Five Steps from Engineer to Leadership

Five Steps from Engineer to Leadership

Engineering, by its very nature, is technical work. Leading a team is not.

Because the two jobs require different skill sets, engineers who seek managing or executive roles don’t always fall into those jobs. They follow a career path that leads to those positions. Before they can become a supervisor, they must show they have the skills needed to lead teams.


Dorota Shortell is now chief executive officer at Simplexity Product Development, an engineering product development company, in Portland, Ore. When she began her mechanical engineering career she hadn’t planned to enter the C-suite. But in retrospect, she saw how her career was shaped by the skills she demonstrated and the steps she took toward a leadership position. She shared five steps engineers must take if they want to take on leadership positions.

1. Communicate Your Successes

Shortell began her career by redesigning an assembly inside a desktop printer.

“I realized a few weeks in, I’m doing all this work, but I don’t know if the client really likes the work,” she said. “I asked the senior engineer on the project if I could give the client a summary report every Friday to make sure they’re OK with the changes before we get too far down the line.”

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Those reports proved helpful to the client. So much so that representatives later asked that Shortell to be placed on another one of their projects.

The client welcomed the reports because they offered a clear view into the project.

Shortell also advocates sharing—in other words, communicating—your successes with higher-ups.

“Communication is always the difference,” Shortell said. “You can do great work, but if no one knows about it—and your managers are busy people—you won’t get recognition for it.”

She points out that she checked with the senior engineer on the project before sending the weekly reports.

“As we think about our leadership path, we can’t just assume we’re doing to do something and step on others’ toes. They’re going to feel you’re going over their heads,” she said. “There’s a balance between advocating for yourself and asking.”

Read about Engineer Who’s Leadership Path led from BattleBot to Corporate Robot "The key to success here is to communicate with others on your team and with your managers and to advocate for yourself," Shortell said.

2.Share Your Career Goals

Within four years of beginning her career, Shortell was promoted from design engineer to project manager to senior mechanical engineer. One thing that helped her climb: she told her boss of her plans for a career as a manager.

“I talked to my supervisor and said I wanted to become a project manager and asked about the things I can do to get there,” she said. “The fact I stated that so clearly made a difference. It started give my manager a view of the path along which I wanted to go. Don’t be shy to say, “Here’s the path I want to take, what are the skills I can develop and what is it I need to do to get there.’” she said.

3. Project Confidence

How you present yourself can be just as important as the technical skills you bring to the job.

“Not that you don’t need to know the technical side of things, but showing that you can be a leader is what get you noticed,” she said.

Shortell believes she was promoted because she was “already acting like a senior engineer” before she attained that role.

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“My boss said, ‘It’s easy to put you in front of clients, and people already know they can trust you and rely on you,’” Shortell said.

Act and dress in a professional manner. Learn and hone soft skills so you’re at relative ease among other professionals, she said.

Soft skills, including communication techniques, can sometimes be difficult for those engineers who are more comfortable working alone at their desks each day. But, with practice, relating to others becomes easier.

4. Connect with Others

Let’s call this step “making connections” rather than networking. That way, this necessary step to a leadership role sounds less intimidating. Networking doesn’t have to be hard. Think about it as forming friendships, Shortell said. That the friendship may eventually lead to a new job or a promotion is of secondary value.

“Reaching out to people, connecting with people, is really important. But I know, as an introvert, it’s hard,” Shortell said. “Don’t go in saying ‘Here’s what I have to sell.’ Treat it like ‘This might be a cool person to know. Let me find out about them and see if I can help them.’”

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Society and organizational meetings and gatherings—like those held by ASME chapters—are a great place to meet other cool people in your field.

Treat networking as the long game, she advises. Don’t expect immediate results. A connection you made two years ago may phone you tomorrow with news of a job opening at his or her company.

5. Take on New Opportunities

Be willing to take on a new role even if you’re not 100 percent certain you’re up to the task, Shortell said.

“A lot of times we want to ensure we’re successful at something because we don’t want to fail. But if you don’t fail once in a while you’re not stretching yourself,” she said.

“Did I know how to be a CEO? No. Did I know I could learn to do the job? Yes. I’m smart. I knew I could ask for help and I knew I could figure it out as I go along,” she said.

The willingness to step up and to show up gets you noticed, she added.

The steps that can help you attain a leadership position will take courage and determination. They may not be easy, but the payoff comes not only in attaining the role you desired, but also in growing as an employee and as a person. Even if you don’t become CEO, the skills outlined above will help in all future endeavors.

Jean Thilmany is a freelance writer living in St. Paul who frequently writes on engineering topics.

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A lot of times we want to ensure we’re successful at something because we don’t want to fail. But if you don’t fail once in a while you’re not stretching yourself.Dorota Shortell, CEO, Simplexity Product Development

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