9 Tips for Managing & Leading an Engineering Team

Engineering management brings many challenges. As you begin managing a team, follow these 9 tips from Rice University's own engineering leaders.

Engineer manager networking internally with Business manager

As an engineer, taking on a management or leadership position in your industry is a sound career move. According to Linkedin, there are more than 150,000 engineering management positions available right now in the United States. These advanced roles require a combination of Industry 4.0-specific technical skills and soft leadership skills.

Engineering Management: How You'll Change and Grow as a Manager

Tip 1: Manage Up and Down by Splitting Your Time 50/50

Tips 2-4: Managing Up

Tips 5-9: Managing Down

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Engineering Management Challenges: How You'll Change and Grow as a Manager

Your strengths as an individual engineer are typically technical, like advanced problem solving and an aptitude for designing or testing certain types of products. As an engineering manager, you’ll build on these technical strengths and grow into a different role — you will be responsible and accountable for the success of projects and/or a team.

You will be the interface between your team and the business managers. You’ll be the one communicating the value of your projects to key internal stakeholders and leveraging data-driven insights to inform your project decisions. These responsibilities require skills that may take time to develop, like understanding business strategies, communicating clearly, and making critical decisions which optimize financial, business, and technical goals.

If you’ve recently accepted or are interested in pursuing an engineering management role, this article is a solid starting point with practical tips to help you grow.

To succeed in Industry 4.0, good engineering managers will need to ‘learn to lead’ with technical know-how and emotional intelligence. The great engineering managers will ‘lead to learn’, and--in the process--inspire and benefit their teams, companies, and customers.

Steve Gomez, Professor in the Practice, Rice Master of Engineering Management & Leadership Program

Read on for engineering manager tips that can help you develop into an effective engineering leader.

1. Manage Up and Down by Splitting Your Time 50/50

As stated above, many engineering management skills take time to develop. This is why you need to make it a priority to manage your time first. Inexperienced and experienced engineering managers fall into the trap of just focusing on managing their team members’ schedules and work plans. This can result in a fragmented unbalanced work schedule for an engineering manager, running from meeting to meeting.

Engineering managers should proactively divide their time between managing up and down. The time should be split roughly 50/50, but can vary depending on the type of company. Managing up may be the most critical responsibility. This is, in essence, leading by influence and internal networking -- in other words, you need to spend time with the business managers. This will allow you to learn the business strategy not just for your project, but for the business. You can then use this knowledge to advocate for budget and resources for your projects, motivate your team with the business context, and grow your value to the company.

Managing down (leading your team and yourself) is also important. You can follow standard project management methodologies and use tools to help manage and develop your team. You can also read books and take courses on coaching employees to maximize their engagement and performance. And don’t forget to manage yourself. There is a growing awareness that even strong technically-minded engineering managers need to learn and take care of themselves.

Splitting your time 50/50 will set you and your team up for success.

Managing Up

Managing up (leading with influence) requires several skills:

2. Think Strategically

To be an effective engineering manager, you’ll have to think strategically. This means drawing from your wealth of business, financial, and engineering knowledge to create efficient, business-aligned goals, plans, and processes. Once you’ve set these goals, you also need to lead your team to carry them out effectively. You can improve your strategic problem-solving skills by expanding your knowledge and experience in business, finance, engineering, and leadership. While real-world experience will help you upskill in these areas, you can hone your experience and knowledge through continuing education.

Master of Engineering Management (MEM) programs will equip engineers with a solid foundation in engineering management and leadership, and specializations within these programs can help them gain experience in finance and business.

3. Communicate Early And Often

Clear, transparent communication is an integral aspect of managing up and down. With effective communication with the business manager, you can address problems and conflicts early, which allows you to intervene and minimize delays or lost resources. If a deadline is approaching, early communication can minimize confusion and setbacks, in order to maintain efficiency and productivity.

Ongoing open communication enables you to gauge your team’s progress and understand any challenges team members may experience. Clear communication gives you insight into each member’s mental state and conveys project updates in real-time.

4. Use Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence (EI) refers to the ability to identify, understand, and work through others’ emotions, as well as your own. EI is critical in managing up and down. Many of your meetings with business managers will be high pressure and have high visibility. It is important that you keep your emotions under control in these meetings. The success of your project and your career depend on it.

EI is also a crucial part of knowing how to manage engineers, and it goes beyond staying level-headed under pressure or diffusing tense situations. Each team member’s mental well-being affects their efficiency and productivity as much as their physical health, so it should be considered when making managerial decisions. If a team member seems constantly overwhelmed, you may need to allocate more resources or support to help them. Understanding what motivates each individual is another key part of effective management. Learn what encourages or inspires your team members to maintain and enhance morale, productivity, and innovation.

Managing Down

Managing down (leading your team and yourself) also requires several skills.

5. Follow Project and Product Management Best Practices and Processes for Defining Goals and Planning

Aspiring engineering managers must be familiar with the process to create an effective business strategy, as well as project and product strategies. As an engineering manager, you’ll often be tasked with developing these strategies, which requires you to set attainable goals and make plans to achieve them. When you’re working toward a significant goal — like designing a groundbreaking product — start by breaking this down into smaller goals, for example:

  • Conduct research
  • Brainstorm design ideas
  • Create a prototype
  • Test the prototype and then use your findings to make changes and/or improvements

It’s important to set clear metrics for success or completion for each of these steps, so your team knows what to work toward.

Once you’ve set your goal(s), establish a plan to achieve them, which should meet budget and timeline requirements and include routine reviews of project progress and team member duties at each stage. It’s essential to maintain accountability for how the project progresses. As the engineering leader or manager, it’s your responsibility to lead your team in successfully developing solutions, while keeping the project on track and responding to technical and business challenges along the way.

You’ll need business and financial acumen to inform how you set your goals, allocate budgets and manage your team. Strong communication skills will also be essential so you can convey goals, plans, procedures, and expectations to your team and upper management. MEM programs can help engineers develop and improve these skills so they will be well-equipped for the responsibilities required in a leadership role.

6. Build Efficient Practices

Improving efficiency is a common challenge across all engineering industries. Optimal efficiency is essential to maximize your resources and your team. Efficiency can help to reduce costs, maintain deadlines, boost productivity and increase the overall capacity of the engineering team, business, or facility.

To design and implement efficient practices, you need to align your team’s goals with business goals so valuable efforts and resources aren’t being spent on tasks that don’t serve the business. Utilizing time-tracking technology and observing workflows can help you identify approaches that unnecessarily delay projects or reduce your team’s productivity.

You must also be adaptable and flexible in your practices as the industry evolves, tailoring your approach as Industry 4.0 and Web3 technologies advance, to maintain peak efficiency and create valuable products.

7. Build Trust

Building trust is one of the most important steps to effectively manage an engineering team. If your team trusts you, they’ll feel comfortable approaching you with concerns and ideas for the project, team members or processes. This will help you identify any current or potential problems early in the process and provide insights that could boost efficiency and productivity.

Fostering your team’s trust takes time and effort, but it’s essential to becoming a respected leader. Lead by example by working as hard as they do and by prioritizing transparency and communication. Offer constructive feedback and support often, and collaborate with your team on major project ideas, processes, or changes. This will show team members that you value their input. Cultivate an environment where your whole team feels supported, respected, valued, and essential to the project’s success.

8. Put Your Team Members In A Position To Succeed

In addition to building your team’s trust, you must ensure each member of your team has the support, resources, and tools they need to excel in their roles. This means properly allocating resources and staying up to date with industry and technology advancements. In order to empower your team, you must be a hands-on leader and be involved in your team’s day-to-day work.

The present globally competitive market landscape calls for organizations to adopt a continuous innovation mindset (either through technology advancement or technology acquisition), or risk getting disrupted by startups and their competitors. Hence, engineering managers must take the responsibility of nurturing a culture of innovation among their teams to ensure product success and continued business viability.

- Dr. Uyiosa Abusomwan, Professor of Engineering Product Management, RICE MEML Program

Take time to check in with individual team members daily, giving them opportunities to ask questions and discuss their concerns or needs. Providing answers, offering additional support through resources or personnel, or even sharing your own experiences with similar challenges will help team members reach their full potential. These periodic check-ins will also enhance the trust and respect they have in you as a manager.

And always support the mental and physical health of your team members. You can best do this by encouraging and ensuring that every team member takes breaks and vacations to recharge.

9. Make Time For Yourself

To be a successful engineering manager, you also need to focus on your own career and technical development, as well as take care of your own mental health. Continuous improvement through self-assessments, regular check-ins with your colleagues, training and industry meetings, and professional development opportunities will give you an edge in your industry and will keep you abreast of emerging trends and technologies. This will help you maximize your team’s efficiency and create the most valuable end-products. Effective, well-informed engineering managers are increasingly in demand across all industries, and they’re integral to businesses’ success.

The MEML@Rice program was created in direct response to these industry needs and engineers’ desire for continuous growth and improvement. Rice University's program offers individuals a clear path to advance their careers and become industry leaders. Available as an online program, it can be completed part-time, allowing students to continue working while improving themselves and advancing their careers.

Additional Questions About Managing an Engineering Team

Below, you’ll find answers to common questions engineers may have about pursuing an advanced degree and how to lead an engineering team. You can also learn more about the differences between engineering management and project management.

What Makes A Good Engineering Manager?

A good engineering manager balances the needs of their team and the needs of the business. They advocate for the resources, support, and environment the project managers and their cross-functional teams need to excel, while keeping everyone focused, motivated, productive, efficient, and on schedule.

Utilizing business, financial, and engineering knowledge, effective engineering managers align their team’s processes and goals with that of the business, serving as the bridge between the two entities and creating the best possible outcome for both.

How Can I Improve My Engineering Management Skills?

To improve your engineering management skills, you’ll need to expand your technical and soft skills, as well as your business, financial, and engineering knowledge. While these tips are a solid starting point, an advanced degree in Engineering Management and Leadership will help you prepare for a successful career. If you’d like to learn more about pursuing an advanced degree, fill out the form below to connect with a Rice Enrollment Coach, or follow this link to learn how to apply to the MEML@Rice program.

Learn More Engineering Management Tips From MEML@Rice

Take the next step in launching your engineering management or leadership career by reaching out to a Rice Enrollment Coach through the form below.

Rice MEML program becomes 1 of only 9 programs to earn distinguished ASEM Certification.

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If you’re ready to take the next step to advance your career, fill out the form to connect with a Rice Enrollment Coach.