When you go to graduate school for engineering management, one of the highest-paying master’s degrees, your curriculum will likely focus less on advancing your technical engineering skills and more on attaining managerial skills. Generally, studying engineering management helps you cultivate skills in the different aspects of management work for which you will be responsible in your future career, including planning, organizing, controlling, staffing and leading.
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No matter what goal you’re trying to achieve, planning is an important part of it. Good engineering managers develop a host of project management skills, the first of which is planning. When conceptualizing a project or a goal, you need to be able to think not only about the end result but also about each of the different steps on the path to reaching that goal.
If your project is to develop a new machine to accomplish a task, you need to go through steps like research, design, modeling, prototyping and refining that machine. You may also have to begin thinking about the next steps involved in getting the product to market, such as acquiring a patent, planning to manufacturer the machine at scale and making sales.
Part of your job in planning an engineering product is identifying all of the different stages within each step that your team will need to move through and identifying any early ideas that turn out to be extraneous. You also need to organize your steps in the right order. It may not make sense to worry about prototyping when you don’t even have a design yet – that is, unless you have to start coordinating additional team members, equipment or resources now so that they will be in place when you reach the prototype stage.
Planning involves delegating tasks to the right people, at the right time and with the right resources. You must communicate who is responsible for what job, when to undertake that task and what resources they should use, or the reality of the work won’t match your plan.
Can your team get moving on the project right away, or will the project be stalled while you figure out funding and budgets or acquire materials and equipment? Organizing skills are hugely important to the success of any plan. If you forget to purchase a crucial component that is used later in the project, the entire endeavor could grind to a halt due to the delay. Misplacing resources – on paper, in the form of inaccurate accounting in budgets, or in real life, in the form of materials being housed somewhere that’s difficult to find or access – can derail your timeline and your budget.
In addition to organizational skills, math skills and analytical skills, a detail-oriented nature is helpful for success in engineering management, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Controlling” may not be an adjective you want workers to use to describe your management style, but it is a part of your job description. No matter how thoroughly you have planned for a project, there is always a possibility of obstacles that could change your plan. The engineering manager is responsible for controlling aspects of the plan like the work schedule needed to stick to the timeline and the costs for which you have budgeted. When an unexpected hurdle requires tough decision-making and potential changes to the budget or the timeline, teams of engineers turn to their engineering manager for direction.
Not every situation is one that your team will have control over, but even in these cases, your role as an engineering manager is to identify how the team will respond to an unexpected event.
Even the best managers won’t be able to help organizations reach their full potential if they don’t have the right personnel supporting their visions and executing their plans. While luck may play a role in finding workers who have the skills you need and who fit well into the company’s culture, staffing an organization or team well takes plenty of skill. Engineering managers should take an active role in the recruiting process, which may encompass everything from identifying staffing needs and preparing job descriptions for vacancies to interviewing candidates and making hiring decisions.
Mistakes in the early stages of staffing can lead to problems down the road. If an engineering manager consistently prioritizes engineering school prestige over experience, it shouldn’t be a surprise that new hires might need more training. Focusing on technical skills to the exclusion of soft skills and personality may mean high turnover, since the employees hired may not be a good long-term fit for the company.
It’s also important to consider not only the candidates but also the positions for which they’re being hired. A candidate may perform wonderfully in an interview and “click” with the engineering manager personality-wise, but putting that individual in the wrong job role may set both them and the company up for failure.
Engineering management coursework that touches on human resources management and business communication is valuable for developing the staffing skills that will help you put together a team capable of making your ambitions a reality.
Your leadership skills directly affect how your team operates and whether it has the resources and support it needs to reach its goals. It’s not enough to just bring together the individual workers who make up your team. To reach their full potential, your employees need clear and consistent direction from you.
Delivering this direction requires you to draw on other skills, including skills in planning, organization, and controlling. After all, you can’t be an effective leader if you’re not able to formulate a plan to achieve your goals or organize and control the factors that affect the plan’s feasibility.
However, the differences between good leaders and ineffective leaders don’t just lie in these areas of planning, organization and controlling. Leadership depends in large part on how you connect with people and communicate with them. If you’re able to build authentic relationships and understand what motivates your workers and how to best help them learn and grow, you will be in a good position to lead a team effectively.
Coursework in leadership may cover ethics as well as leadership theories, strategies and practices.