The Surprising Truth behind Engineering Leadership

According to an October 2017 HBR article,* “Women are underrepresented in the C-suite, receive lower salaries, and are less likely to receive a critical first promotion to manager than men.” No surprise there. But, once you make it up that ladder, based on hard work and your engineering excellence, did you ever think you might not be prepared to lead?

At Brown University’s School of Professional Studies, our research suggests that people in the early years of their careers in STEM fields have strong technical skills, which gets them up the first rank. But once they want to move up another level, they lack skills beyond those technical ones to help them succeed.

We recently conducted a series of in-depth interviews with more than 30 senior leaders in top technology companies to identify the key skills and capabilities technical personnel need to progress in management. We learned that technical professionals tend to be detail-oriented analytical thinkers who drive to the root causes of problems and dive deeply into the weeds in a structured, systematic and disciplined way.

In their early careers, these traditional strengths serve them well, but they often stumble when asked to lead bigger teams and achieve success through the efforts of others. There are too many cases of brilliant technical professionals – across gender – floundering once outside their functional areas.

Top four “surprising” skills for technical pros

Based on our research with senior executives, engineering leadership in STEM fields does not require skills derived from deeper technical knowledge but rather from the liberal arts, from the study of sociology, anthropology, economics and literature. These disciplines empower leaders to read people, and see the world through their eyes; to empathically understand what they need to succeed and the barriers that stand in their way. These skills include:

  1. Big picture thinking. How can technical experts move beyond detailed, analytical thinking to thinking strategically about the “big picture?” How can they learn to see the forest and the trees? A leader needs to think strategically to set a clear vision, to build and inspire a high performance team and to establish a path forward in the face of incomplete information, limited resources or other challenges. Big picture thinking requires an understanding of the company and its position in the industry ecosystem. The focus is no longer on a functional area but on how the group contributes to future corporate success and how to help define that future. Big picture thinking requires a leader to look internally and externally, to identify market and global trends and to continuously assess the impact of competition, regulation, resource availability and other factors. Taking this larger view also requires skills at influencing others and speaking the language of business, finance, marketing and other functions beyond their technical expertise.
  1. People skills. Technical experts are masters of facts, data management and control processes. But to advance as leaders, they must develop the interpersonal skills to work with and through others. Leaders must inspire their teams, manage conflict and give feedback in ways that encourage others to progress rapidly toward shared goals. By understanding how their teams view the world, effective leaders expand their vantage points to problem-solve more effectively. 
  2. Flexible and integrative leadership. Flexible leaders know when to use technical and analytic problem solving and when to be conceptual and creative. They integrate multiple perspectives or “connect the dots” and have a range of problem solving and management approaches. Flexible leaders have their core leadership style, but also have the awareness and skills to adapt that style when needed to achieve results.
  3. Effective communication. Engineering, science and technology professionals are proficient in the technical language of their fields. In that domain, credibility and influence come from communication with colleagues who respect their expertise, but leaders must communicate with diverse stakeholders and compete for resources in the face of multiple priorities. Technical professionals who aspire to leadership positions must become skilled at influencing business leaders, building partnerships across functional areas and working effectively with multidisciplinary teams. Clear, persuasive communication tailored to different audiences is key to maximizing opportunities and achieving results with and through others.

Getting results

Corporations have a pressing need for transformative leaders who drive innovation in today’s complex, rapidly evolving global markets. To become one of these highly prized leaders, technical professionals must transcend their silos and broaden their perspectives. This personal transformation can happen slowly via trial and error as technical professionals move through management ranks. More rapid results are possible when companies and professionals choose an intensive, accelerated executive leadership development programs that pushes STEM professionals beyond their comfort level into new disciplines for more impactful ways of seeing and communicating.   

The best choice is a targeted leadership development program designed for professionals trained and experienced in engineering, science and technology. To advance your career while studying, look for top-tier, rigorous programs taught online and on campus. This provides opportunities to immediately apply new knowledge at work, and leverage advice and feedback from peers and professors. Professionals graduate with a high-impact network of colleagues and primed to drive innovation and industry forward.


*A Study Used Sensors to Show that Men and Women Are Treated Differently at Work

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