Features, Q&A

Leadership in Engineering: Richard Savoie

October 9, 2013

Rich SavoieMoving from the trenches to the corner office requires the development of leadership and management skills. These “soft skills” can be intimidating for the more technical-minded among us. On the surface, there’s little consensus as to what leadership is, let alone a systematic understanding of the development and application of leadership in the engineering workplace.

Over the coming weeks, we will feature interviews with engineers who’ve made the transition from purely technical to leadership positions. Over the course of their careers in the field, in academia, and in the the private sector, each of our subjects succeeded by tackling leadership as an engineering problem subject to rigorous analysis and the development of robust, concrete best practices.

To begin our series, we spoke with Rich Savoie, Engineering Manager for Micropace EP and the founder and manager of Engineers Looking for Stuff. His engineering social network appeared in ASPE Magazine, IEEE Spectrum, and ASME Magazine, while he himself has been consulted on stories for CNN, Fortune Small Business and the Boston Business Journal, among others.

Engineers Looking for Stuff began as a LinkedIn group and recently expanded into a companion site, EngineersLooking.com.

On a practical level, what is leadership? How would you define leadership, divorced from hierarchy?

In the most practical sense, leadership in engineering is the distillation of experience combined with purpose and ambition. A leader by nature requires a sense of purpose, drive to realize that purpose, and ability to understand the big picture. But there is so much about product development that isn’t taught in any school and isn’t intuitive enough to be addressed by instincts, and I’ve seen many projects fall apart due to unseasoned systems engineers and managers that have heaps of drive, but no ability to step around land mines. So leadership is the concentrated result of knowing what works and what doesn’t over many iterations, directed towards a higher purpose. That purpose varies greatly from organization to organization, but it is almost always related to quality, growth, and business expansion.

What qualities constitute good or bad leaders?

Engineering leaders require a slightly different mix of traits and skills compared to leaders in other industries. Competence is probably the most underrated requirement, experience being second. Engineers on the whole do not respect leaders without a reasoned, measured competence in what they do. Engineers want, nay, need their leaders to be able to do what they do, even if they don’t do it anymore. Confidence, good instincts, and generalist skill levels can make do for leaders in other industries, but not in engineering. Arrogance is often the sign of a self-conscious leader, and engineers will eat him or her for breakfast, taking especial delight in undercutting or embarrassing them. It makes for a counterproductive environment that can be over competitive and distrustful.

Which specific competencies are required of engineers seeking to expand into leadership roles? What new skills are needed to manage the transition?

Once an engineer has sufficient skill levels and experience to be able to lead others and not just manage them, they should focus on core management skills and soft people skills to successfully make the transition. Core management skills such as project management, budgeting, resource allocation, project reporting, and human resource dealings can be easier to learn by quantifying them – assigning metrics and values so that they have inherent technical meaning, and therefore are easier for an engineer to adopt. These can vary widely on the size of the organization and its goals, but one thing is universal: most engineers are ill equipped when they start managing because they get pulled into it by need rather than pushed into it through clever employee development planning.

Are there any concrete best practices you recommend to growing leaders in the engineering field?

The best engineering managers are born, not made. They step up to the plate and take charge of projects and fill power vacuums, establishing their place in the hierarchy and showing promise to their superiors that eventually gets recognized. If you want to be an engineering leader, take any opportunity to exercise leadership and flex your management muscles. If there aren’t any opportunities showing themselves, create some by taking initiative in other projects and spreading yourself around. And when you do, make sure you let management know about it. They may not be paying attention. If possible, take any opportunities for continuing education that you can, especially leadership workshops, project management, and budget management courses that might be offered in your organization.

Do you have any advice for the development of these qualities, competencies, or best practices?

As above, and also, don’t be afraid of failure. Certainly there is a philosophy amongst entrepreneurs that is often lacking amongst gainfully employed engineers, and that is: You’re always failing until you are suddenly succeeding. The most prolific engineers in history such as Henry Ford were always failing but always learning from it. Safety is an illusion anyway – the economy could go sour, the company could have layoffs. So leaders will push their boundaries and be the first ones back on their feet after times of trouble.

Are there skills or competencies engineers bring to leadership roles which make them uniquely suited to management? Conversely, which skills or best practices are advantageous in purely technical roles, but a hindrance in leadership positions?

Interesting question! I’ve noticed that engineers of all ilks have been more aggressively recruited into management roles all across organizations in the last 10+ years. Even sales and marketing groups actively seek to “convert” the most outgoing of the engineers into product managers, as the pure marketeers fall flat when presented with even modest technical challenges or questions from customers. In the medical field, this is poisonous, as you often have only one chance to technically impress a key opinion leading doctor.

Technical skills are key to engineers being recruited as next generation leaders. Let’s face it – that’s mainly what the engineer brings to the table. But secondly to expertise, they also bring analytical skills, discipline and rigor, which can sometimes be lacking on the marketing or business side. As more companies take “Moneyball” approaches, they need people with strong math skills at the top of the organization.

Of course, being too analytical can result in slow leaders that are reluctant to make strong, fast, informed decisions. Many engineers fit this mold all too well, and will sit on decisions for too long while they await more data. These types of leaders rarely climb beyond middle management, but can carve niches for themselves in slow moving organizations with less urgency.

Specific to your own experience as a biomedical engineer and engineering manager, are there any insights from that discipline which are particularly useful in understanding the structure and function of organizations, teams, etc?

Biomedical engineering relies on all of the traditional engineering and business functions, but then also adds unique functions like clinical trials, sterilization, biocompatibility engineering, and extremely strict regulatory and documentation standards. I touched on the usefulness of technical skills for biomedical managers earlier in the sense that doctors are inherently technical and you only get one chance to impress them. As the world gets more technical and kids learn to code python in grammar school, this is proliferating across many industries and engineers that develop their soft skills are in great position to capitalize. Management is a social function as well as technical, so the right balance has to be struck.

Are there any books, classes, or experiences which you feel molded your own understanding of leadership?

By far my favorite is the Manager Tools podcast series. It’s informative, entertaining, and peppered with useful anecdotes. To help with soft skills, learn a personality assessment tool such as the DISC model. It will greatly help to increase effective communication if used properly. There are so many books on management and they all fall flat for me, honestly. Perhaps it’s time for a specific book on turning engineers into managers? Another useful thing was the 24-hour MBA, which brings you up to speed on the terms you need to know when dealing with a marketing organization and basic budgeting.


What aspects of leadership in engineering interest, puzzle, or frustrate you? Drop us a line in the comments, or @EngineerJobs, and we’ll explore your questions in forthcoming interviews.