Transitioning from utility fieldwork to management can be a rewarding decision, but it can also be overwhelming. Managers are responsible for the success of both their employees and the organization. They must handle workplace conflict, oversee high-level project decisions and advocate on behalf of their team members – all while staying on top of their own individual workloads. Such a heavy administrative burden can be daunting to field engineers starting their management journeys. With little leadership experience, it’s hard to know where to start.
To help new leaders find their footing, TRC’S Anna Campbell, Director of Technical Services and Brenda Sears, VP of Employee Growth & Development, answer key questions about career development for engineers. Anna, who has been working in learning analytics for nearly 20 years, oversees the design of TRC’s training, qualification and human performance programs. Brenda started her career as an engineering contractor for American Electric Power more than two decades ago and now leads TRC’s Communications Engineering and Distribution Engineering Support Services teams.
Q: Why is it so challenging to transition from a technical position like engineering or field work into a leadership role?
Anna Campbell: To be good at your job as an engineer probably means you’re following procedures very well. You understand the science behind what you’re doing and when to bend the rules a little bit to make sure that you’re producing something of high quality. I felt like it took me like a good ten years or so to feel like a strong technical expert. But when I become a manager, I didn’t have the procedural guidelines to define my position or determine where to focus my energy. The transition is challenging because we tend to revert to what we know well. So many managers transitioning from purely technical roles will dedicate most of their time to technical work because it feels comfortable.
Brenda Sears: On my team, many managers are still expected to spend a good amount of their time on technical work and client management. So, there’s this question of how best to spend our time. We not only have to ask ourselves what we need to do as managers but also how do we make the time necessary to be leaders while staying on top of our individual workloads. We default to the things that we know the answers to, the things that we know how to tackle. Any of the soft skills that new managers might not be comfortable with or even aware of can be challenging. We try to get our new leaders to lean into their past experiences – they’ve been in the same position as their team members after all. The best way you can support your team is to do so in the same way you would have wanted to be supported when you were a subordinate.
Q: How do you ensure success in your new role? What guidance can you offer for successful leadership?
Anna: Training is important because it gives you language and practice around handling tough situations. I remember going through a fantastic leadership development program. When I had to have a particularly difficult conversation with a technical employee, I was able to recall what I learned from the program and use it as a framework that helped me approach the situation more confidently. Training is especially important in a technical field where we’re promoting people who are very technically proficient but have likely had less exposure to the soft skills necessary for management. I would encourage new leaders to drive their own learning as well. Don’t just rely on what your organization gives to you. If you want to become a great leader, actively seek out opportunities to learn more.
Brenda: I agree that training is key, and it comes in many forms. There’s the front-loaded approach, where new managers are given extensive training at the outset, and there’s also a more cadenced, incremental approach where managers are trained as new situations emerge. Different approaches can work better for different organizations and leaders.
Q: What role does mentorship play in developing new leadership skills?
Anna: I think it’s always good advice to lead the way your heart tells you. For some junior leaders, it can feel like none of the skills they gained in their technical work really apply to leadership. But skills like tenacity and customer focus are very important in management. Senior leadership can help by giving specific feedback about skills like communication or having difficult conversations with employees. Those few things are going to take you to the next level. You should also surround yourself with mentors, or as many people as possible who understand your position and are willing to help you develop as a professional. Mentors don’t have to be a supervisor, or someone formally assigned to help you – they can be anybody in your network who is willing to give you candid feedback about your success.
Brenda: It’s important for new managers to have leaders that are supportive of them. Employees from technical backgrounds typically aren’t used to receiving constructive criticism. Having a leader who is supportive can help ease tensions and increase productivity. Rather than simply being told you aren’t doing a good job; a good leader acknowledges hard work and gently points out areas where you can improve. In the end, you lead the way you have been led.
Q: How do you succeed when put in a situation of managing your former peers?
Anna: You must be intentional and consistent, and constantly repeat your expectations until your team starts seeing you as a boss rather than just another coworker. Make clear that you are here to set them up to be successful, but you’re also here as an advocate for the organization, and that requires a different set of rules then when you were peers. You’re being held to new responsibilities and standards.
Brenda: I think the best thing to do is set expectations early on. Have a friendly, frank conversation with your team. Make it clear that your intention as the new boss is to remain close, but you expect to be given the same respect as any other boss in return.
Q: What mindset to you need to successfully transition to a leadership role?
Anna: A growth mindset is key. I have found that as a technical expert, you’re almost not allowed to fail. You’re there to produce something of high quality and that’s it. What I quickly realized as a manager is that you should be failing all the time because that’s how you learn how to grow and improve. Don’t be afraid to fail. As long as you learn from it, failure can be a great asset.
Brenda: It’s important to feel confident in your role and feel like you have the runway to fail. Especially when you’re a brand-new leader, you might not try new things if you don’t feel like you have permission to make mistakes. Hopefully, your supervisor provides you with the support necessary to feel comfortable taking risks. A good leader looks at a problem and says, “this is hard, this is new – let’s go for it and learn along the way.”
Q: We’ve talked a lot about communication, as a new leader, how do you improve your communication skills?
Anna: Know your North Star. Are you communicating to get new work with clients, or are you communicating to help your employees be more successful? Considering these different goals has always helped me communicate in a more authentic way.
Brenda: Within Distribution Engineering, we have a communication style assessment that all our leadership takes to show them what type of communicators they are so they can be more self-aware. We want to give permission to our managers to acknowledge that they may be better at communicating in some ways than others and help them understand what is most effective for them. At the same time, it’s important to know that there are all these other communication styles out there, and we all have to find ways to communicate with each other.
Q: What are some other useful skills and tools for new leaders?
Anna: Emotional intelligence is a helpful skill. You’re going to bring to your personal challenges to work, and that’s going to influence the way you react in the workplace. It’s important to understand your emotions and be aware of them while you’re working. It’s also important to feel comfortable stopping work or personal conversations when necessary. Similarly, if you know you don’t have a good answer to a question, it’s okay to say, “let me think about that and get back to you.”
Brenda: One thing we do for our junior leadership is provide sessions on having difficult conversations and managing conflict. We teach new managers questions to ask when they notice conflict and difficult conversation starters. For most conflicts, it’s the issue rather than the person. These tools can help you diffuse tough situations in a productive, objective manner.
Q: How can new managers maintain work-life balance?
Anna: As a technical expert, you have preset work hours that you dedicate to completing a specific project. Managers, on the other hand, still work on their own projects while also having to address all their team’s issues. Juggling these responsibilities can make it hard to keep track of time. You need to draw boundaries for yourself early on.
Brenda: You can’t be scared to ask for help. We encourage our leaders to consult and learn from each other. We also want new leaders to know that nobody expects you to have all the answers right out of the gate. Being a manager means you’re always learning, always growing, and always failing.
Q: Are there any final pieces of advice you want to share?
Anna: Again, I would say “Don’t forget your North Star.” Be non-apologetic about advocating for your team. At the end of the day, you’re here to foster your team’s success. Make it known to your employees that when they’re having a bad day, you’re there to help them out. At the same time, remember that supporting your employees sometimes means giving them the freedom to safely fail. Make sure your employees feel comfortable making mistakes by keeping failures private and spotlighting successes.
Brenda: As a manager, it’s important to feel confident in your value to the organization. People who don’t feel valued tend to be less comfortable letting others share the spotlight. A confident manager makes sure that their employees get ample opportunities to shine on their own. You should always have your eye on the next person in line for management. As leaders, we aim to develop talent and foster success. We want employees to be ready to take our jobs later down the line.
Anna: As hard as this can be with so much going on, invest time in getting to know your people. What’s their motivation? What makes them tick? You also want to invest time into getting to know your own role. Ask questions constantly, and make sure to spend time with your leader so you can learn through osmosis.
Brenda: Another thing to remember is that when you become a new manager of an old team, there are often processes you’ll want to shake up. As much as you might want to completely redo everything, you need to be realistic about how you implement changes. Ask questions and solicit input from your employees. You’re a team – use that to your advantage.
TRC is dedicated to advancing innovative training solutions that prepare the future energy workforce today. Learn more about our Power Academy program or contact Anna or Brenda for more information on engineering leadership.