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Shelley Row

Edited by Laurie A. Shuster
Shelley Row, P.E., CSP, is a transportation engineer who believes engineers can become exceptional managers and leaders by developing specific skill sets. Earlier in her career, Row served as the director of the Intelligent Transportation Systems Joint Program Office at the U.S. Department of Transportation and as director of the Office of Transportation Operations for the Federal Highway Administration, among many other technical posts. Now she is the founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders in Annapolis, Maryland, a company that provides management and leadership training for engineers and other technical professionals. Row says the challenges engineers face in moving into management are common to many technical professions: The skills that helped them succeed as engineers don’t necessarily prepare them to be successful in management. But it is possible to bridge that gap.

1. As engineers transition to managerial roles, what are the skills that they are already strong in that help them?

During the pandemic, I interviewed 18 leaders in engineering and technical organizations and asked a number of questions on this topic. And  subsequently, I worked with a number of engineering organizations, and I asked them the same questions. The answers were consistent. We engineers tend to have these characteristics: We’re detail-oriented, logical, meticulous, rational, data-driven, precise, methodical, and linear. We are problem solvers. That’s how our brains are wired.

And those are strong, desirable traits for managers and leaders, but they aren’t the only traits needed to be successful managers.

2. Many engineers struggle when they are first promoted to supervisory roles. What are the critical skills that they typically lack as they move into management?

I asked the leaders and groups to describe the attributes of the best manager they ever worked for — the person you would run through a brick wall for. And I heard these characteristics consistently: supportive, understanding, good listener, fair, respectful, compassionate, and humble. And the word that came up more than any other? Empathetic.

It is striking to note that these two lists of traits represent completely different skill sets! I don’t think we appreciate the magnitude of the gap when we move from the skills at which we naturally excel as technical professionals to skills like being good communicators and listeners who are supportive and empathetic.

Employees want the manager to see them as a person. They want to feel important and feel that they matter for more than just the technical skills that they bring. They want to be appreciated. And most engineers do have the ability to embody those kinds of traits. Management skills are learnable.

3. What are some basic concepts that engineers need to learn to bridge the gap to a management skill set?

It was fascinating that every time I asked that question, the same three skills popped up. The top skill was always communication. And I don’t mean presentation skills, I mean interpersonal communication skills.

The other two skills are the ability to develop relationships and having or developing self-awareness. If you think about it, all three skills speak to how a manager does their job, not what they do. For example, no one I interviewed said their favorite manager was a great delegator or a great decision-maker or good at performance reviews. They focused on how they approach their management role.

Once you master those three foundational ‘how’ skills, you can use them to be a better delegator or a better mentor or to handle a difficult conversation or other management functions.

4. How can engineers learn those foundational skills — especially self-awareness, which is tricky for anyone?

First, they must want it. They need to recognize that these skills are important for their career development and their job. When I interviewed executives, they all knew this; they knew that these skills were what it takes for someone to be successful in their organization at higher levels. But they don’t always communicate that to their people or invest in creating those skills.

ASCE provides management and leadership training; we do it at Blue Fjord Leaders, and other places do it too. But the biggest problem is getting the employer organization to appreciate the value that training in these specific skills brings to the organization. There is almost no skill an organization can invest in that would pay off more than helping people learn how to work with other people. That is what will keep a client happy, bring in a new client, and retain your people in the organization.

5. You say that technical skills seem to be ‘hard-wired’ into most engineers’ brains. But management skills are not. How can engineers ‘hard-wire’ managerial skills?

First, leaders in engineering organizations need to be more vocal about the value of communication and relationship skills. It’s not enough to hope that an engineer will inherently understand the need to develop these skills. It helps to have others around them telling them that these are the skills that will carry them to the next level. If you have that desire and/or support, it’s possible to develop those skills. It’s like learning anything else. There is a bit of intellectual learning, and then it’s practice, reinforcement, and more practice.

The ongoing application of the skills will embed them into our behaviors. There has been a lot written about needing 10,000 hours of practice to gain a new skill, but that’s 10,000 intentional hours. Intention is the key. It takes repetition and consistency.

6. What typically happens if engineers try to supervise others with only their technical skills, without first increasing their managerial skill set?

When an engineering manager approaches his or her staff strictly from a have-you-completed-the-task-yet attitude, it feels to the employee-like they are only of value for a task, they don’t really matter as a person, and no one really cares about them. That causes the employee to only show up for a paycheck, period. There’s no commitment or engagement. When the next job comes along, off they go. And right now, especially, it’s a hot job market. There’s a lot at stake.

We find if you have someone who is a good manager, who understands their people, who can empathize, who can read clients and adapt their behaviors — and they have the subject-matter expertise of an engineer — that’s a powerful combination.

7. How do leadership skills differ from managerial skills?

Management requires what I think of as a ‘down and in’ orientation. Managers ask, ‘Are we getting things done, is the project on time and on budget, are we developing our people, do we have the right skill sets?’ Leadership is an ‘up and out’ orientation. Leaders ask, ‘What’s going on in the larger world, what are the trends, and what are the implications of the trends for our organization?’ They spend time reading and networking, and they are good with messaging, internally and externally.

And the best leaders are inspiring.

Laurie A. Shuster is the editor in chief of Civil Engineering.

This article first appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Civil Engineering as "How to Transition from Engineer to Manager."