Let’s face it. Many of us who are considered professionals in engineering, and in particular, the specialty field of compliance engineering, aren’t going to make it into corporate leadership or become C-suite executives. It’s not that it’s not possible. It’s that we don’t want to. Many of us have no desire to leave engineering and follow a management path. We are the “techies” of the world who want to stay technical. We would rather work our way up the technical ladder to become a fellow engineer than work our way up the management ladder to become a chief executive officer. We love engineering and don’t want to leave it behind. Staying technical is not necessarily a limiting situation and doesn’t mean we are less ambitious than others. The only time staying technical would be an issue would be if it was in fact our ultimate goal to become a director, C-suite executive or vice president of something, and we really wanted to totally abandon engineering. Then we would have a problem.
By being and staying “just an engineer” it’s still possible for us to achieve financial freedom and retire as millionaires. In his book Everyday Millionaires, Chris Hogan and his resource team surveyed over 10,000 US millionaires. They discovered that only 15% of millionaires are in senior leadership positions, and only 7% are C-suite executives. Furthermore, Chris and his team learned that the top three occupations of the over 10,000 millionaires surveyed were engineer, accountant, and teacher – in that order. This is reassuring news for those of us who put in the time and effort to become engineers and now continue to put forth the effort to stay current with all of the latest technological advances, new compliance requirements, latest and greatest test practices, etc. How awesome is it that the occupation we have chosen is the number one occupation to have in order to make it to millionaire status?
This is all great information for those of us who elected to become engineers and stay engineers, however this article is not about making money, obtaining financial freedom, and retiring rich. It’s about what we should and could do now as practicing professional engineers, to lead when we’re not the ones in charge.
There is a misconception that we need to have been christened by some higher authority before we’re “allowed” to lead. This misconception is far from the truth. In reality, we can and should take the lead, even if not given the title. The organizations we are working for are counting on us to lead. Although leading without authority is more difficult than leading with authority, we don’t need to be the ones wielding the gun of authority to fix the problems we encounter in our day-to-day compliance engineering lives. In fact, the leaders who rely solely on their authority to lead, quickly find themselves positioned as ineffective leaders.
Here are some examples of what can be done to be an effective leader when we’re not the one in charge:
Look for ways to focus on our own area of concern and make it great.
This could mean finding better ways to obtain certifications faster and less costly, keeping track of test results and compliance certifications more effectively, knowing everything about our job, and knowing the standards we’re responsible for, etc. We may not be in charge of an entire organization or department, but we are in charge of ourselves and our area of expertise.
Employ extreme ownership and reject passivity to make great what we can and should make great.
When mistakes occur, admit them, take ownership and develop a plan to overcome them. We often have a tendency to blame the other person for our problems and not do anything because it’s the other person’s responsibility. This way of thinking doesn’t end up solving the problem and this means that it will probably get repeated again and again, throughout our professional lives. When things go awry and are not going the way they should, first step back and take a close look at the person the mirror. This is the person who is responsible for solving the problem and making things better going forward.
Control our egos and operate with a high degree of humility.
Having a strong ego limits our ability to take good advice and accept constructive criticism. This will limit our ability to improve and grow as engineers.
Influence matters! Practice leading through influence – it’s the key to leading effectively.
Here is an example of practicing leading through influence: Speaking up and contributing during project planning meetings instead of sitting on the sidelines. By speaking up and contributing our expertise we are letting the rest of the team know what is expected from us, them, and the best way we as a team can help accomplish the mission from a compliance standpoint. Along these same lines…
Believe in the assignment, project or mission.
If we don’t understand or believe in the operation we’ve been tasked with, it will be difficult for us to convince and inspire others to follow us and accomplish the mission. Leaders must identify a clear direction for the team. If we don’t believe in the mission, it’s our responsibility to figure out why.
Practice the art of simplification.
Albert Einstein is noted for saying “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Complexity compounds problems that can quickly spread out of control and get messy. An example of added complexity that often occurs in the field of compliance engineering is when we try to meet every single standard listed under the sun, usually in an effort to fulfill some unwritten and unproven marketing need. Most often the standards we’ve chosen are conflicting and we have to run several different tests to show due diligence in complying with the conflicting requirements. As the number of tests increases, so does the time and cost required to perform them (as well as our chances of failing them). Later, if design changes are made, we must then determine which tests have to be repeated, justify our reasoning for their selection, and how they prove the changes we made are still in compliance with all conflicting requirements. We must keep track of our decision of which test to run or not run. A simpler way would be to select the one standard which is the most severe and only test to that one.
Good leaders think critically, and are not critical of those around them, their circumstances, and their mission.
Understand how our role fits into the big picture and the positive impact it has on the organization we work for.
Support the persons over us and model followership.
Avoid any public displays of discontent and disagreement with those above us. This one action can severely undermine the authority of leaders at all levels, including our own. If we don’t understand why an unpopular decision was made, then it’s up to us to figure out why. Even if we don’t agree with a plan, we do so privately. We must still execute it as if it were our own. Good leaders must first be good followers and to build trust, they must practice faithfulness and followership. Choosing to trust our leader builds trust with our leader.
Support the persons under us, and at the same level as us.
Practice teamwork. In order to stay competitive, our organizations count on us to practice teamwork and to mutually support one another to accomplish our shared goals, no matter what level in the chain of command we are positioned at.
References and Further Reading
- Hogan, C., Everyday Millionaires, Lampo Licensing, LLC, 2019.
- Scroggins, C., How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge, Zondervan/HarperCollins Publishers, 2017.
- Willink, J. & Babin, L., Extreme Ownership – How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win, Martin’s Press, 2017