Updated for the new July 2020 FE Exam Topics

Developing practical leadership skills for emerging engineering leaders



The following is a guest post by Patrick Sweet from engineeringandleadership.com.

Patrick Sweet, P.Eng., MBA, PMP, CSEP is a recognized expert in engineering management, productivity, and leadership. He is also the host of the popular Engineering & Leadership Podcast, a show dedicated to helping engineering managers thrive. Download his free Engineering Leadership eBook Engineering Leadership 101 - Practical Insights for Becoming an Engineering Leader at Any Stage to grow your leadership skills today.




One of the most common misconceptions engineers have about leadership is that you don’t need to know anything about it until you get into management. It’s often believed that leadership is just not all that useful if your role is a technical one, or if you’re in the early stages of your career.

In fact, becoming a leader is possible at any career stage, and can be useful no matter what your role is. In my own career, I’ve seen countless examples of young engineers stepping up to become leaders within their teams and the incredible impact that has had on their organizations and their careers.

In this post, I’m going to share some pragmatic approaches that young engineers can use to develop practical leadership skills.


1. Make a habit of reading

Former American President Harry Truman once said “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” I believe firmly in this, myself. It makes sense if you think about it. Leadership is all about change. It’s about seeing how things are now and having a vision for how things could be better in the future. To that end, leadership is about ideas, and there is no better way to generate your own ideas than to immerse yourself in the ideas of others.

For emerging engineering leaders, I recommend you make a habit of reading a mixture of technical material and business books. For technical material, you can rely on content produced by your discipline’s technical society (IEEE, ASME, etc.). It’s important to establish a strong technical foundation early in your career – especially if you aspire to lead others.

For leadership and business material, take a look at the Amazon top sellers in Management and Leadership and try to find something interesting to you – don’t overthink it, just dive in. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, some of my favourite authors are Jim Collins, Brene Brown, and Simon Sinek.

Finally, you might consider trying out audiobooks. They’re a great way to get through books while on the go.


2. Learn to lead yourself

The best place to start to develop leadership skills is with yourself and your career. Most people don’t take active control of their careers or bother to establish their own personal vision for the future. By creating a vision for yourself, you start to learn what establishing a compelling vision is like, how to plan for the long run, and how to take strategic action in support of that plan. Furthermore, having a clear vision for your career will help you to thrive at work, putting you in a better spot to lead others in the future.

One thing to keep in mind is that your career plan will almost certainly turn out to be inaccurate. That’s ok. The value in planning and in setting goals for yourself is that it focuses you and your efforts. As you progress toward a particular goal, it will become clear whether or not achieving that goal is all you made it out to be. Pivoting and refining your goals is not only ok, it’s to be expected.

If you’ve never created a career plan for yourself, one of the best exercises I’ve ever seen is to write yourself a resume of the future. Think several years out about the job you’d like to have. List that as your “current position”. Then, work your way backward and list the jobs, training, and experience you think you’ll need to arrive at your target job. This creates a roadmap that you can start to take active steps toward.


3. Find a mentor

Mentors are personal and professional guides who have already traveled the road you’d like to go down. Finding a mentor who is a leader in your company or industry is a powerful way to fast-track your progress and to grow as a leader.

One thing that many people get wrong about leadership is that they believe all leaders fit a certain mould. They think that leaders are charismatic, outgoing, gregarious people, and that you can’t be a good leader if you don’t fit the bill. Luckily, that’s not the case. Leadership is about the execution of certain skills, not about your personality. By finding a mentor that you respect, and whose leadership style makes sense to you, you can start to develop your own leadership skills and deploy them in a way that’s natural for you.


Conclusion

Leadership skills can be learned and used at any career stage. It can be especially advantageous for engineers early in their careers to develop these skills. Being a strong leader as an individual contributor can set you apart from your peers, improve performance, and set you up for formal leadership positions later in your career. By taking the simple steps listed here, you can make concrete progress toward becoming a leader, and you might just surprise yourself at how quickly you can grow.