There are usually two routes into managing engineers and technicians, firstly through promotion from a technical team and secondly by moving across from a management position in a non-technical area. Managers coming from either background have particular challenges in stepping into the management of a team of technical employees.

For one it is principally the challenge of leaving behind the daily fulfilment of a technical challenge and for the other it is entering a technical world without technical knowledge or experience.

The Engineer to Manager Transition

It is common for engineers to be promoted into management without any prior training and with little in-role support. It is therefore important for these new managers to seek out reading material on business management for themselves and to attend courses on management whenever the opportunity presents itself. Finding a management mentor within the company can also provide valuable support.

Another difficulty for managers progressing from technician roles is stepping back from their previous work. The team is unlikely to welcome a “technical expert” who tells them what to do and is constantly providing the answers. While they may welcome an extra pair of hands when under pressure, they will be looking to the manager to provide them with the opportunity to contribute ideas and to consult with them over problem solving issues.

It is, therefore, important to delegate effectively and not spend time on things which are not a management responsibility. There is also a need for the manager to shift focus onto the achievements of the team and away from those of their own. The manager has to accept that there needs to be a transition from being a team leader and a big fish in the technical pond to being a small fish in the whole organisation’s management structure.

The manager emerging from a technical background needs to adopt a business mindset and develop empathy. They have new considerations to take on board when accessing the work of the team including financial constraints, organisational culture and business results.

Managing a Technical Team when not Technical

For a non-technical manager, moving across to manage a team of engineers and technicians can feel quite intimidating. It is important, therefore, to hold on to the fact that it is management skills rather than technical skills and knowledge that is required in the role. Having said that, it is necessary for the manager to be credible in the eyes of their team and therefore it is essential for them to gain some understanding of the day-to-day operations and what each job entails. It is also paramount that the manager learns the technical language that they are going to need to use when communicating both to the team and to other stakeholders. This can be achieved by attending industry events, workshops and reading periodicals.

It is advisable that a non-technical manager does not try to bluff their way on technical matters with a team of engineers and technicians, as their ignorance will soon be exposed. A non-technical manager should be honest about the gaps in their technical knowledge and allow the team to explain things, challenging them to explain technical concepts in layman terms. The manager should learn about the team’s different fields of expertise and then find out more about these, attending introductory courses if felt necessary.

A good idea is for the manager to partner up with one or more team members who understand the technical aspect of a project and who can help them make more educated decisions regarding timescales and the levels of challenge and risk.

Winning over Technical Teams

Trust is key to establishing a good relationship with a technical team, and from trust comes increased motivation and productivity. The team need to believe in the honesty and authenticity of their manager and that their manager will represent their needs strongly at management meetings.

The manager needs to build trust through being able to explain decisions to their team and clearly describe expected outcomes. The team need to feel that they are in the information loop. While not caving in, the manager needs to acknowledge the unknown and the risks involved in the work of the team. All communications need to be clear, deliberate and not open to misconstruction.

It will make a big difference if the manager has a positive attitude and a solutions mindset and can cultivate within the team an appetite for experimentation. Equally, if their manager develops strong networks within the organisation, he or she will be perceived as having potential influence within the organisation, which will also inspire confidence. Such networking can be achieved in a variety of ways from helping people outside the department to attending company social events.

Expectations from Above

Of course, winning over the team is only part of the manager’s role and beyond it there are key responsibilities relating to the team’s efficiency within the business. The manager is expected to successfully deliver a project on time and within budget. In order to achieve this they must ensure that the team has what is required to meet that expectation. As part of the foundation for this it is essential that the team are working with well designed and engineered tools and processes, and that corners are not cut.

The manager should be focussed on the final product and how it will be used and needs to communicate that overview to the team so that they have context to their work. A significant part of this communication can be achieved through one-to-one meetings with individual team members. These meetings are crucial in developing an understanding as to where the strengths in the team lie and where professional development is necessary. As well as communicating expectations, these meetings afford the manager the opportunity to motivate the individual through praise and through providing new challenges. Time should also be given in these meetings to allow team members to communicate what they feel they need to be happy and successful. Occasionally, it may be necessary to reprimand a team member. This is an integral part of any manager’s responsibilities and should be carried out discreetly and with clearly articulated targets for improvement.

As well as guiding the work of the technical team, the manager is a go-between for the team and the heads of the business. For this reason, it is essential that the manager has the ability to communicate both the technical and business lexicon in a way that both parties understand. Equally, they should be able to articulate the concerns and ambitions of both the engineers and the business leaders so that they are clearly understood by the other side.

Learn More with BMR Solutions

While the way in which engineers and technical teams work has a certain uniqueness to it, the skills needed to manage these teams are by and large generic to all business management roles. These include the ability to maintain a clear focus on business objectives, to motivate staff to maximise production, to ensure quality products, to keep to both agreed time frames and financial constraints and to recruit the best and most appropriate available staff for each role.

Effective recruitment is key to building a highly efficient technical team.  Opportunities to recruit the best engineers and explore management opportunities in this area can be found by visiting our website.