A career roadmap: Don’t be afraid to ask for directions
If you want to be a leader in your firm, you must understand the skills needed to be considered leadership material.
We come out of college, work for a few years—having taken the engineer in training (EIT) and perhaps the professional engineer (PE) exam—and then we wonder, where do we go from here? Unless we have a mentor already identified and working with us, many of us can’t answer that question. We are so busy trying to get all the credits we need to graduate, find a job to help pay the tuition bills, and get our PE licenses, that we don’t stop and ask ourselves, “Where is the career roadmap and how do I navigate it to reach a leadership position?”
So much has been written on this subject of leadership it almost seems ridiculous to write another word, but I find that so many people don’t really know what it takes to be considered for a leadership roles in their companies. Many of the engineers with whom I work tell me that they just want to concentrate on doing good work, and let the results speak for themselves. Others tell me, “Hey, I went back and got my MBA and now I am just waiting for my big promotion into management.” Doing consistently good work and furthering your education are excellent tactics, but that should not be your entire strategy. It may leave you lost—and frustrated.
So what should your strategy be? You guessed it: Write your own roadmap. Start with the end in mind. Where do you want your career to take you? If you want to be a principal or business leader in your firm, then you must understand the skills you must demonstrate and the contributions you must make to be considered leadership material. Think of these as the navigational checkpoints on your career roadmap that will lead you to that leadership role. Typically, the skills are a combination of your technical capabilities, business management skills, and professional or “soft” skills.
Instead of guessing which skills are most important for your company, interview an executive or principal in your firm and ask him how he rose to a leadership role. Ask him to share a skills checklist and, more importantly, how the skill was demonstrated. Here are a few navigational checkpoints to start that conversation:
Technical skills: These are any special skills or technical knowledge that makes you a stronger engineer for the firm.
- Certifications, specialties, advanced education
- Design awards, patents, industry recognition.
Business management skills: These should focus on demonstrating that you have learned the business of your firm and how you can help run the business.
- Estimating, accounting, and/or budgeting
- Marketing, sales, or new business development—skills that focus on generating revenue
- Legal/contract negotiations or dispute resolution
- Client satisfaction
- Market development or generating a new practice area
- Recruiting, employee supervision, and management.
Professional skills: These skills focus on how you present yourself to others, and how well you communicate.
- Executive presence
- Collaboration and ability to build strong teams
- Public speaking, presentation
- Managerial courage
- Personal interests.
Once you’ve had the discussion, ask the principal or executive to rank the skills in importance and ask for suggestions on how to fill the gaps. Do not ignore the soft skills. So many times, I’ve seen very strong engineers with good project or team management skills get overlooked for leadership roles because they just didn’t know they needed to consciously demonstrate professional skills. Don’t be afraid to ask for direction from people who have travelled a similar career path. They may keep you from getting frustrated and lost and may even show you a few shortcuts.
Jane Sidebottom is the owner of AMK LLC, a management and marketing consulting firm that provides market development and growth expertise to small- and medium-size firms. She has 20 years of management and leadership experience in both consulting engineering and Fortune 100 organizations. Sidebottom is a graduate of the University of Maryland.