Practical Leadership Tips for Technical Managers

14 Jan 2020 1:44 PM | Annmarie Uliano (Administrator)

by William Daughton, PhD, FASEM, Former ASEM Executive Director

We often think of leadership in terms of the “great man or woman” theory or as something reserved for presidents and CEOs. However, individuals in positions of authority at all levels in an organization have leadership as well as management responsibilities. In terms of technical, human, and conceptual skills of a leader, the proportion associated with human skills is just as large at the technical group level as it is for top management. So, what form of leadership can be exercised at the technical group level which can positively affect the individual contributors?

There are several things which could be done, but one of the most effective is described by the Path-Goal Theory of leadership. The reason that this theory is useful at this level of supervision is that the supervised population is typically comprised of very motivated individuals highly focused on completing their technical work or projects and who are easily frustrated by the lack of clear goals, various obstacles to success, and poor support. Path-Goal Theory addresses all of these issues. This approach to leadership is not only theoretical but also pragmatic and can be readily exercised by the technical group leader.

Pragmatically, the theory forces the leader to understand the needs of the group members by asking the following questions:

  • Have the goals of the work or projects for the group  been clearly and unambiguously set forth? This includes understanding the importance, relevance, and time sensitivity. When these are understood, the group members can really focus on goal achievement. A leader must ensure the group is focusing on the right things leading to fulfillment of the goal.
  • What obstacles do the group members face in completing their work? Little is more frustrating than wanting to achieve success but being prevented from achieving it by obstacles which unnecessarily get in the way. These can include inadequate tools, poor training, lack of equipment or facilities, and a very important one, poor coordination with other groups or individuals upon which the work depends. A leader must be sensitive to these potential obstacles, anticipate them if possible, and certainly resolve them quickly if they arise.

  • What level of support is required to achieve success? The support can be internal to the group, internal to the organization, or external from partners, suppliers, or customers. Frustration can easily arise when work is stalled for lack of funding, inadequate or delayed specifications or other relevant information, missing raw materials or components, or access to specialized equipment. Anticipation and vigilance are the keys here for the leader.

These three questions really focus on the needs of the technical contributors. Pragmatic application of the theory leads to strong motivation, reduced frustration, and a real sense of accomplishment. In its simplest sense, this theory provides a way for the technical supervisor to guide individual contributors along a path to success.

About the Author

Dr. Daughton has been involved in Engineering Management education for over 20 years. He was the Lockheed Martin Professor and Program Director of the Lockheed Martin Engineering Management program at the University of Colorado - Boulder. He then moved to Missouri S&T where he was chair of the Engineering Management and Systems Engineering Department. While there, his department hosted an ASEM Conference in Springfield, MO. Moving back to Colorado, he took a position as the Director of Extended Studies in the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs. The programs in extended studies included Engineering Management.

He held the position of ASEM Executive Director and is an ASEM Fellow. He has an ASEM service award named in his honor. Dr. Daughton had extensive experience in technical management in the semiconductor industry before moving to academia. He holds a Ph.D. in solid-state physics with emphasis in electronic materials. He continues to teach online graduate courses for Missouri S&T and UCCS in engineering leadership and case study analysis.

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