Often we engineers have perspectives and priorities that are different from those of our managers. Engineers work on technical designs that usually involve physical, logical, and budgetary constraints, while managers, on their higher plane of existence, juggle multiple projects and are mainly constrained by personnel, time, and task budgets. To make matters worse, not all managers have a natural aptitude for managing—most were engineers chosen for their new duties because of their excellent technical or project skills.
Building strong relationships with your managers—and learning to be an effective manager yourself—is critical to career success, and nothing builds a relationship like doing the right thing—the right thing from your manager's perspective. But you have to know what that is. What do managers want?
Here are some clues.
Know your stuff—and share what you know. You're expected to keep up with the technical aspects of your field, a challenge in itself. So is your manager, who is often even worse off, with skills that may have atrophied in the mire of administrative tasks. Stay current—read trade journals and technical transactions, go to conferences, take technical and professional development courses—and help your manager keep current as well.
Understand the big picture. Modern engineering is interdisciplinary by nature, but many engineers remain highly specialized in their skills and knowledge. Meanwhile, their managers embrace the total project—the marketing, financing, public relations and, certainly, where projects fit with the organization's strategy. Engineers should too. Get smart on the nontechnical issues facing your projects and your organization. Read organization reports, ask questions, talk to people in other disciplines.
Set your priorities. Know what's important and what's urgent, and learn how to say "no." Check with your manager to clarify priorities. There's no better way than to ask flat out, "Which do you need first?" I once asked my manager about the relative importance of my three main projects, and she disclosed—for the first time—that one of them had been promised to higher-ups by year's end.
Be decisive. No manager, however, likes to be constantly asked what should be done. Managers prize independent decision making. Good managers push authority down to the lowest level possible.
Learn how to delegate. In the difficult transition from line engineer to middle manager, delegating to junior engineers and other staff is the first step (often signaled by a title change to something like "lead engineer"). Begin by identifying what needs to be done and when, without being asked to. Misunderstandings can cause more time and effort expended and more stress in the manager-engineer relationship.
Be action-oriented. Think out an action plan for every assignment—how it gets done. Don't expect managers to tell you how to do everything, but do review your plan to avoid pitfalls and get buy-in. Then always confirm in a short message: "As discussed, I will do [task X] by [date Y]."
Manage your boss. Applying this truism can only improve the relationship. Help your manager with updates on your doings, offer to assist with pressing tasks, give him or her a heads-up on things you hear through the grapevine. Be valuable to your manager.
Accept constructive criticism. Performance appraisals are an established way to review performance, but they can also be difficult for managers and their direct reports to discuss. I once met with my manager to review his evaluations in two dozen categories of my performance. We started with an awkward silence. I finally broke the ice and said, "Just tell me the one area you'd like me improve on next year." He immediately responded that I needed to learn how to close a business deal, so I took a management training course.
Get things done on time. There always are deadlines—for small tasks to major milestones—so strive to meet them. This synchronizes with a manager's needs and points toward your ability to deliver things on time.
Avoid surprises. Despite all your planning, there will always be unexpected problems that affect deliverables or schedules. Alert your manager quickly and recommend a course of action.
In our engineering careers, we go from college professors—who dictate the rules—to the sink-or-swim working world. Engineering managers are often neither easy to understand nor nurturing. Applying these tips will help you build effective relationships with managers during your career—and be a better manager yourself when that time comes.
About the Author
Carl Selinger is a contributing editor at IEEE Spectrum who writes regularly about careers. He is the author of Stuff You Don't Learn in Engineering School (IEEE Press/Wiley, 2004).
To Probe Further
For a related story from Carl Selinger, see "Dealing With Trade-offs."