Gift of the grab

Conventional wisdom has long held that engineers are not generally successful in management roles. Accountants, for example, are thought much more likely to get the top jobs. This assumption is ‘nonsense’, according to Dr Alan Rudge, chairman of the Engineering Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Recent figures produced by Manchester University […]

Conventional wisdom has long held that engineers are not generally successful in management roles. Accountants, for example, are thought much more likely to get the top jobs.

This assumption is ‘nonsense’, according to Dr Alan Rudge, chairman of the Engineering Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Recent figures produced by Manchester University show engineers have 30% more chance of getting to the top than accountants. ‘There are three times more engineers than accountants in the chief executive slot,’ Rudge said.

That doesn’t mean that engineers do not have to hone their management skills, and an Institution of Electrical Engineers’ conference last week, ‘Climbing the Management Mountain: achieving your full potential’, was directed to that end.

Rudge, formerly deputy chief executive of BT, is an engineer/manager par excellence, and was one of a number of successful managers who came together to give their advice.

Engineers wishing to make the grade in management should take a sales-oriented approach to relationships, said Rudge. ‘A customer focus is the key to success in any business and it is no less important at a personal level. Treat the boss and your colleagues as customers people who have to be sold to, not told to,’ Rudge advised. ‘It is all about persuading people to do things you cannot force them to do.’

Persuasiveness is one of two key skills engineers generally have in abundance. ‘This underpins everything,’ said Rudge.

By adapting customer/supplier principles to management, people are driven to think in a more productive way, Rudge said. ‘Bringing the techniques down to a personal level has an enormous beneficial effect. It makes hard times with colleagues easier to bear.’

The other skill, which engineers should gain confidence in by practising their profession, is problem solving.

Rudge suggested project management as a useful training ground in this and other skills: managing time, money and people as well as using technical skills. ‘Good engineers are above all problem solvers, so they make better managers as the profession gets more complex. They need to be able to identify parameters and then compromise to reach a solution.’

Other useful attributes for aspiring managers are enthusiasm and self-motivation. ‘You also have to present yourself well and communicate well,’ Rudge said.

The notion that engineers do not make managers may be a myth. The old maxim that it is not what you know but who you know still applies, however. Several speakers identified the importance of networking in climbing management ladders.

David Jeffries, IEE president and chairman of the National Grid after privatisation of the electricity industry in 1990, said he had ‘benefited terrifically from networking’. The contacts made ‘become essential as you move through life’, he said. Membership of the IEE was mentioned as a good networking forum.

Another key to success is to grab opportunities and not be afraid of change, said Colin Gaskell, recently retired group managing director and chief executive of machine tool maker the 600 Group and formerly managing director of Marconi.

‘If something is different and new, get on with it. You would be surprised how conservative most engineers are,’ he said.

The speed of technical change means it is important to keep up to date, and accept jobs which mean you can ‘be curious about products and markets’, he added.

In his time at Marconi, Gaskell gained a personal insight not all favourable into the management methods of Lord Weinstock. Weinstock’s financial controls were ‘superb’. And his managers were given a lot of independence. ‘But if anything went wrong Weinstock would say, to err is human. To forgive is not company policy.’

Though Weinstock believed the quality of management was the only thing which made any impact on company performance, GEC’s management style meant there were lots of lost opportunities, said Gaskell: GEC now operates primarily in the defence sector because it failed to exploit areas like computers and consumer electronics, during the period of rapid growth in the 1980s.

From this experience, Gaskell learned that a key to success in manufacturing is proper development of new business.

For managers, the ability to juggle lots of tasks, and in particular to delegate, are crucial, he believes. ‘You need to allow people to do a job less well than you can do it yourself. If not, don’t be a manager. Stick to engineering.’

Willingness to take risks, and to take decisions, are also signs of a good manager. ‘Most people forget,’ said Gaskell, ‘that it is more important to make a decision than it is to make the right decision.’