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Taking a vertical leap

3 min read


This post is sponsored by Drexel University.

 Transitioning from a horizontal world of technical expertise to one of business management is no small feat for engineers. John Via, director of engineering management at Drexel University, outlines why many engineers can become successful business leaders and what they will need in order to successfully make the transition.

Engineers are naturally technical, innovative thinkers and methodical problem solvers. How do these skills enable them to be effective leaders?

 If you look at Harvard Business Review’s Best Performing CEOs, you will see that 24 out of 100 are engineers. In both engineering and non-engineering firms, executives with a background in engineering tend to excel because their creativity and practical, pragmatic approach lends itself well to leadership positions.

What soft skills do engineering leaders need?

 While engineering leaders need the same soft skills as any other leaders, there are subtle differences. First, strong communication is critical in leadership and for engineers; it’s about organization and methodology. Second, collaboration is an especially important soft skill for engineering leaders. Engineering is about connecting and bringing teams together to work towards common goals. Third, it’s important to be able to motivate individuals. Too often we focus on the tasks and forget how important it is to make sure everyone is on the same page and excited about the project.

What are the top challenges that engineers face when transitioning to a business leader role? How can they successfully clear these hurdles?

As an engineer, you are focused on managing yourself, developing your personal technical competence and working as part of a team. When transitioning into a business leader role, the challenges include learning how to manage and lead others and understanding how the business works financially. Fiscal responsibility, in terms of budgeting and accounting, and the ability to communicate and operate effectively throughout the organization are imperative to a new leader’s success.  Those who are successful at making the transition into a leadership role have developed the ability to see the big picture and steward a shared vision.

What business and/or technology trends do you see redefining the role of today’s engineering manager? What changes have these trends created? 

 Many of the challenges facing engineers in the 21st century are global in nature.  Managing globally-distributed teams, particularly for multinational companies, requires the ability to adapt to diverse cultures. To be successful, leadership styles must also adapt so that societal problems are met with effective and efficient solutions. This will require leadership skills on a much grander scale than we’ve ever seen before. Those who can bring these teams together and lead the solution process will prove invaluable in the coming decades.