Being a manager does not make you a leader.
Now that I have your attention, I’ll dive in a little deeper. Think of it in terms of creating a meal. You can look at your pantry and see you are missing certain ingredients to your recipe. You go out to the store and purchase those ingredients. You come back and toss the ingredients in the pantry. Done! The meal has been created. Well actually, no. You have the ingredients you need, but nothing else was done. You still have to spend time putting the ingredients together, cooking the meal, making sure the taste is right, add a ton of salt and pepper, and finally serving it. It’s easy to gather the ingredients listed in a recipe, but it might not be as easy to turn that recipe into the perfect meal. It takes time and effort. The same applies to an engineering team. As a leader, or perhaps a chef, having the ingredients is not enough. In order for an engineer to grow in an environment, work must be done. Yes, some of it falls squarely on the shoulders of the engineer, but some of it comes from leadership. My goal here is to discuss three ingredients that a leader can combine that can make a difference in their team.
A Support System
Isn’t it wonderful to just be thrown to the wolves? Nope. Especially for a new engineer who is not only learning the environment, who the players are, but also team dynamics as well. I am not saying leaders need to come up with a system of hand holding all the way through someone’s career, but in the beginning of someone’s journey, simply being there makes a difference. Find out what area the person is weak in and work on that. That area will produce a lot more questions than others. This is OK. Voice is not my strongest area. Here and there I run into some PRI setup somewhere in the world that I need assistance with. There might be some obscure Call Manager setting I forgot about. Whatever it is, my manager takes the time to go through it and answer questions. Some people learn better by seeing an example. Leaders need to see what works better for one member of the team and what works better for others. What about everyone else on the team? If you’ve been there longer, you can also give the newcomer a hand. This defines leadership, that you can reach out, find out how the other person is doing and seeing how you can help.
I can’t cook much. Here and there I do try to help my wife in the kitchen by giving her the evening off. I stumble around trying to figure things out as I follow a complicated recipe out of some famous chef’s cookbook. Sure, I could have just made hotdogs. But I don’t want to. I want the challenge of the bigger, complicated dish. In the end, all of the stumbling and page flipping and burns lead to a good dish (at least that is what the family says). I believe many engineers feel the same way. We want a challenge. We want to participate in big projects that require attention. This is one of the ways we learn. If you keep us cooking hotdogs forever, that is all we will know. As engineers we must do our part to go out and perform the needed research, learn and even obtain the certs. However, the opportunities for growth within the team come from being assigned those projects that allow us to expand our tool sets. Having the confidence in allowing engineers that opportunity is what a leader does. Mistakes will be made and and that is how we learn. Sure, you can send all your important projects the most tenured team member, but see if one of the others can shadow that person. Participating and owning these challenges will allow engineers to have the final ingredient…
A Place to Grow
That is all we really want, a place to grow. A place we can add tools to our belt and also elevate the company at the same time. I think some people do worry and say “If this person keeps learning and growing, they are going to leave. Perhaps we should not invest in them.” That might be what runs through some manager’s minds. That is an incorrect way to think. A leader’s worry should not be that a person might leave, but that they have made enough of an impact in that engineer that if they choose to leave, they will continue to succeed. A place an engineer can grow is a place where leaders seek their input and ideas. This is a place that promotes development plans and opens doors. I spend time studying and working on certifications for my benefit, but also for the benefit of the company. Leaders will recognize that. If one person is growing, everyone else will too.
Now that we’ve gone over some ingredients. You have the recipe. Let’s blend it all together into a meal of success. New engineers want to have a support system, someone in their corner who can assist when needed. As the engineer continues making a difference in the company, a challenging project is sure to keep them on their toes. This is not only a great learning experience, but allows the engineer to grow. That is what we want from people growth. As people grow and continue to get better, so does the company. It all starts with these ingredients. What are you going to make?