Comment: Learning to lead – balancing technical know-how with leadership skills

When Chloe Tindale joined Air Products’ graduate training scheme, she had all the technical knowledge you would expect of a Newcastle University chemical engineering alumnus. But as her career progresses, she’s increasingly taking on a project management role and is learning how to lead those working alongside her – a very different, but essential, set of people-related skills to those she was taught at university.

Through school and university, I was focused on learning the scientific knowledge I needed to pass my exams and secure my first job.  My fourth-year project about air separation led me to Air Products and I was really pleased to land a place on its graduate training scheme.

From day one, I’ve been working on live projects and have really enjoyed working with, and learning from, a wider team to develop ideas, understand what customers want and help Air Products provide the solutions.  The technical skills I learnt at university have held me in good stead and, as you’d expect at this early stage in my career, I’m continually learning new things from those around me.

Good leadership is a lot about self-confidence – and it can be hard to find that confidence when you’re so much younger than others in the room

One set of skills that I didn’t necessarily expect to need to develop so quickly, however, are some of those softer skills like people management and team leadership.  As part of our development as graduate trainees at Air Products, we’re quickly given responsibility which is great on one hand because it really makes us step up and push ourselves to develop and grow, although leading while you’re still learning can feel a little challenging at times.

I’m conscious that some of the people working with me are older and considerably more experienced than me and I need to be respectful of that.  A large part of good leadership stems from having the ability to identify what everybody brings to the team, but it’s also a lot about self-confidence – and it can be hard to find that confidence when you’re so much younger than others in the room. So, the approach I take is ‘learning while doing’: I just get on with it and, if I make a mistake, I learn from it and do things differently the next time.  My line manager is really supportive and has given me some great tips about, for example, how to manage meetings. I also like to do my own research before meetings, so I know what I’m talking about and don’t waste anybody’s time and I think this has helped me gain the respect of the rest of the team.

I want to succeed in my career and I can see now what I hadn’t even considered while I was an engineering student: that being a good engineer isn’t just about technical capability, it’s actually a balance between being an engineer and a leader.

Learning to become a leader

Marie O’Driscoll is Air Products’ European Graduate Programme Manager and she believes that the ability to be a good leader is just one of a set of core skills that are essential to career development.

“Our graduate engineers all join us with a certain level of technical experience, but they pretty quickly have to learn a whole new set of work skills that they need to succeed, regardless of their area of specialism.  Project management, budgeting, the ability to influence, present and communicate and, of course, good social skills aren’t things that are taught at university but are all needed in the world of work.

“We understand that it can be challenging for our young graduates to lead projects and teams so early on in their careers, but we chose them because we believe in their potential and we support them as much as we can on their path to leadership.  Our graduates are each given a ‘buddy’ – someone who has recently completed the training scheme and so knows first-hand what it’s like to manage your first project and this peer support is critical.  We also expect the graduates’ managers to give them holistic guidance about the whole role, advising them on how to develop their soft skills as well as finding opportunities for them to expand their technical knowledge.  This year, we’ve also started providing dedicated training courses on these core skills as part of the scheme, which I think really underlines their importance.”

Marie’s advice for graduates:

  • You’ll learn lots about good leadership by observing others and thinking about your own experience of being managed.
  • Make the most of the support available.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions and go to your own managers for help whenever you’re unsure about how to handle a situation.
  • Take ownership of the challenge.  Be proactive and go and find the answers if you’re not sure how to manage someone or something.
  • Put yourself forward whenever you can.  It’s only by trying things once that you learn how to do them better the next time.