Are engineers more respected than scientists

The engineer as a manager: stumbling block for social skills?

Reading balance sheets, drawing up cost calculations, interpreting paragraphs - most engineers and natural scientists did not learn this during their studies. That is why they often lack the necessary business and legal overview knowledge to manage corporate divisions. They often find it difficult to lead employees. Because they work differently than machines.

Until a few years ago, the careers of engineers and natural scientists were largely mapped out. A specialist career in the company was intended for them.

At best, they could become heads of a research and development department or a production facility. But then their ascent was mostly over. The top rungs of the career ladder were reserved for lawyers and business economists - at least if the companies weren't manufacturing.

Because the top company managers did not trust the engineers to lead larger company areas - especially because little business know-how was imparted to them during their studies.

They were also not introduced into the basics of personnel management. In addition: A few years ago, many companies were still dominated by thinking: Marketing and sales in particular are decisive for the success of a company. That is why it was more smart marketing experts than brittle technicians who made their way to the top floor of the company.

Technical know-how is required

Those times are over. Most companies have rethought over the past ten years. Technical know-how is in demand again. Because many companies have recognized: If we want to assert ourselves in the market, we have to offer our customers innovative and intelligent problem solutions.

So our (top) management level must also have "experts" who can use their technical expertise to assess:

  • What starting points does our company have for developing new products?
  • How will the technological development proceed in the coming years? And:
  • What new problem solutions does the state of the art enable?

However, technical know-how is not only required to define the (future) business area; also to assess the extent to which the business processes can be designed more effectively due to technical innovations. Otherwise companies will quickly overestimate or underestimate the opportunities that arise from technical progress. Or they do not even notice them and easily gamble away possible cost and quality advantages.

Many companies have recognized this. That is why more engineers, scientists and IT experts have moved into top management positions in recent years. This development will continue. This is shown by a look at the composition of the support groups for young managers in companies. Far more engineers are represented in them today than just a few years ago.

Develop from specialist to manager

Regardless of this, taking on a qualified management position represents a deep turning point in the professional career of an engineer or natural scientist. Most of the time, you start your career with a specialist function. Only when they have proven their skills in this and in several projects do they switch to a management position. Then there are completely new demands on the engineers and natural scientists.

As a specialist, their technical know-how was in great demand. Colleagues and superiors sought their advice because they had expert knowledge. This is also how they defined their role. As a manager, on the other hand, you no longer have to primarily demonstrate professional skills. Instead of specialists, they should now be generalists. Your main task is to run your area successfully. This requires a broader knowledge than a pure specialist function.

Among other things, business know-how is required for this. Because one of the tasks of a division manager is to prepare cost accounts or calculations. In addition, he must be able to interpret key business figures. Otherwise he cannot ensure that his area is working efficiently and profitably.

Divisional managers also need legal know-how - not only in questions of personnel law. In such legal fields as environmental law, product liability / safety and copyright, they must have an overview of the knowledge - to conclude contracts and because, especially in production companies, the legal requirements also result in operator obligations. Only when managers are familiar with these can they derive requirements for the work of their employees.

Minor problem: Lack of management knowledge

These areas of knowledge often cause engineers a bit of headache in the start-up phase as managers - but usually not for long. On the one hand, engineering courses have changed. In addition to technical know-how, many students today also acquire basic business and legal knowledge. The training opportunities for engineers have also increased. Almost every well-known management institute now also offers a general management program.

For two other reasons, engineers usually acquire business and legal knowledge very quickly. This is strongly cognitive learning content. In other words: You can acquire this knowledge largely by reading books. If you then attend seminars in which you practice, for example, drawing up profit-loss accounts and reading balance sheets, you will have the necessary know-how.

After all, they don't have to be as well versed in law as a lawyer, and they don't have to be as well-versed in accounting as a controller. On the contrary: you need an overview and a feel for the really important numbers and paragraphs.

This is why engineers usually have fewer problems with business and legal issues when they start out as managers. The situation is different in the area of ​​personnel management. It is usually the most difficult problem for engineers when moving to a management position. Because leading employees requires them to change their minds mentally. As former specialists, the young executives are used to burying themselves in specialist tasks. Now they have to let go of these tasks and coordinate the work of their employees, so to speak, "walking around".

Problem area: leading people

This requires a rethink and new skills. Among other things, the young managers have to learn to correctly assess the knowledge, strengths and performance potential of their employees. Only then can they make optimal use of them and properly coordinate their cooperation. In addition, they must agree on goals for their work with their employees and be able to give them feedback on the performance shown.

Many engineers and natural scientists who become managers find this difficult at first - partly because they do not know the necessary management tools. You can find out more about these in books and at seminars. However, this does not mean that you can then use these tools in everyday life.

In contrast to business management or legal knowledge, which immediately bears fruit when reading balance sheets or contracts, management knowledge must develop in dealing with living people. In contrast to balance sheets and contracts, people have attitudes and emotions. They also have their own interests. That is why they not only show resistance frequently, they also often react (apparently) irrationally.

This not only applies to individuals, but also to social networks such as departments or teams. Vanities, jealousies, sympathies and animosities play a major role in their inner life.

Humans and social systems are not machines. That is why one often does not get very far when dealing with them with an if-then logic. Here, depending on the situation and the person opposite, it is often necessary to display completely different behavioral patterns. Sometimes you have to praise, sometimes you have to criticize. Sometimes you have to give instructions, sometimes you have to agree on goals.

Sometimes you have to be tough and consistent, sometimes more yielding and flexible. And even if a behavior has proven itself in one situation or with one person, this does not mean that it will also lead to the goal in another person or in another comparable situation.

React flexibly to people and situations

Accepting this is initially difficult for many engineers who take on a management role. Because they are not sufficiently sensitized to the complexity of human activity.

This is why they often fail to practice a situational leadership style in which they on the one hand react adequately to the respective situation and person and on the other hand maintain their personal leadership style; also take sufficient account of the corporate and divisional goals.

Often they show a contradicting leadership style out of uncertainty because they lack a sense of situations and people. Or the other way around: you are rigidly clinging to a pattern of behavior, although the situation would require a different reaction.

Young executives can avoid both pitfalls through specific preparation for their new role. On the one hand, by acquiring the necessary knowledge about proven management tools - because only those who know an instrument can use it.

But this alone is not enough. Rather, the young managers must also train the use of management tools. Not using fictitious case studies, but using real examples from your (future) day-to-day management.

The companies should also gradually introduce the young engineers to assuming management functions - for example, by first giving them the management of project or work teams. Gradual learning of leadership is thus possible. In addition, companies should support their young managers after they have taken on their position.

There are many ways to do this. For example, the young executives can be provided with coaches or mentors with whom they can talk about leadership problems and problems in taking on the new role. Another possibility is to establish a support group (not only for future, but also) for young managers in the company, in which problems that arise in everyday management are discussed.

But it is also important to develop a corporate culture in which it is not a shortcoming to openly confess to colleagues “I have a problem leading my team…” or… my employee ”. Such a culture does not exist in very many companies.

In most companies, managers can say to their colleagues at any time when they are sitting together “I have a technical…” or “… legal problem”. However, it is taboo for a manager to say “I can't get along with my employee x”. Companies (not only) usually leave their young executives alone with such problems.

(Image: © ioannis kounadeas -

Stefan Bald is managing director of the management consultancy Dr. Kraus & Partner, Bruchsal, for whom almost 50 trainers, consultants and coaches work (Tel. 07251/989034; Mail: [email protected]).