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What Makes a Great Engineering Manager?

How do you define great technical leaders?

Ask any group of individual contributors what they think about the skills, or lack thereof, of engineering managers, and you're liable to get an earful. We turned the question from problem-oriented to solution-focused and asked the denizens of the Systems & Product Design Engineer group on LinkedIn to tell us how they define great technical leaders.

Bill Devenish, a Design News guest blogger and president of The Devenish Group, says: "I have noticed that great engineering leaders are those people who can provide a clear and concise vision. They can read between the lines, take seemingly contradictory requirements, and communicate an objective that everyone understands."

As our imaginary group of jawboning engineers would tell you, technical ability doesn't necessarily confer the skills to oversee people. Bill Losapio, a mechanical engineer in Florida, distinguishes between a good manager and great leader. He says Steve Jobs and Richard Branson qualify as great corporate leaders. However, perhaps counter-intuitively, he believes greatness in an engineering manager is tougher to define. Soft skills are a big part of the latter's charter, he believes, including "less tangible concerns such as ensuring the competence of his department, disseminating knowledge, and stroking feathers that get out of joint."

Chuck Blevins, a design engineer near Huntsville, Ala., says that the best managers he's worked for were not great engineers in the technical sense. "They were certainly great communicators," he adds. "A technical lead needs communication skills but only to other engineers. Managers have to communicate to the whole organization. Good managers and leaders must show confidence in themselves and their teams -- they cannot be risk averse."

If successful managers are made rather than born, consultant Joe Jenney has some thoughts about how they get that way. "When I started out it was easier," he says. "Young engineers were given significant responsibilities; older engineers took time to mentor them. There were many management positions so that capable people could expect a new post with greater responsibility every couple of years."

Jenney, himself a retired aerospace executive and author of The Manager's Guide for Effective Leadership, notes that such progressive seasoning is no longer widely available. "I contend that today's young must take responsibility for self training to achieve positions they want," he says.

Our own always-thoughtful contributing editor Jon Titus believes that true leadership requires both backbone and restraint. "Leaders must listen carefully, even if the speaker has things to say the leader doesn't agree with," he says. "Leaders give their people the tools to do their jobs properly. They keep an eye on projects, but don't micromanage. Leaders stand up for their people and ensure [they] get proper credit."

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