How do you transform yourself from a technically savvy maintenance engineer into an engineering leader? Here are 10 competencies that can help you expand your circle of influence and be recognised as the person others want to follow

There are 10 attributes someone needs to become a successful engineering leader, according to Case Western Reserve University’s School of Engineering.

Some of these traits and skills will be familiar to most maintenance engineers. But others, like emotional intelligence, may come as a surprise. So we asked experts and industry leaders for their take on the list.

1. Problem-solving
“Problem-solving is the core skill of maintenance engineers,” says Ian Bell, Vice-President of Engineering and Facilities at RS, drawing on 28 years’ experience in the industry. “As engineers, our default response is ‘We've got a problem – we need to fix it’.

“There’s something about having a team that really enjoys business-as-usual and gets a kick out of it,” he says. “But keeping the team motivated to do brilliant business-as-usual is not an easy thing. And I think a differentiator for an engineering department is the ability to say no to stuff in order to focus on what matters, because less is more.”

2. Collaboration
“Some engineers are definitely happier working on their own, but the strength of maintenance engineering is in the whole team working together,” says Bell.

He emphasises the need to reach out across the business to solve problems. For example, when a machine breaks down, it’s critical to connect with the finance team to talk about ways to solve the problem and quickly restart production.

“You’re going to need funding, so you need to involve all the people who can make that happen,” he says.

3. Diligence
“Engineers tend to be introverts,” observes Bell. “That makes them great at focusing on detail and means that they have the enthusiasm for coming up with technical engineering solutions.”

Becoming a manager should never dilute attention to detail, or what Bell calls “the passion for getting it right every time”. It’s a characteristic engineers should nurture, whatever role they find themselves in, he says.

4. Strategy
“Keep your eye on the horizon,” says Bell. Strategy is about understanding where your business is headed and ensuring that maintenance engineering’s work is aligned to corporate objectives, he adds.

Dr Moray Kidd, Maintenance Engineering Academic, agrees. “It’s got to start with a clear strategy at the corporate level and that should cascade down into the various disciplines across the whole business,” he says. “In maintenance engineering, specifically, the strategy should be business centred in order to deliver the corporate objectives.”

5. Communication
“I’m sure that the qualities of leadership are not really unique when it comes to maintenance engineering,” says Dr Kidd. But some maintenance engineers – even those with PhDs from leading institutions – still find communication a challenge, he adds.

“Sometimes they’re just unable to communicate to the relevant stakeholders, especially around the business value of what they are doing. So, communication is key to developing as leaders,” he says.

Language is important too, says Richard Jeffers, Managing Director for RS Industria at RS Group: “To get your message across you have to speak the language of business. That means you need to talk about the value of mitigating risk – avoiding downtime – rather than just saying I need to shut down production.”

6. Emotional intelligence
Engineering leaders need empathy if they are to communicate effectively. “From undergraduate level straight through to postgraduate or even PhD in research, we don’t do enough in terms of developing engineers’ interpersonal skills,” says Dr Kidd.

Aspects of management and leadership are set to become core competences for would-be engineers, he adds. “There’s a real recognition that a good technical engineer does not necessarily make a good leader, and there are programmes being set up globally to address some of these gaps,” he says.

7. Creativity
“Maintenance engineering is all about creativity,” says Jeffers. “It’s about constantly identifying and solving problems. And when you’re trying to solve a problem, you are usually doing it in the context of limited resources – and that calls for creativity.

“I think the need for creativity increases as you become more senior because you end up with the tough gigs, the problems that more junior engineers have not been able to solve using conventional techniques,” he adds.

8. Curiosity
Part of being a successful engineering leader is understanding what’s likely to be the next big thing. Whether it’s the evolving digital world of Industry 4.0 or the latest people management techniques, it pays to look ahead.

“The best leaders stay curious throughout their careers,” says Emma Botfield, UK and Ireland Managing Director at RS. “Some of the greatest inventions in history came from people asking, ‘what if?’. Being curious keeps you looking for opportunities to do things better in the future.”

9. Flexibility
Engineering leaders need to be flexible and willing to take new ideas on board. They also need to be adaptable to keep projects on track, even when things start to go wrong.

“Tackling the big items, doing them properly and driving solutions all the way to a new way of working that is self-sustaining is not easy,” says Bell. “It’s about having an eye on the future and staying aligned because strategies change so quickly. The engineering function needs to be flexible, responsive and ready to give the business what it needs.”

10. Communication (again)
Case School of Engineering deemed communication so important, they listed it twice. It’s not just about communicating what you’re trying to do, but being able to motivate and empower a team.

Dr Kidd says it’s the number one skill in the engineering leader’s toolkit: “Leaders who are unable to communicate effectively are unlikely to succeed.”

A last word from Ian Bell: “The great engineering managers that I’ve been lucky enough to work with have been able to balance the introversion that you often get from engineers with the extraversion, the ability to see the bigger picture. Coupled with great engineering, that’s what you need to succeed.”