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.

Advice for new managers

Y ou’ve been a hard-working engineer doing excellent work for several years. You’ve been hoping for a promotion, and suddenly you get it. What the heck do you do next? First, don’t panic. Here are some methods from Richard Hirsch, an ASME consultant, on how to lay the groundwork for effective teams and successful projects:

  • Know the job you’ve been given. Define its details, tasks, and requirements;


  • Learn and understand the limits of your authority. For example, do you choose your staff and/or select your equipment? "Project managers and engineers frequently find they have a lot of responsibility and little or no authority," says Tom Davis, ASME consultant. "This makes it even more important for them to convince people of the benefits of participating in their project.";


  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions at all levels;


  • Get out of your office and talk to people. For instance, try to find out the capabilities of each team member;


  • Define your project as much as possible before it starts; hold a kick-off meeting to nurture a common understanding of jobs and goals; and hold frequent meetings as it proceeds; and


  • Seek out experienced, non-threatening colleagues who can serve as mentors, provide guidance, and be sounding boards for you and the team.

"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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