Leadership at Every Stage of Your Engineering Career

By: Julianne Pepitone

Illustration of cart board selecting employees

While everyone’s journey is different, many freshly minted EEs dream of leading major projects, or ascending to the C-suite of a large company. If that’s your goal, engineering career experts agree there are some common milestones to aim for on the way up.

Years 1–5: Find a good place to build your technical foundation.

This stage requires patience from the striving future leader. “When you’re fresh out of school, it’s 99 percent technical work, and that’s good,” says Anthony Fasano, founder of the career training platform Engineering Management Institute, in Ridgewood, N.J. It’s also helpful to remind yourself that the best engineering managers can jump in on the technical side, Fasano says. He recommends that as you gain expertise, you should signal your interest in learning how projects work. Ask a colleague or superior about how they build budgets, or offer to collect data for a project.

Years 5–15: Discover your niche, and take on responsibility.

Grab opportunities to stretch yourself, says Kodi Verhalen, a past president of the National Society of Professional Engineers, in Alexandria, Va. Verhalen gives an example from her work with power companies: “For large capital management projects, a lot goes into making the case for a project. You can volunteer to put together slides, coordinate with lawyers, and generally help to get something built. The point is that you’re working across the company, learning about budgets and execution.”

Some companies have hierarchies filled with traditional job titles; those at other firms may vary. So Verhalen recommends asking for the written requirements for these roles. “Sometimes it’s an unspoken rule that everyone at the VP level or above has an advanced degree, for example,” she notes.

To Fasano, the best way EEs can position themselves for leadership is to develop specific expertise. “I worked for a manager who was a storm-water expert, and everyone including senior management knew he was the go-to for this topic,” he says. “Those are the people who are thought of first for leadership.”

Perhaps you might dedicate yourself to knowing everything about one kind of semiconductor. Or you might take public speaking classes and liaise between engineering and nontechnical teams. The point, both experts say, is to position yourself as a standout dedicated to helping the company run more smoothly. By the end of this decade, you should have solid experience in leading projects.

Years 15–25: Help your managers achieve company goals.

“Corporate stewardship is critically important,” Verhalen says. “You want to connect with the leadership team, demonstrating to the superiors you work for, and work with, that you are a respectful leader.”

You might move to titles like supervisor, manager, and director during this time. So at the start of this stage, Verhalen says, EEs should devote themselves to setting up projects effectively, including data gathering and resource planning. “This requires not only deep understanding of the project but also where the strengths and weaknesses lie within yourself and your team,” she adds.

By the middle to the end of this phase, you might have three to 10 managers who report to you, “and now, instead of being the person who was learning everything, you’re the person teaching,” Fasano says. Delegating tasks can be especially challenging for detail-oriented EEs, Fasano says. “Some managers aren’t great at this, and it can end up being the fork in the road.”

Year 25+: Make a play for senior management (or not).

The path to a position like CEO will be highly dependent on the industry and the company you work for, but EEs seeking these roles should be authoring research papers, writing thought-leadership articles, and speaking at conferences.

“You need to recognize this is a high-level strategy position,” Fasano says. “You’re removing yourself from any details. It is very-big-picture, and it’s not for everyone.”

“Maybe you realize you want to manage the design team, or that the VP level is as much responsibility as you want,” concludes Verhalen. “It’s about finding over the years what draws you in, because that’s where you’ll excel.”

This article originally appeared in IEEE Spectrum on 22 January 2019.