From Engineer to Manager

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Twenty years ago, I started as a staff engineer at a big engineering firm. Over the next 10 years, I was involved in multidisciplinary projects worldwide. Then I was asked to manage a team of highly skilled laboratory technicians. They would test soil samples for mechanical properties such as consolidation, shear or plasticity. The results were used to calculate foundation specifications for structures (roads, tunnels, bridges, buildings or oil platforms).

It was quite a change from being a consulting engineer to being managing a department. My responsibilities included the day to day business, contact with clients, quality control, safety, purchase of equipment, reporting, budgeting and leading a team.

In this article I am giving you some of my insights, steps and learnings of becoming a manager from being an engineer.

I was the third manager in a relatively short time for this team. Again, they had to get used to a new way of leadership. The first couple of weeks, I joined them in their work. By doing this I had a better idea what it would take to do the tests and what I could expect as far as turnaround time. I soon found out what soccer teams, cars and hobbies they liked. Not quite a soccer fan myself, I would then check the scores on Monday morning before heading into the office. I was then capable to congratulate or offer consolation to some of the team members who really are into soccer. This created a connection and this little investment helped to communicate better with my team.

I was able to follow a course on practical leadership skills sponsored by the company. There I learned some essential communication skills. Not everybody reacts the same way to a situation. Certain words, body language can help you to get your message across better. This was something I had to learn over time and the most important lesson I’ve learned is to change my viewpoint in the one of the other. This helped me to understand better a situation and how to respond to it.

Of course I made many mistakes (read my blog on how to deal with them) like ordering the wrong equipment, hiring the wrong people (read my blog about having interviews), signing off a report to quickly or asking for a subsidy too late. Looking back, these mistakes were easily to avoid by rechecking carefully or just calmly breathing in or out.

It was quite busy in the lab with short deadlines and a lot of work that came in waves. This made planning difficult but essential. Often my team would work in the weekends. I would join them for periods and I remember that they appreciated this. For me this was also a good time to catch up on some work that was behind schedule.

In the laboratory, most technicians were more skilled in their work than I was. That was okay. I was not supposed to do their work. But sometimes I needed help, and I soon found out that there were a lot of experts within the company who could help me with my challenges.

Being a leader also means showing your boundaries. You can’t please everyone and this requires some clear communication (see my blog on how to get rid of the monkey on your back), managing expectations or even making a physical barrier. When I came to work in the laboratory, there was no door in my office. Everybody would just walk in and out. This made it difficult for me to concentrate or let alone, get some work done. After a while, I installed a door which could be closed. I told my team I was not to be disturbed when the door was closed. There were 2 exceptions: in case of an emergency (accident) or when someone had nothing to do. Also I would ask (especially junior labtechnicians) to make a list of questions to avoid multiple disruptions for me.

I remember one issue with one of the technicians. He was openly questioning my decisions and had some valid arguments. I remember this as having a negative effect on the team. They would start to argue and I felt mistrust. What I did was to go out for lunch with this particular team member. First, I acknowledged his expertise and his insights on the matter. Then, I asked him what I could do so he could work better. We finally agreed that I would inform him about any technical decisions and that he would he would first discuss any doubts he had with me.

Most importantly: show gratitude to your team. For alone, you can’t succeed. I would send a thank you card at Christmas with a little present. I would openly recognize their work in front of management. This created a lot of goodwill. But….it has to be sincere.


here are my insights on becoming a better manager as an engineer: Get to know your team, show interest, network within the company for help, you can’t do it alone, recheck, breathe in…breathe out, acknowledge and respect the senior team members, show your boundaries, ask team members how you can help them so that they can perform better, in case of conflict: take it outside the office and…show gratitude.

There are many other learnings for an engineer who becomes a manager and I am sure you have some to share. What are yours? Please let me know in the comment box below. I am looking forward reading from you!

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