You’re an engineer and you got promoted to the position of engineering manager six months ago. You feel buried with work, and you know that you should be delegating tasks to your junior engineers, but you don’t know how. The work backlog builds, you work even more hours, and finally, you need help with delegation to get your life back.
Why Engineers Struggle with Delegation
Engineers are not like any other profession in the scientific field. Engineers get things done. They don’t hypothesize about problems and solutions. Engineers fix complex problems. Frankly, most engineers are reluctant to pursue a promotion to an engineering manager position. Why? Because they love to unravel complex problems, and then invent innovative ways to solve that problem. As a manager, they’d be stuck pushing papers all day long, filling out performance reviews, and managing difficult people.
When an engineer takes a managerial position, they want to continue to use their engineering skill. Subconsciously or consciously, engineers believe their technical skills will suffer, if they embrace the role of managing… instead of doing engineering.
At some point when studying engineering in college, engineers start to enjoy homework. They start to enjoy flexing their mental muscle… learning more, finding out how the universe works, and using their intellect to solve problems. When an engineer becomes a manager, it is as if all their schooling and technical training has been wasted. After all, any shlub can manage people. Only a brilliant engineer can solve complex problems.
Why Engineers Should Want to Lead
I’m an engineer. I started off like most engineers and quickly got promoted to the ranks of manager. This promotion came with a bit of trepidation. I liked the money and the prestigious titles. However, I felt uncomfortable in the role of manager. I continued to get involved in difficult engineering problem solving activities. I was convinced that my junior engineers weren’t up to the task.
I then had an epiphany. The engineers who work for me are a way to increase my ability to create and solve problems. They are not an anchor around my neck holding me back; they are the people who will amplify my brilliance. This epiphany was borne out of ego. But it still got me going in the right direction. I then got good at delegating. Once I did, I understood a greater truth. This is the truth of legacy. Most engineers want to be part of an earth-shattering business or invention that changes the world for the better. The key to participating in such an accomplishment is encouraging and supporting a team of engineers that will be more brilliant than you ever will be on your own. No matter how good you think you are.
What are the Obstacles to Delegation?
Now that you’ve got your head in the right place, there are some real obstacles to delegating.
The first is your staff. The two elements of staffing are the quantity and the quality of your staff. As a manager, you are now operating a mini-business. As such, you need to create a mini-business plan. You need to know your budget, and what is expected of you. If you are a middle manager, this should come from your boss. If you are a business owner, this plan must come from you. In this plan you need to match the skills and quantity of your staff with the results that your team hopes to achieve. In this plan, you cannot be responsible for “anything”. You heard me right. You cannot take on any tasks that are to be accomplished by your team.
I can see you engineers rolling your eyes right now.
Most of you are probably doing the work of your team if you’re struggling with delegation. This must stop. I get that you may not have enough people, or the qualifications of your people may not be what you want and need. It’s okay to do some of the work of your team in the near term. However, your goal must be to delegate 100% of your tasks.
Once you have the staffing plan that includes the qualifications of your team and the number of people you need to accomplish your mission, you will see some gaps. Oh joy, a problem to solve! In order to close this gap, you will identify hiring needs, skill development needs, firing needs, and a communication plan for your team.
Team Skill Development
To get your team up to the skill level they must possess, you must improve the skill level of your team members to match the plan you identified in the previous step. This means that you will spend more time training and less time doing. Providing training is not the only part of developing skills. Skill development is a two-way street. Most employees must understand what reward they will receive if they upgrade their skills.
This means that you must provide a skill/compensation ladder. As your people gain skills, they ought to be worth more. If you can hire engineers with a high level of skill, they must be paid accordingly. This requires you to document what level of skill you want each level of engineer to have who works on your team.
You do not have to provide all the skills development training on your own. You can seek out online or in-person training to develop your team. It is key that you include time to train your people in the staffing plan you created in the previous step.
Your people aren’t perfect, and neither are you. You may be the exception, but I doubt it! You will give tasks to your people, and they will not do those tasks exactly the way that you would do them. In some cases, they will do the tasks better. In some cases, they will perform the tasks worse. In most cases, they will simply do the tasks differently than you. Focus your attention on not criticizing different and praising better. Even when your team does a task poorly, it is important that you correct that individual in private without malice.
I’m not sure if you know this, but most engineers are introverts. Being an introvert has it strengths and its weaknesses when it comes to leading others. A major weakness when introverts lead others is that they can do their best thinking when they are alone. When it comes to problem-solving, it is difficult for an introvert to hand off a portion of this problem solving to another person. If you’re an introvert, and you probably are, then be aware of your tendencies. You must force yourself to hand off problem solving to others; and then create checks with those others to ensure they are completing the task you gave them.
There are two failures that poor managers make: 1) not enough supervision; and 2) too much supervision. Because engineers are not particularly fond of interacting with people, they tend to err on #1. An engineer will either want to do the job themselves or completely hand the job off to someone else and forget about the task until the time when the job was supposed to be completed. There is a middle ground that works well for both sides. This is creating milestones to check on the work being done.
If a task should take one week, you must set a deadline expectation of one week. In that week, you should check on the progress of that task daily. The best time to check will be at the end of the day or the beginning of the day. If the task is 3-months, you should check on progress at the start or end of each week.
Engineers can make some of the best leaders if they can learn how to delegate effectively. If you are an engineer and you want to start your own business; or are in the process of leading your business and need help, I’d love to help you out. My name is Jeff Schuster, and I’m a business coach for engineers. Feel free to shoot me an introductory e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.