How to Be an Effective Engineering Manager [+Skills & Tips for Success]

7 min read
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The need for strong engineering leadership has never been more important. A study by the Harvard Business School found that both leadership and management were among the six most in-demand skills within the engineering industry.

That’s unsurprising, as today’s companies face an unprecedented level of digital disruption, a shortage of skilled engineering professionals, high levels of burnout and the challenges of managing remote and hybrid work environments and promoting diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.

To meet these challenges, today’s engineering managers need to do more than just manage the day-to-day; they need to engage and motivate their teams. Gallup found that up to 70% of a team’s engagement is influenced by managers, which directly impacts their output, innovation, efficiency and work ethic.

If you’re interested in a career as an engineering manager, here’s what you need to know to not just become a good engineering manager, but an effective one.

What Are the Responsibilities of an Engineering Manager?

Engineering managers are responsible for more than just straightforward project management or product development; what they really need to do is to create a vision for their team and provide guidance. That’s because a manager’s success depends entirely on the success of their team.

A survey by McKinsey found that 63% of people want their employer to provide more opportunities for purpose in their day-to-day work. That makes an engineering manager’s top responsibility to help provide that purpose by motivating, supporting and inspiring their teams.

To ensure their teams are working effectively and efficiently and that projects are successfully completed on time and within budget, most engineering management positions will be responsible for:

  • Providing oversight on engineering projects and being available to help solve any technical challenges or issues that arise during the course of a project. This doesn’t mean having the answer to all problems but instead knowing how to approach and implement solutions.
  • Planning and allocating resources to ensure that the team’s timelines are met and the company’s larger goals are achieved. This can range from making decisions on budget allocation, ensuring individuals are held accountable for their work and advocating for new tools and technologies when needed.
  • Participating in higher-level strategic decisions that work toward the organization’s goals. This can range from deciding on which projects are of the highest priority to working with human resources to ensure that the organization is hiring the right people for the team.
  • Promoting the continual growth of each engineer’s skills and encouraging their continued development. A major part of helping your team find purpose in their career and ensuring they’re working for more than just a paycheck. Helping them identify — and achieve — personal and professional goals is crucial for boosting engagement and job satisfaction.
  • Ensuring that working conditions and all procedures follow standard safety and operation rules. Leading by example means no cutting corners and making sure that everyone has a safe and secure work environment.

Are There Different Types of Engineering Managers?

There are some managers who might qualify themselves as different types of leaders. While some may consider themselves to be more of a technical leader and less of a people person, others may consider themselves to be more of a project manager or financial guru.

These distinctions between types of managers aren’t really helpful or even accurate. To truly be a leader is to engage in situational leadership and to be the type of leader you need to be in any particular moment. For example, being a field leader requires a certain set of skills and responsibilities that would be very different from engineering leadership within a research and development setting.

As your position evolves, your responsibilities will also change. Maybe there’s less time and opportunity to solve technical problems and a greater need to meet with CEOs and CFOs to handle bigger-picture financial issues. You need to be able to move around the spectrum of leadership, be a good project manager to ensure deadlines are met, be a product lead to ensure your team is putting out competitive products, and be able to provide leadership and motivation to your personnel when needed.

To be an engineering manager is to be flexible, so while there may be opportunities for different styles of engineering management, effective engineering managers are who they need to be in any particular moment.

“I’m a big fan of situational leadership. There was a point in my life where I was responsible for field leadership, which involved traveling with my team to remote, even difficult, locations. And so I had to work directly with my team to understand their challenges — which is very different from the challenges I see with the teams I lead today. Now, my job is executing projects globally, talking to executives about how to meet their clients’ needs and then bringing that back to my team. Very different responsibilities which require a different set of skills. So, to me there is no one style of leadership, effective leadership is being the best leader you can be depending on the situation.”

USD EML Program Director GB Singh

What Are the Qualifications for an Engineering Manager?

The specific qualifications for any engineering management position will vary depending on the job and its industry. Some will be negotiable, such as years of experience, while others will be non-negotiable, such as specified certifications or credentials from recognized engineering agencies or your professional engineering license.

In general, you’ll need to meet the following qualifications to be an engineering manager:

  • You’ll need to have earned a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university in engineering or engineering management. The specific field of engineering should align with the industry you plan to work in.
  • A master’s degree will either be required or preferred by most organizations. You could consider advanced degree programs in engineering management (MEM), technology management (MSTM) or similar programs such as the Master’s in Engineering Management and Leadership (EML).
  • You’ll need to demonstrate several years of professional work experience as an engineer, including examples of how you’ve previously led projects or teams. This should include examples of your problem-solving abilities, critical thinking skills and how you can effectively communicate with others.
  • Strong technical skill set, math skills, such as calculus and other advanced mathematics, and experience with specific tools, programs and programs. The types of software programs and processes will vary with each position; what’s important is to show how your experience can enable you to adapt to other industries or work processes.
  • Examples of business skills such as the ability to budget, perform cost-benefit analysis and determine the profitability of your engineering team’s function. You should also show examples of how you have a larger eye for your industry, such as how to adjust to evolving product markets.

What Makes a Great Engineering Manager?

Meeting job qualifications can make you a good engineer, but to be truly effective, every great engineering manager needs to develop a balance of technical, business and people skills. Here are our recommendations for how to excel as an engineering manager.

  • Develop adaptable technical skills. In your professional career, you’ll come to master different technological tools, software programs and coding languages. However, you can’t master them all, and your responsibilities may encompass new or unfamiliar programs. Taking time to at least familiarize yourself with the most popular and commonly-used tools — while being open to learning new ones — can ensure you’re able to provide guidance and troubleshooting advice when needed.
  • Pair your communication with emotional intelligence. Every good leader or manager needs strong communication skills, whether talking one-on-one, presenting to a group or sending written correspondence. A great communicator knows there is a time and a place for different approaches depending on context. You need the emotional intelligence to be able to read your team members to see when they’re stressed, unmotivated or disengaged. There are times to speak and times to listen, and learning to identify those moments is crucial for effective management.
  • Be comfortable motivating, engaging with and mentoring others. As a manager, you have to lead by example rather than edict. Nothing discourages a team more than if they realize that leadership applies a “do as I say, not as I do” philosophy to responsibilities. That requires working directly in the trenches with your team, getting to know them individually and being invested in their professional — and personal — development. They’re not only looking for guidance on tasks but also advice on how to develop their careers. Knowing that you’re invested in them can ensure they’ll be more invested in their jobs.
  • Create an empowering environment. Fear and uncertainty can strangle production and engagement. If your engineers are afraid to ask questions or express their thoughts, then you’re doing a disservice to them and your organization. You’ll have to create an environment where everyone can feel heard and comfortable in providing important feedback or expressing their opinions. This requires making yourself available and reinforcing a culture that values diversity, innovation and critical thinking.
  • Be comfortable working across teams. As a manager, you’re accountable for your entire team. That means you have to represent everyone to all areas of the organization. You have to be comfortable and confident in communicating with various stakeholders and collaborating with other managers. Don’t assume that everyone knows what your team’s value is — you should be proactive in reaching out to any area (marketing, finance, executive leadership, etc.) to communicate your collective needs, achievements and ideas.
  • Have confident project management skills. Effective leadership isn’t micromanagement. If you’re concerned that you need to personally oversee every aspect of your team, then you’re hamstringing yourself and your team. Rather than shouldering every burden, you need to:
    • Know when to delegate responsibilities and trust that your engineers can get things done.
    • Prioritize tasks, knowing when to focus on certain areas and when to abandon others.
    • Always be on the lookout for greater efficiencies through the use of automation and other modern tools.
  • Be humble. Confidence is not arrogance, and effective leadership doesn’t mean being flawless. You should always account for and learn from your mistakes. You also need to be open to listening to the other voices in the room, especially if they don’t align with your approach. Considering other points of view is necessary for building consensus, encouraging innovation and discovering new avenues for learning.
  • Nurture your drive for continuous learning. To be an effective manager is to welcome continuous learning and to encourage it in your team. Always strive to be agile, open minded and willing to change. In five years, you will not be the same manager you are now. The same holds true for 10 years from now, 15 years, and so on. You mature throughout your journey as a manager by reflecting on where you’ve been, accounting for where you are and looking ahead to where you want to be.

If you’re an engineer committed to the goal of continuous learning, then we welcome you to consider the University of San Diego’s 100% online Master of Science in Engineering Management and Leadership (MS-EML). Our program was created to specifically address the needs of tomorrow’s technical professionals by teaching a balance of critical thinking, soft skills, business management and industry insights.

We invite you to review our admissions requirements and curriculum to see how we’re shaping the engineering leaders of tomorrow.


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