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Leadership Development in Engineering

Change and People

“We live in a world in which change is the only constant.”

The importance and impact of statements of this ilk diminish the more they are repeated. Eventually, they fail to command our attention; we hear the words, but they no longer direct our thoughts to the ramifications of what sits behind the words.

As more engineering organisations see the value of educating their engineering resource more broadly, they will be looking for appropriate training programmes outside of the workplace such as coaching and mentoring, skills delivery training at FE colleges, job shadowing in other industries. Establishing in house apprenticeship schemes and modernising technical training programmes to offer a blend of textbook and on the job knowledge offer further opportunities for development and engagement. The average age of an engineering workforce is ‘older’ than most other workplace demographics. As a consequence, there is an enormous amount of knowledge and know-how that can be passed on to younger generations. This not only retains learned know-how but also offers a fulfilling dimension to those coming to the end of their careers.

The other world of work maxim is: “Our people are at the heart of everything we do”. However, for the majority of organisations, it’s only 5% of their engineers who appear on the development radar. What does that mean for the remaining 95% of any business? It’s akin to any government recommending that only 5% of pupils need bother attending school – the other 95% can fend for themselves and feed off the educated few.

The fall out from these oft cited quotes, is that few organisations are making the connection between the changing needs of their business and the impact of change on their engineers.

How then do we equip our engineers to deliver today and be resourced to deliver tomorrow? How do we get to the 95% to help them face the future with confidence? If people don’t feel properly equipped and supported they’ll be unable to perform to their capacity. It is rare for people lacking in confidence within their current role to feel sufficiently emboldened to deal with unexpected live events or to accept greater responsibility than is currently expected of them.

Strategy over People – engineering businesses at board level are adept at devising strategies to improve trading fortunes and will detail two or three priorities that will convert confident thought into positive action. Such priorities are highly quantified and defended when scrutinised. Engineers tend to be linear thinkers so an agreed schedule and regular ‘to do’ list is vital to achieving their goals. However, they also need to think about the 95% of people who are the ambassadors out in the field responsible for making the business tick, and how they might be developed to capacity.

The Purpose of Learning & Development – the fundamental purpose of L&D is to create a skilled and confident workforce by giving engineers the tools to perform to their best within their role and to develop their potential to fulfill future roles. We wont know the exact nature of these future engineering roles but we can assume they will require a growing level of commercial acumen. In developing engineers to be at capacity we are in effect making businesses stronger and more resilient to future scenarios.

Continuing Professional Developing provides an opportunity for engineers to expand their general business skills rather than further hone their technical skills. It should not be seen as a tick box exercise by the company or engineers themselves, rather an opportunity to develop and deliver skills which impact more greatly to the wider business and offer greater fulfillment to the engineers day job.

People Development – investment in people is seen as discretionary spend rather than critical investment. HR usually manages L & D budgets centrally. However, ownership for people development should sit within the leadership population. It’s the leader within engineering organisations who creates the working environment in which their people operate and who observes them at work, facing the expected and unexpected challenges. It’s the leader who is closest and most able to identify the development needs of engineers to perform well within a role and to reconcile their appetite and ambition for future roles.

Acknowledging our People – how do we really acknowledge the efforts of our engineers and recognise the individual capability that each person possesses? As leaders we devote more time to understanding performance through output measures than we do to understanding those at the source of performance. We’re looking at the wrong end of the pipeline because we’re more comfortable dealing with analysis and conjecture than with people and emotion.

Developing our People

Whatever the development options available we must ensure that any investment adds value to our people, our organizational capacity and our long-term performance. The clever bit is trying to squeeze as much value out of a finite budget as possible. It’s easy to compromise quality for the sake of targeting large swathes of people, just as it’s easy to invest heavily on a few to the exclusion of many.

Technology offers the platform upon which a more affordable and accessible learning and development programme can be delivered. Not only does it maintain quality it can also improve the learning experience. Online learning ensures quality content is accessible 24/7 thus allowing engineering learners to fit their learning around their own professional and personal timetables, whilst Skype, or similar mediums, enables people to be connected and in contact with their coaches and tutors without the need to travel or be away from the day job. It also supports a more modular learning journey in which learning takes place over time rather than at a point in time and where new learners and new recruits can be added seamlessly.

We’ve found it easier to connect with multi-site businesses or where engineers are spread across the country and more able to ensure that organisational goals and standards are consistently re-enforced. 

Assessing People Development – in our obsession to put a value on our every action, we’ve devalued the importance of people development. If you could measure return on investment, we’d be talking with certainty rather than gut feel. We intuitively know that if we develop people they will likely fulfil their potential and contribute to an even greater level than at present, but by ignoring their needs they will leave the organisation or become disengaged.

The Birth of the Coach Leader

The democratisation of learning is about giving people the opportunity to develop themselves. However, the environment in which ambition is fostered is down to the quality of local engineering leadership; without their active sponsorship only the favoured or demanding few will get on to the development radar.

In the fullness of time I expect the term leader to be augmented with the word Coach to become Coach Leader, someone who recognises the importance of their role in developing the capability and potential of others. This won’t simply be about identifying development needs and then sub-contracting in external providers, it will also necessitate being able to coach new skills and behavioural development where appropriate.

In this engaged environment people will feel more valued and more encouraged to give of their best and be even more receptive and supportive to the evolving demands of your business. In a world where change is the only constant and where people are the heart of your business, this dynamic capability is not just desirable; it’s essential to your organisations very survival.

This article was written for the Chartered Institute of Civil Engineering Surveyors.  It appeared in the April 2017 Edition.

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