Published February 2008
Engineering and Technical Leadership Development: Challenges in a Rapidly Changing Global Market
Carl S. Vieth & Thomas W. Smith
A great deal of attention has been focused on the engineering and technical talent pool. Depending on the source and how the supply and demand of the talent is measured, we are either facing a severe deficiency or no shortage at all.
No matter which side you’re on, there is one critical factor often missing from the discussion — the increasing need for engineering and technical leaders. Myriad factors are affecting the growing shortage of qualified engineering and technical managers, including workforce demographics, globalization of the engineering enterprise, the acceleration of technology and organizational and business demands.
Engineering managers tend to be five years older than the average. Looking forward, the replacement rate for engineering managers will increase from an annual rate of 6.2 percent in 2003 to near 20 percent in 2014, which means there will be about 15,000 engineering managerial vacancies annually by 2014.
Compounding these demographics is the changing nature of the work. Engineering managers are challenged by significant organizational changes. Engineering or engineering-related occupations represent more than a third of the 40 professions identified by BLS as highly susceptible to outsourcing. This means that leading a corporate engineering enterprise will require management skills that extend well beyond an organization’s boundaries.
Similarly, the rapid rate of technological change requires engineering managers to have an ever-increasing breadth of technical competency. As organizations compete in the “knowledge economy,” the role of the technical leader will have increasing importance to an organization’s vitality.
The engineering enterprise also has changed significantly in recent years. Engineering leaders must lead organizations that are geographically distributed around the world. Engineering activities are performed in cross-functional teams rather than as individual projects.
Matrix corporate structures require technical leaders to include professionals from varying disciplines on engineering teams, as well as assigning their engineers to teams where duties are not traditional engineering. Engineers and technical professionals demand their leaders demonstrate a high level of technical competency — “street cred” is crucial to success.
Finally, organizations continually strive to be “lean,” which often translates to having fewer resources and putting a greater focus on day-to-day productivity. Today’s engineering organization provides tremendous technical leadership challenges, yet it is more dependent than ever on its leadership for success.
The State of Technical Leadership
Technical leadership is defined differently depending on the role of engineering within an organization. Titles such as “chief engineer,” “lead program manager” and “senior project manager” are used to identify managers and leaders of engineering and technical functions within an enterprise, though actual job descriptions vary widely.
Today’s technical leaders, almost without exception, lack formal management training. Rather, their skills are in the engineering and science disciplines. In addition, their performance expectations vary widely, as well as their roles and responsibilities, depending on the organization. Therefore, it’s not surprising that technical leadership development activities vary greatly.
However, one thing is common to all successful technical leadership development programs — the close alignment of program design with an organization’s mission, vision and values, as well as the strategic imperatives of the organization. Without this alignment, executive support and resource allocation, program sustainability is unlikely.
In benchmark organizations like Rockwell Automation and GE Healthcare, the identification and development of the next generation of technical leaders is a strategic imperative for the global enterprises. Leading technology companies in Asia and the Pacific Rim also have recognized this best practice.
In contrast to these structured rotational programs, many organizations promote technical leaders from the ranks, with little or no attention to a formalized development plan. Given the demographics and increasing demands on engineering and technical functions, attention to technical leadership development is critical to the future organizational performance and productivity.
Developing Technical Leaders
While many organizations pay attention to the development of key managerial talent, they often overlook the development of their technical leaders. Leadership at the team and project levels is as critical as leadership activities at the program and business-unit levels. Yet in most organizations, these needs go unmet.
The chief learning officer is in the unique position to embrace and advance a vertically scalable leadership development program that accommodates individual development needs within the context of organizational performance requirements.
At the team and project level, engineers must be able to incorporate leadership and managerial concepts into their work to enhance the performance of their work group. Development activities might be directed at improving performance in leading global project teams, employing effective communications tools and techniques for these teams, managing drawings and documents, planning and project management, and use of IT systems and structures.
At the mid- to upper-management levels within an engineering or technical organization, leadership development activities incorporate greater attention to management capabilities. Topics such as managing people and resources, business management and business development play a greater role in developing an effective leader.
As candidates climb the organizational ladder, technical leadership development requires a more substantial investment in formal training. The plan should result in the systematic development of a broader application of management and interpersonal skills, business acumen and technical depth. Professional development objectives can be satisfied through a series of internal short courses or external certificate and master’s degree programs.
Depending on the candidate’s development path, degree choices might include an MBA, or, for those committed to leading technical organizations, a master’s degree in technical leadership or a technical discipline.
A major challenge facing smaller companies is the ability to sustain a comprehensive technical leadership development program. The resource investment required is difficult to justify with what is typically a small number of candidates. One strategy is to develop a comprehensive initiative relying on external resources to supply continuing education experiences supporting an individual’s development plan. External offerings can be combined with internal, organization-specific training activities that make learning events relevant to the corporate culture and practice patterns of the enterprise.
Learning organizations can form partnerships with university-based providers or professional societies that are effective in providing a portfolio of continuing education offerings to satisfy the organization’s technical leadership learning needs. Such partnerships must be well designed and support the strategic objectives of the organization, in addition to the tactical requirements of the learning function.
At the strategic level, the learning objectives and curricular approach must support the organizational strategy and culture. At the tactical level, course offerings must support the requirements of the learner and the learning organization. Tactical requirements such as accessibility delivery mode and the inclusion of international standards and global considerations in the course content are equally important to program success.
Chief learning officers are central to the partnering strategy. CLOs might source continuing education services from a variety of vendors or choose to limit their vendor community to one or two strategic partnerships. In making this decision, the CLO must consider the organizational and learner requirements, as well as the vendor’s capability and expertise.
At a minimum, the vendor assessment should include an in-depth understanding of instructional design, delivery and support processes, technical depth, business model, instructional capacity and ability to meet evolving needs. Employing a tool such as a Pugh Matrix or “House of Quality” (quality function deployment) is very effective in understanding the “match” between the organizational requirements and the vendor capabilities.
In addition to strategic partnerships, smaller organizations can create “virtual rotation programs” to achieve the breadth of experience found in the programs of large companies. The CLO and the functional manager can plan stretch and cross-functional job assignments that provide practical experience in functional areas, such as operations, manufacturing, finance and marketing.
Membership on cross-functional project teams can provide rich experiences supporting leadership development objectives. Management must provide the candidate relief from regular assignments so they can give development the attention required to deliver value.
Formal mentoring also is effective in technical leadership development. Keys to success include creating a quality experience and preparing mentors and managers to develop crucial technical leadership competencies.
Successful technical leadership development programs feature close linkage of development activities to a technical leadership competency model. Leadership development activities, including candidate selection, content, individual development, evaluation and continuous-improvement activities, should all employ the competency model as the gauge for program development and oversight. The CLO plays a central role in the research and development of the competency model and managing its ongoing relevance to the enterprise.
Academic and corporate technical leadership programs should consider an engineering leadership competency model that frames competency within a productivity framework. Such a model could quantify engineering productivity and performance using a set of core attributes common to engineering and technical leaders. These attributes, which create the foundation of development activities, can include:
• Integrity and professionalism, which include community service, social responsibility and advancing the body of engineering practice and technical knowledge.
• Global mindset, defined as the incorporation of national culture, cross-cultural considerations, international policy and regulatory compliance into the engineering enterprise. • Collaboration and communication, which involve relating to and communicating with others across a wide band of functional and organizational disciplines to build effective problem-solving organizations.
• Intellectual breadth and depth, or the ability to harness a deep “discipline-specific” knowledge with a wide range of cognitive skills that span a broad range of technical, sociocultural and scientific disciplines.
• Curiosity and creativity, which include a strong desire to learn and engage the imagination to invent novel products or solve challenging problems.
• Organizational aptitude and systems thinking, or the ability to understand and engage organizational systems and structures to achieve business goals, manage knowledge and apply technologies and processes to efficiently achieve engineering objectives.
Within the next 10 years, we will experience a greater than threefold increase in leadership turnover in engineering and technical organizations, increasing the competition for an increasingly scarce resource. To remain competitive globally, technical enterprises will have to
develop leaders internally.
CLOs in these organizations can create “virtual” programs by combining internal training offerings and ad hoc stretch assignments with external continuing education courses. Success depends on aligning goals and objectives to enterprise strategic and tactical imperatives and designing a well-defined competency model