Machine Design

What does it take to be a leader?

There are many definitions of leadership. A simple one is having influence over others.

"I describe it as the skills and abilities that encourage people to commit to a common goal," says Ed Rehkopf, author of Leadership on the Line — A Guide For Front Line Supervisors, Business Owners, and Emerging Leaders. Engineers frequently need to influence decision makers throughout their careers. Whether you're in a meeting with sales, marketing, or financial departments, it's essential to figure out how to communicate technical ideas to people who don't necessarily have a technical background.

A leader is different than a manager. "Managers are typically concerned with the technical function of an organization, how do you do it." says Rehkopf. "Leaders, on the other hand, motivate and inspire their followers to do the best job possible — and often under difficult circumstances."

Leadership is about relationships. Leaders must establish relationships with people who work for them. "Younger people in their first leadership position have until now perhaps been focused on themselves, their goals and ambitions. But it is important to establish relationships with the people who are essentially going to do the work," adds Rehkopf. Relationships depend upon how you view yourself in relation to others. If you see yourself as separate and apart from your constituencies, if you view others as the means to your end, if your vision and goals lack a broader purpose than your own needs and ambitions, establishing meaningful relationships will be impossible.

Get rid of obstacles that make it difficult to do the job. "For example, many years ago when I started a job at a hotel, I found the housekeeping department unresponsive and not willing to talk about their problems," says Rehkopf. "It made me feel they didn't have any trust in their leadership. So I spent the next couple weeks visiting with individual housekeepers and after a number of conversations with one individual I got her to say that the vacuum cleaners didn't work. They had never been serviced properly so they were pushing cleaners around that wouldn't do the job, and it was demoralizing for them.

It was a simple fix to buy brand new vacuum cleaners, probably less than $1,500. But it changed employee mood overnight. And once the employees discovered we were interested in finding and solving problems, they came to us with all kinds of problems to solve! And the more problems we solved the more credibility we had with them."

Be a motivator. To motivate people you have to understand what makes them tick. And it's going to be different for each person. "Employees who feel good about themselves, whose welfare and problems are attended to in a supportive way, who are provided with the right tools and training to do their jobs, will continually and enthusiastically communicate their satisfaction in countless small but vitally important ways," says Rehkopf.

Good communication skills are essential. Engineers are notoriously bad communicators, yet being able to get your point across is vital for influencing decisions. Whether it is written or face-to-face communication, pay attention to the message you send. Organize your thoughts and make sure others under-stand the context.

Seven tips for building relationships
One of the best ways a leader can get credibility is to build good relationships. What does that mean and how do you do it? Go online to Vicki Reitz's blog at forums.machinedesign.comand look for the post called "7 tips for building relationships." Learn what you can do right now to improve your professional relationships and give us your tips for being a good leader.

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