Two blogs ago I introduced the terms expert power and referent power. You may recall that those are the two that distinguish great engineering leaders from mere bullies and bureaucrats. If you haven’t read that blog – I suggest you do so now – it’s the one called “Leadership and Power”.
My observation regarding expert power and referent power is that there are two common errors. On the one hand, many would-be engineering managers believe that engineering expertise is all you need to manage. On the other hand, other would-be engineering managers (and most of HR) seem to think expertise isn’t important at all – they seem to believe you just need management and leadership skills to be an engineering manager.
So here’s the deal using language from high school math: Expertise is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for being a great engineering manager.
To the first group I say this: Leadership is first and foremost about relationships – referent power. Yes, you need to be a good engineer – but you also have to have – wait for it – people skills.
It came as a horrible shock when I first realized this. In high school I used to tell people I want to be an engineer so I won’t have to deal with people. Turns out, not only do I have to work with people, I have to work with the worst kind of people – people like me: engineers.
So let me say that again – engineering leadership is about people, and having people skills. Your career as an engineering manager will be severely limited by a lack of people skills. Without people skills, referent power is unavailable to you and you’re a twin engine airplane flying with one engine out.
Ok, so what about that second group? Are people skills all I need? No: expertise IS a necessary condition.
The problem is this: if you don’t have real expertise, the power base of Expert Power is unavailable, and you’re at a profound disadvantage. Again, you’re a twin engine airplane flying with one engine out. The truth is, without expert power, you might end up like the pointy haired boss in Dilbert – obeyed by people who do not respect you. Hopefully you find that unacceptable.
The best advice I’ve ever received in this regard was from my father-in-law, a successful engineering manager himself. When I finished graduate school 30 years ago he sat me down and told me to resist all pulls toward management until I had at least 10 years of experience as an individual contributor. He never heard of leadership studies, but intuitively he got that right. It comes down to respect – if you want your team to respect you, you need to be a very strong engineer.
By the way, a few years back I mentored a young engineer who I think has remarkable people skills appropriate for leadership. I was thinking he would someday be my boss. Then he told me that he’s already a little bored with engineering – and he was barely three years out of engineering school. He was already looking to make the leap to management because he was tired of doing engineering. I have bad news for him – he has no business being an engineering manager. Engineering expertise is a necessary condition.
So, all you would-be engineering managers, please allow me to ask you two very important questions:
1. What are you doing to continue to develop your engineering skills so that when you become a manager you have access to expert power?
2. What are you doing to continue to develop your people skills so that when you become a manager you have access to referent power?
I guess in the final analysis it is this: if you’re serious about being a leader of engineers, you better get serious about both engineering AND people skills.
There’s no sense flying a twin engine aircraft with one engine out.