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How can HR turn great engineers into great leaders?

The very attributes that make brilliant engineers are often the same qualities that can be their weaknesses

Most HR professionals recognise the potential of engineers for future leadership and many already dominate the rankings of the world’s top 100 CEOs. However, engineers also present unique challenges for HR directors, they can be introverted, have limited people skills and rarely shout about their ambitions or success.

So how do HR teams recognise potential leaders amongst their engineers, retain that expertise and then develop the career paths and support that will nurture this talent and deliver a pipeline of future business leaders?

A major challenge is spotting leadership talent in the first place. The very attributes that make brilliant engineers often are the same qualities that can be their weaknesses when it comes to managing people.

To become chartered, engineers need to demonstrate and strive for continuous improvement and seek out solutions that are well founded in robust research. This requires critical analysis, fault-finding, and compliance with key processes. The same logic cannot be applied to the people within their organisation who all have their individual needs and unique personalities and the greatest obstacle for engineers making the transition to leadership is this ambiguity. People don’t come with hard data -they can be fickle, their problems rarely have measurable outcomes and it requires real emotional intelligence and ability to manage all of these variables.

Successful leaders are firm but fair and are able to give clear direction. They have to be approachable, good at listening and recognise achievement - skills which may not always come naturally to engineers. However, when they develop the necessary communication skills coupled with the ability to make timely decisions, they can make excellent managers.

The other challenge is finding people who want to manage. Many engineers have a passion for working on the frontline and tackling key issues with innovative solutions - leadership will potentially take them away from this hands-on approach. Others will want to “lead” but won’t want to manage a team and will possibly need a more bespoke career path.

To develop engineers into the leaders your business needs and retain their skills, HR professionals have to think differently. This involves providing dual career paths so those that don’t want to manage can still have the prestige and recognition of a senior role but without the challenge of managing people, finding paths that play to engineers key strengths and adapting leadership styles to suit the personalities of individuals.

Critically, companies looking to develop their engineers into the leaders of the future need to find bespoke programmes that match the character and learning styles of their engineers rather than apply a generic approach. Our experience shows us that engineers thrive if their development is tailored to their work environment and their experience – as well as the culture of organisation. While a good programme should take new leaders out of their comfort zone, it also needs to respect the preferences, environment and culture of an engineering team.

You can’t avoid tackling the ambiguous issues that come with people management. The best way to address this is for engineers to work through exercises that target the need for emotional intelligence in a way they can apply explicitly in their own work. Some people aren’t born leaders, these skills have to be developed - for engineers, they are perhaps better equipped than most to learn to become leaders yet they face challenges that need support to overcome.

Susan Binnersley is founder and director of HR consultancy h2h