But management is about teamwork and working with and influencing others, skills and knowledge most engineers never studied or practiced. Management should take a different tack if it wants to turn engineers into managers. It needs to provide training in people skills, effective communications, and even management theory and methods.