Six Ways to Become a More Credible Engineering Leader

By: Leslie Stevens-Huffman

You can shout your priorities from the rooftop, distribute them via email, or turn them into a catchy acronym. But unless your actions support your advertised goals and values, you’re probably wasting your time.

Ian Davis, who has advised some of the world’s most successful CEOs while serving as a senior partner at McKinsey and Co., said it best. “Leadership is best explained by what successful leaders actually do — not what they are, not what they say, but what they actually do.”

Leading by example sounds easy, but studies show that few leaders do it well. Here are six ways to practice what you preach.

Engineering Leadership

Six Ways to Walk the Engineering Leadership Talk

No. 1: Hold yourself to the same standards

Earn the right to set and enforce high performance standards by improving every duty and task you tackle by 10 percent. After all, you can’t expect your engineering team to achieve something that you can’t do.

No. 2: Get your hands dirty

Leaders have many responsibilities but it’s important to work alongside your team, writes Navy Seal combat veteran Brent Gleeson in INC. Magazine. Eric Harvey and Al Lucia, co-authors of 144 Ways to Walk the Talk, advise managers to go on a “work safari” once a week. “Hunt for an important task that needs to be done and do it,” they say, and you’ll earn a reputation as a great hunter who values both actions and results.

No. 3: Improve your technical knowledge

You don’t have to be the most highly skilled technician on your team, but you should dedicate at least two hours every week to improving your engineering knowledge by reading, observing, doing and attending seminars, webinars and so forth. In this way you demonstrate your support for continuous learning.

No. 4 Align your values and actions

You can’t espouse your commitment to quality one day and green light the premature shipment of a product the next. Your decisions, directions and actions should consistently support your objectives and values. If you must deviate, explain the reasons for your actions or adjust your goals. Perform self-audits by occasionally soliciting feedback as successful leaders allow their colleagues to manage them. This doesn’t mean they’re allowing others to control them. Rather they are being accountable to assure they are being proactive to their colleagues’ needs, advises Glenn Llopis (in an article about the 15 things successful leaders do every day).

No. 5: Balance transparency with diplomacy

Successful engineering leaders know others are watching, so they’re open and honest when sharing information – but don’t cross the line. They own up to mistakes and acknowledge the organization’s failures without condemning the company or its senior leadership team. In short, they know how to satisfy both groups.

No. 6: Keep your promises

Do what you say you’re going to do and don’t make promises you can’t keep. Followers only do what they have to for leaders they do not trust, so beware the pitfalls of betraying their confidence.

In conclusion, research by Ronit Kark and Tal Yaffehas found that leading by example increases “citizenship” behavior. Enhanced citizenship links team members to the organization, which improves their motivation and leads to higher levels of performance. This proves that walking the talk is not only good for the spirit, but also the bottom line.

Other information of potential interest

10 Must-Follow Tips for Becoming a Highly Effective Engineering Manager

Insightful Interviews: Favorite Questions Asked by Engineering Managers

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