Frequent, face-to-face conversation
E ngineers, trained to be whizzes at meeting technological challenges, are sometimes rewarded with management jobs they aren’t prepared to handle.
Engineering education and most manufacturing settings are traditionally so focused on completing technical tasks that they sometimes neglect to give rookie project managers the leadership and people skills they need to help their teams cooperate and succeed. Using only technical problem-solving abilities, many project managers develop overly autocratic and/or detached management styles that can limit their effectiveness and hamstring their projects.
"They become dictators or bean counters," says Richard Hirsch, a consultant to the New York-based American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). "Dictators typically say,‘Do it my way or you’re out of here.’ However, after a while they find no one wants to work for them, and they can’t get their projects staffed.
"Bean counters tell their staffs what to do, but then retire to their offices, and only pay attention to monthly reports. This can be fine, until there’s a problem, which is when they read the riot act. This can get to the point that a bean counter’s staff won’t report when problems arise, which means they can no longer be solved ahead of time."
Becoming a facilitator
Micromanagement isn’t the answer either. Project managers need to resist the inclination to solve every problem themselves. "People skills are so important because project managers’ work is accomplished through their people," says Tom Davis, also an ASME consultant and manager of quality assurance at Trilogy Plastics (Louisville, O.). "Project managers can’t be lone rangers." Mr. Hirsch adds that true facilitators also:
Start with respect for the people that work for them. Technical professionals and other intelligent people sometimes believe they and their colleagues are beyond the need for positive feedback and reinforcement, but this is a powerful intangible that can bind teams together;
Thoroughly explain projects and the tasks needed to complete them successfully;
Listen carefully to team members, and value what they say whether they agree or not;
Discuss potential problems ahead of time without raising the roof; and
Get out to where the work is actually being done to personally see what’s happening.
Communication tames tumult
While project management skills have always been important, Mr. Hirsch says managers need to develop and use them even more now because mergers and acquisitions are rapidly throwing together engineers, and companies that have never worked together before.
Mr. Hirsch adds that many projects and teams overcome geographic boundaries by using e-mail and the Internet to collaborate. "This can be very useful, but even with all our technology, project managers and team members need to meet face-to-face as much as possible," he says.
Besides communicating with teams, Mr. Hirsch says project managers must also strive to update supervisors above them, especially when problems arise. "Don’t try to hide problems because doing so will come back to bite you more often than not," he says.
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