HR Discussion

Transitioning from Engineering to Leading

“People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.”—John C. Maxwell, Leadership Expert

Most organizations in the oil and gas industry rely on the talents of bright and dedicated engineers. Although several of these engineers are exceptional in their technical field, many have not developed enough of the key skills required to be a great leader.

How is this possible, considering all the schooling and training most engineers undergo? The explanation seems to be that the skills needed to be a valued leader are often different from the talents engineers naturally possess and the skills they learn in school.

Leadership skills—included among “soft skills”—involve communication and relationship management rather than science and facts. Many engineers do not focus on developing communication and relationship management skills. Many technical professionals are not knowledgeable on a personal basis about the people who report to them. Without knowing a person’s hopes, dreams, and goals, there exists little chance of developing them. As Jack Welch, executive director, Jack Welch Management Institute at Strayer University, said, “When you become a leader, success is all about growing others. It’s about making the people who work for you smarter, bigger, and bolder. It’s not about you anymore. It’s about them.”

Leadership is fundamentally about people and building trust. As such, the biggest leadership challenges are often people issues. These challenges cannot be engineered away, and, if ignored, will just get larger and more complex. By developing communication and relationship management skills, engineers can effectively lead and advance their career without encountering setbacks.

This topic may appear low-priority because the United States and many other countries in the world have placed a fair amount of focus on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) programs, rather than on people skills. However, in today’s global market, companies demand that their leaders, even those who are technically oriented, have finely honed soft skills.

To fill this need, many of the top universities have identified soft skill development as central to their curriculum. For example, in a 2004 Wall Street Journal article titled “Top Schools Struggle to Teach Soft Skills,” its author, freelance journalist and book author Ronald Alsop, identifies United States’ universities such as Yale, Vanderbilt, the University of Chicago, Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, and others that have incorporated innovative elements into their respective curricula to build and strengthen students’ soft skills. This trend among prestigious schools illustrates the importance of soft skill development.

The following are some specific strategies engineers can incorporate into their everyday actions to become better leaders in today’s global marketplace.

Acknowledge Others

A frequent complaint voiced by team members about leaders whose primary background is engineering revolves around acknowledgment. For example:

“He never says ‘Good morning.’” “He never uses my name when he talks to me. In fact, I wonder if he even knows my name.” “She always rushes past everyone without making eye contact.”

These are a few actual comments people have made. To make sure others don’t say these things about you, smile at people, make eye contact with them, and say “hello” to everyone you see in passing. Address people by name, if you know it. If you do not, ask what it is.

Realize that everyone wants to feel recognized at some level, whether it’s a friendly greeting in the hall or a one-minute “How are you” chat. While you may not need this sort of recognition to feel validated, others do. It only takes a few seconds to acknowledge someone, yet it pays off in increased trust, stronger relationships, and greater productivity. A simple nod and a smile go a long way in making people feel important.

Share Information Openly

Many engineers assume team members know the most current information and therefore do not feel the need to reiterate or share. In truth, people do not know what you know unless you tell them. Conducting regular meetings with everyone on the team—both the technical and nontechnical people—is very important. In this way, employees are on equal footing from an informational standpoint which leads to increased success in their daily jobs.

Unfortunately, many engineers do not see the need for meetings. Oftentimes, they think that emailing someone information is enough. If some team members prefer one-on-one or verbal communication, whether in a formal monthly meeting environment or via a quick weekly “check-in,” finding a way to accommodate them will facilitate effective communication even if the leader personally does not like meetings.

Also, it is a good idea to invite nontechnical people in the department to attend technical meetings. This provides an opportunity for them to better understand other facets of the department as well as improve overall situational awareness. When a leader invests a little time helping people in the department learn more about what they do, the company will perform better in the long run.

Give People Your Undivided Attention

Listening is a key skill of great leaders. When someone comes into your office to talk with you, do you continue working as they talk, check your email, or finish up a report—or do you push yourself away from your computer, keep your phone in your pocket, and look directly at the person addressing you?

Often engineers and other technical professionals tend to be so focused on the task at hand that they barely look up from their work even when someone is addressing them.

It is important to realize that team members are more than just information suppliers. They are looking to the leader for guidance, to be a sounding board, and to assist with (not take over) problem solving. They need the leader to actively participate in the conversation with them. Not only does this make them feel valued, but it also spurs creativity and innovation—both of which are needed in today’s corporate environment.

The bottom line: When someone is talking, forget the task you were doing and instead focus on the person. If you are unable to stop, it is a good idea to schedule a time in which appropriate focus can be provided.

Build Social Capital

Building social capital is critical to any leader’s success. Not only should a leader build social capital with people within their department, but they should also build it with those in other departments and in other companies who might be a resource to them.

Social capital simply means building connections with people on a personal level. A leader should ask their employees about their hobbies and interests, their birthday, and their kids’ names, and then talk about these things occasionally to build rapport. Remember what leadership expert John C. Maxwell said: “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.” To be a great leader, a person needs to treat others like human beings instead of objects. Part of this is getting to know your peers; someday one of them may be your boss or at the very least in a position to potentially make your work life very stressful.

Break Down Departmental Silos

Communication between departments is crucial yet very often infrequent or nonexistent. For example, when a drilling engineer, production engineer, and reservoir engineer working on the same prospect do not communicate regularly, a good deal of duplication of effort can occur. While the engineers are all pursuing the same goal (producing hydrocarbons), communication failures can lead to repetition of the same work or omitting a task completely because each thought someone else had it covered. Each wastes time and this directly negatively impacts the company’s bottom line.

To remove departmental silos, be the first to extend information, praise, or acknowledgment to someone not directly on your team. In other words, give positive recognition to people across departmental lines. Also, ask for their advice and involvement even if it is something you do not require. When you adopt and promote a “We win together/We lose together” philosophy, everyone from each department will be eager to contribute.

Take the Lead

The skills used to create value as an individual contributor will not necessarily help solve the challenges faced in a leadership role. People skills—relationship management and communication with others—will be vital keys to success.

Additionally, the business climate in the oil and gas industry often requires working across cultural lines with people from all over the world. At some point, a leader will undoubtedly be required to communicate with people who are very different from themselves. Without having already developed good soft skills, such communication could prove difficult.

Final Note

Developing communication and relationship management skills does not mean leaders must change their personality. Nor does it require a huge investment of time. In fact, spending just 10% of your time enhancing your people skills could yield a reduction in miscommunication errors, workplace conflict, and workflow inefficiencies.

In the end, by developing an awareness of others in their environment; relating to them in a friendly, supportive, open manner; and knowing what makes them tick, leaders will become respected and will drive good team performance and produce results.


Jean Kelley, founder of Jean Kelley Leadership Alliance, specializes in executive coaching, assessment, and leadership development, working throughout the world. She and her Alliance have helped thousands of leaders improve their performance. She has three books to her credit, has had over 100 trade association magazine articles published during the last 3 years, and provides weekly advice to viewers and listeners via local radio and television. Kelley is an alumna of Harvard Business School’s 3-year executive program and also is an Autocross Championship sports car driver.


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