Rising to your full potential as a leader is challenging no matter what industry you hail from. While most leaders, male and female, face similar challenges in that pursuit, I’ve noticed that technical leaders (specifically, engineers) fall prey to a unique set of mindsets and behaviors that block them from becoming the compelling, effective leaders they’re capable of being.
Earlier on in their career, those same behaviors helped them rise through the ranks. But now they’re tasked with focusing on the big picture, managing diverse and complex teams and working strategically yet collaboratively. Leaders stumble when their priorities remain stuck back in the “individual contribution” side of the profession when their current role requires a new approach.
I have tremendous faith in these folks. I’ve coached my fair share of engineers struggling to find their footing as people leaders. And time and time again, with deliberate work and effort, I’ve seen the majority of them make an astounding, positive transition once they embrace a perspective that moves them (and their teams) forward with new tools, processes and real heart.
So, whether you are an engineer who leads teams, you work with one, or you are led by one, here are four ways engineers accidentally hold themselves back as people leaders and how to overcome those barriers:
1. They say “people skills just aren’t my thing.”
Engineers typically enter their field because they’re naturally adept at pragmatic thinking, creating data-measured results and highly-detailed problem-solving. However, research shows that employees connect with and trust leaders who show both warmth and competence.
Mastering the warmth side of people skills often comes less innately. To avoid feeling awkward as they learn, tech leaders often just default to: “People skills just aren’t my thing.” They resist growing by declaring that it’s too late for them to develop skills that don’t come naturally.
Stanford psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck calls this a fixed mindset, and it sabotages potentially great leaders before they even begin. In truth, the skills needed to lead people well are entirely learnable, but mastering them requires commitment, practice, and a willingness to live outside your comfort zone.
Embrace that challenge like the engineer you are! Project manage your efforts by researching effective connection strategies and best practices, developing a plan of action, and working that plan. Then, test, assess, tweak, repeat.
2. They point out the negative first.
One of my coaching clients, the VP of Engineering at his company, had a reputation for being “bad with people.”
Of course, he didn’t see it this way. He viewed himself as helpful and the voice of reason. But in meetings, the first thing out of his mouth was something negative: “That idea will never work.” “That’s impossible,” and the like. He shot ideas down before people even had a chance to finish articulating them.
Was he a jerk? No, he was actually just being a great engineer. Seasoned engineers are trusted to anticipate gaps in ideas before valuable time and money are spent on solutions that won’t work. The problem is, he was also a people leader. And his negativity was killing morale, stifling creativity and innovation, and turning people against him (and hurting project productivity and workplace culture in the process).
Realizing he was achieving the opposite of what he truly intended, he worked on learning a new approach that created more psychological safety for his team and colleagues. His turnaround was so profound, he went from being the renowned office naysayer to now facilitating leadership development training at other plants in the company.
3. They focus on small details instead of the big picture.
Engineers have a knack for tracking details that drive elegant solutions. That’s fine if they’re only responsible for the success of a product. But once they’re also responsible for ensuring the success of a team, they must keep an eye on the big picture and actively enroll their direct reports in a positive vision for reaching company-wide goals.
Engineers who successfully become strong leaders learn to avoid getting lost in the weeds. One coachee I worked with micromanaged his team so much around technical details (he used spreadsheets to document their every move), he was almost removed from his leadership position. After coaching him for a while, he changed his focus to supporting his team, ensuring they had what they need to handle the details, and making them happy.
Within a year of this new approach, he was promoted from managing seven people to leading over 200. He still uses spreadsheets but does so to track his own efforts to champion his team.
4. They ignore people problems to focus on the “real work.”
Engineers are incredibly pragmatic people, and they usually prefer to focus on problems they can solve in clear, concrete steps. Dealing with “people issues” is rarely straightforward. As a result, tech leaders can end up burying their head in the sand when issues on their team first arise, preferring to focus on technical decisions and tasks instead. You hear them say things like, “I don’t have time for this, I have ‘real work’ to do.”
Well, the truth is — developing your direct reports and ensuring a positive, engaged team dynamic is very much a requirement of your job. When small issues on teams are left unaddressed, they can snowball into big problems that hurt profits, productivity, and team connection. Engineers grow in leaps and bounds as leaders when they recognize (and embrace) that making time to lead people well is the most important work they do in a day.
The idea that engineers don’t make great people leaders is a myth. All it takes is embracing a different mindset that welcomes developing new skills, testing and tweaking a chosen approach, and having faith that when direct reports get the support, direction, and latitude they need to do their best work, all of those technical details engineers love to focus on will get handled as well.