I remember an occasion, some years ago, when we had to prepare for some important visitors. Everyone had been busy cleaning, painting and tidying up for weeks. The visit was now imminent and there was a final push to make sure everything would be perfect. The Manufacturing Director decided to visit the shop-floor. This was quite a rare event. He wandered about, wiping his finger over surfaces and looking for something amiss. Oddly, he was carrying an apple. After a while he spotted a labourer sweeping up. He marched over to him and said, “Well done, that looks very good.” He then presented him with the apple, turned on his heels and marched back to his office. The labourer was left dumbfounded with the apple, and the rest of us wondered what planet the Director was on.
On another occasion, more recently, a manager asked me to pick him up after he had left his car for a service. I told him I didn’t know where to go, so he instructed me to follow him. He then drove off at speed. I leapt into a pool car and did my best to keep up with him. Not only did he seem to have no consideration for the fact that I was trying to follow him, but through multiple round-abouts and junctions he never indicated once. This seemed to be a perfect metaphor for his management style. No indication of future direction and a lack of consideration for those he was leading.
Now I had a great deal of respect for both of those individuals as engineers, and at face value engineers should make good managers. Usually analytical, good at managing risk, innovative and excellent with figures, engineers possess many attributes required of a manager. So why do so many engineers, like my two examples, seem to struggle?
In my experience, successful managers are good with people. They are usually approachable and get the best out of individuals and teams by being good at listening, giving clear direction and praising good results. They need to be firm but fair and they need to make clear decisions in a timely manner.
Some of these attributes don’t seem to come naturally to engineers, but I think if an engineer can develop good communication skills and the ability to make timely decisions, rather than waiting for additional information, then they can make excellent managers.