Engineers and Scientists Are Not Leaders – 5 Skills to Overcome This Myth

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11009858_10153286031416950_4009323195805565102_oEach February, I spend a day with 30 high potential, young professional Engineers and Scientists.  They are all successful in their technical field, with little or no experience managing people.  It’s always an interesting day, and over the past several years, many of the requests I receive for leadership coaching are for engineers, scientists, veterinarians, and technicians, all seeking to be better leaders.  I’m constantly amazed at their ability to analyze, debate, and take such great pride in their expertise. I’m also amazed at how common some of their leadership challenges are and how they differ from other disciplines.  When I noticed I was getting more and more requests to work with this population, I began to wonder why.   Each time the answer was the same:

“It’s not their technical skills that need work.  It’s about their influence with people.  If they don’t learn to bring others along, they will fail.” 

When I walk into a new classroom with a group of engineers (or scientists), I first notice how few even acknowledge me. Most of us expressive-extroverts can’t help but take this a bit personally.  I will often shock a few when I walk up, say hello, and ask a few questions.  We experience a few awkward moments, where some avoid eye contact and wonder what planet I’m from.  From their perspective, they were minding their own business, studying a technical document or working to solve something analytically, and I just interrupted their “real work”.  It is an odd dance until the class starts.

Many technical leaders find that transitioning from an individual contributor role to a people-managing role is a big leap.  It is very frustrating for this new leader, but guess what?  It is even more frustrating for those that she or he leads!

Several years ago, Leslie Perlow from the University of Michigan studied a group of software engineers in a Fortune 500 company.  The study revealed that engineers often classify work as either “real engineering” or “everything else”.  Real engineering is what they learned about in school and what they feel they are paid to do; analytical thinking, mathematical modeling, conceptualizing solutions, using scientific principles and independent creativity.  Everything else included what Perlow describes as “interactive activities”; collaborating with other engineers, working to solve problems, responding to their manager’s check-ins about deadlines, and managing interruptions when others need help.  Many were more fulfilled in doing work with less interruption, often alone.  Although 96% of the interactive activities were judged as helpful or important, the engineers rated only 10% of those activities as urgent.

Here is the challenge; engineers and scientists do need time to think uninterrupted in order to get work done.  Yet as these same people get promoted to higher levels of responsibility, they learn that the interactive activities are even more critical to their success and the success of those that the lead.  As in other professions, they find that the people issues are more complex, and they can’t be resolved with a mathematical model. In fact, they find that trying to debate or argue actually creates less engagement, not more. People begin to resist and undermine their leadership and it is painful to watch.

We have worked with companies all over the world, in high-technology, biotech, and animal science to name a few.  We’ve identified five key skills to help engineers and scientists transition from a successful individual contributor to a highly influential and effective leader:

  1. They develop self-awareness and others-awareness.
  2. They “chunk” and “plan” their uninterrupted time.
  3. They minimize condescending language and maximize supportive language.
  4. They seek to understand first, and significantly reduce the amount of advice they give.
  5. They re-frame their view of leadership as one of getting things done through others.

Below you will find more detail on how to apply these key skills.

They develop self-awareness and others-awareness.

Engineers and scientist are proud of their level of competence, and rightly so.  They are highly intelligent in their field of study.  But when trying to influence people at work, IQ is less important than “EQ”, which is about your Emotional Quotient or Emotional Intelligence.  Take time to get feedback from different perspectives, including your direct reports, peers, and your boss.  You will often find that you come across differently with each group, and all are important.  Simply reading “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” by Travis Bradberry and Jean Graves and taking the free assessment in the book will help you identify specific, tangible actions you can take with your people.  And, when you get feedback from others, don’t argue it or give excuses when they want something “better”.  Just say “thank you”.  Much of our work at Caleb Consulting involves formal 360-feedback which can help you understand how you are perceived by others.

They “chunk” and “plan” their uninterrupted time.

Perlow’s work with an engineering team caused them to intentionally plan uninterrupted time into their culture.  The results were fascinating.  The engineers were significantly more productive with specific “quiet time”, but still were able to have interactive activities at other times.  They found that this intentional cultural shift even impacted their supervisors’ behaviors as well, who began to respect the precious commodity of uninterrupted time.  The study revealed that 75% of the time, this chunk of uninterrupted time was less than an hour, and 60% of the time was less than half an hour.

They minimize condescending language and maximize supportive language.

Most personality and behavioral assessments used in coaching and with teams will suggest that those who select analytical fields of study will use language that comes across to others as negative, pessimistic, or condescending, and less sensitive to the needs of others. Many may identify more with Sheldon or Leonard from the Big Bang Theory, sound more like Eeyore than Christopher Robin or Winnie the Pooh.  A subtle but intentionally shift in our verbal and non-verbal language often has a profound impact on others. Engineers are always looking to solve problems, so finding errors and fault are natural “skills”. Yet, when it comes to helping others succeed, finding ways to express more appreciation and recognition is important.   In his highly acclaimed book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There”, Marshall Goldsmith describes 12 key behaviors for leaders who want to go to the next level.  Three of these that I often suggest to technical leaders:  Stop telling the world how smart you are.  Stop your destructive comments.  Stop beginning your comments to others with “No, But, or However”.  Finding ways to alter your language – not your intent – can have a profound impact.

They seek to understand first, and significantly reduce the amount of advice they give.

To many engineers, scientists, and Type A personalities, this sounds counter-intuitive.  Yet, when you hear young professionals complain about their bosses, it’s usually because they don’t feel heard or understood.  In one of my classes, I place people in groups of three to have a 5-7 minute conversation, and assign one as an “inquirer”, on as an “advocate”, and the other as an “observer”.  The inquirer can only ask questions, paraphrase, acknowledge, and so forth, but can’t give any advice.  None.  If the inquirer gives any advice – even through a “leading” question”, the observer keeps a record. For any advice given, the inquirer owes the advocate $20.  It is amazing how hard this is, especially for the men in the group.  But it has a profound impact on the advocate feeling heard and understood.  Advice is useful when needed – but reduce it by about 50% and watch how people become better problem solvers themselves.

They re-frame their view of leadership as one of getting things done through others.

This one has the most profound impact, because if you do this, the other four skills above fall in place.  Our friend Art Barter, founder and president of The Servant Leadership Institute, describes the old model of leadership, where power and control are the focus.  This style gets you compliance, but not commitment. Rather, when one flips the organizational structure and views the role of supervisor to one of “serving those you seek to influence”, the leaders’ behavior shifts significantly and the results achieved by others shifts too.  Look at all the research on the most profitable companies, and you will find that leaders with a view of serving others get better results.

Rodney Jackson is the founder of Caleb Consulting Group, whose mission is to help individuals become more influential, teams become more aligned, and organizations that get better results. Rodney is certified through the International Coach Federation, and teaches influence skills at the Cornell University Executive Leadership Program and The University of California, San Diego Extension.  For coaching or other services offered by the Caleb Consulting Group, go to


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