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So now you’re a manager

Blog Post

Written by John Berry on 8th June 2017. Revised 16th November 2020.

9 min read

Professional ServicesSo now you’re a manager. Before your promotion, you were an ordinary employee. You achieved great things through your own efforts. Now your success comes from causing others to perform.

You’re still an engineer[1]. But you’ve added a whole new part to your identity. Now you’re a manager of engineers. You’re a boss, a leader of men and women.

So what does that mean? And can you be a good manager?

What it is to manage

Managers achieve through others. One of their most prevalent activities is therefore persuasion. Persuasion is a political activity with power at its heart.

Often what sets those who might be managers aside from others is a high psychological need for power.

But as Harvard psychologist David McClelland posited, there are two types of power: p-power and s-power[2]. P-power comes from the need to achieve personal goals. P-power is the stuff that drives political leaders to take countries to war. S-power, on the other hand, describes a power need focussed on achieving success through the wellbeing of a society or group.

So as managers of professionals, it’s social power that fits best in today’s engineering firms.

Do read on - but if you'd like to jump to read more on leadership, navigate now to download for FREE our Chapter 10: Leading the Firm.

Engineers as managers

Often it’s the best engineer that’s promoted to be manager. Many retort that the best engineer seldom becomes the best manager. Their argument is that their traits are all wrong.

There may be a hint of truth in that but a good engineer has two huge advantages over others: they can manage by social exchange and they can show subordinates the way to success. These advantages are founded on core psychological concepts expanded on below.

Managing by exchange

We all seek reward. Most engineers have a keen sense of career and a desire for personal development and advancement. Those engineers spending their lives as subordinates find their needs satisfied though involvement in the finest projects. Reward for those engineers comes from being given the opportunity to gain ever-expanding engineering competence.

Engineering managers can harness social exchange by the giving of developmental opportunity. In return they gain subordinate commitment and motivation. Good engineers therefore have s-power in abundance.

Illuminating the path to success

Being a subject matter expert too allows the manager’s specialised knowledge to be exploited. Whilst not normally an expert in all aspects of the work, good engineers will likely be able to envision what a successful outcome to a project looks like.

Managers work one-to-one with subordinates. Groups are just pluralities of one-to-one relationships. And so managers can work one-to-one to illuminate that success to their subordinates. Understanding what success looks like is key to a subordinate’s performance.

Systems thinking

Before the 20th century advancements in thinking about management, managers managed using heuristics – crude rules, educated guesses and common sense. Progressively, theories of management emerged.

The trouble is that these theories universally caveat that management success depends on the context in which manager and subordinate work. The manager may, for example, increase performance through encouragement. But this presumes that the subordinate feels that indeed they can perform, that they feel they can make the changes needed.

Management scientists argue against heuristics and in favour of theory. But they fail to suggest how theory is used. Engineers have a theory of their own for this very situation: systems thinking.

Systems thinking allows management to be thought of as a system, with its inputs, processes and outputs.

An extension is the ability to apply the feedback control model. Take social exchange theory. The giving of development opportunity is an input. Increased commitment is an output. And the feedback control wrapped around the process allows the manager to sense the outcome and adjust the input for the desired effect.

Adding feedback control adjusts for context and turns management from open loop, applying various theories ad hoc, to a science where sensing and adjusting are learned management competencies.

Skills and knowledge

Having said that engineers have much to offer over others, they still need to acquire the core skills and knowledge of this new discipline. Engineering competency alone is not enough to guarantee success as a manager.

The competencies needed to succeed as a manager have been well documented. Much follows from the work done by Richard Boyatzis and documented in his book, The Competent Manager[3]. Boyatzis is an organizational theorist and professor of organizational behaviour.

In Boyatzis’ 23 competencies, there are seven that should resonate with engineers.

As examples, engineers are taught logical thought. Some criticise, commenting that engineers are too rigid and rational. In management, logical thought is a positive advantage. Engineers are also taught to conceptualise. It’s essential when considering the various engineering laws and principles and essential too in management.

And developing others, using socialised power and goal setting and action have all been noted above. Many basic skills in engineering like report writing and numerical modelling also transfer directly to the world of management

Of the remaining 16, seven are traits, fuelling the argument that the best managers are born and not bred. The remaining nine are skills that can be taught, like leadership and the ability to view situations from many perspectives.

So whilst engineers have already been taught or can learn most of the competencies, there’s no guarantee that a good engineer will be a good manager. They are, however, well ahead of others.

Richard Boyatzis’ overview of competencies

Boyatzis organised his 23 competencies into 6 ‘clusters’ of competencies around main headings. These are illustrated below.

Goal and action cluster

Efficiency orientation: an interest in continually doing things better, innovating, improving.

Proactivity: a disposition towards doing, taking action, rather than waiting to be told by others.

Diagnostic use of concepts: a preparedness to find patterns, frameworks and concepts in management activities.

Concern with impact: an interest in using the power that the leader can have over followers to make things happen.

Leadership cluster

Self-confidence: a competency of decisiveness or presence, confident in the knowledge that actions will lead to success.

Use of oral presentations: making effective verbal presentations, organising thought into valid argument.

Logical thought: ability to present events and activities in a rational causal sequence.

Conceptualisation: the ability to recognise patterns and develop them into themes, an imaginative cognitive activity.

Human resource management cluster

Use of socialised power: inclination to build alliances, networks, coalitions or teams to get things done.

Positive regard: ability to believe in others, demonstrating verbal and non-verbal skills causing others to feel valued.

Managing group processes: competent in stimulating others to work together effectively as a group.

Accurate self-assessment: having a realistic or grounded view of self, testing perceptions of themselves against other views.

Directing subordinates cluster

Developing others: competent at helping subordinates and others to do their job, adopting the role of mentor and coach.

Use of unilateral power: the ability to stimulate subordinates to go along directions desired.

Spontaneity: able to express ones self freely and easily, acting emotionally, expressing reservation and concern.

Focus on others cluster

Self-control: the ability to inhibit personal needs and desires in favour of organisational needs.

Perceptual objectivity: able to be objective, not limited by excessive personal bias or prejudice.

Stamina and adaptivity: able to sustain long hours of work, adapting to changes in life and the organisation.

Concern with close relationships: able to build close working relationships, spending time to talk with others.

Specialised knowledge cluster

Relevant knowledge or knowledge used: able to establish a necessary framework around which specialised knowledge is arranged.

Function, product and technology used: having and using facts of the business, products and technologies.

Recognition versus utility: the ability to determine what needs to be known versus what needs to be known and used.

Memory: the accurate, appropriate remembering and recall of information and activities.

Acquiring the competence

Reaching this positive position might suggest that all is well in management selection and development. Unfortunately that’s just not so. A 2012 UK Government study reported that just 20% of managers were appropriately trained for the job.

The report went on to say that, perhaps as a result of poor training, 43% of UK managers rate their own manager as ‘ineffective’.

These statistics demand one action: that whilst engineers might have some good foundation, all managers must learn their trade.

Learning management

There are maybe three different approaches to learning.

Traditionally, training is cited as the way we learn new skills and acquire new knowledge. So engineers going into management should, if the Government is to be believed, go on a course.

But if a suitably qualified mentor is available to the new manager, mentoring can be effective, perhaps allied with reading and some distance learning on theory. If studies on learning effectiveness are to be believed, on the job training, with the aid of a mentor, is perhaps the best way of learning anything in a work context!

Today, coaching is generally on the rise. It seems everyone has a coach. But since we are talking of competence acquisition, coaches are only useful if they have management competence themselves.

Born or bread

There’s one final issue.

Some senior managers and policy makers believe that managers are bred, that a manager must come from the right background. Others argue strongly that anyone can be made into a manager given foundation and the right training. In fact, both are right with research suggesting that 70% of the characteristics of a good manager are learned. Our discussion here suggests that the engineer’s training ticks many of the required foundation boxes.

Therefore, if a good engineer has the right personal characteristics, their engineering background puts them in a good position to be taught management.

A good engineer can indeed make a good manager.

  • This blog is written as if it is an engineer that is to become a manager of engineers. The same ideas apply in all professions - so for 'engineer', read accountant or scientist or risk assessor or whatever.
  • McClelland D C, (1975) Power: The Inner Experience, New York, Irvington.
  • Boyatzis R E (1982) The Competent Manager, New York, Wiley-Interscience.