Do you want to be a leader? Almost everyone who starts in our Master in Engineering Management program wants a position in leadership. They are usually seeking leadership in their current company, but many are looking to other companies. Most are eyeing an entrepreneurial venture as the ultimate leadership gig. Yes, everyone is looking to go somewhere involving leadership. But, I think it is fair to ask – do you really want to lead?
Leadership is Not Easier – Just Different
I am not sure why we are attracted to leadership. Is it power? It is having some control of the direction (a wake-up call on that later in this post) or is it just about more money. Perhaps we think the work is more glamorous or even easier. After all, a leader has others doing the work. Right?
While leadership has lots of benefits, it is not easier. It is just a different kind of work. Most who come from an engineering or technology expert role find leadership much more frustrating. Instead of dealing with systems and designs and implementations, they find themselves working with the most complex systems in the world – people. Hope you are looking for a technology challenge!
As I said last week in the article about the need for soft skills, being able to deal with people and enjoy doing it will help you be effective. It will also help you avoid the line to the Prozac counter. In leadership, we move from doing our job, things we controlled, to a much more complex system that is difficult to control.
Early in my career, my vision of work had me working with and controlling complex electrical or electronic systems that I could understand with great clarity and then work to solve problems. But, the work I ended up doing was leading – and boy – was that a complex system.
My first job out of college was a leadership position. I was leading 8-22 people (the way our teams were set-up) and working with and serving many other teams. And, just to make it more interesting, every person was old enough to be my parent – or in some cases grandparent. And – most were women. What a wake-up call.
Frustrating did not even begin to describe the challenges. I yearned to get into the more technical stuff in the company (which we had plenty of) but my days were spent being a leader. Or, perhaps the better term was a mental help professional. I spent hours breaking up arguments between two female coworkers, dealing with crying and yelling fits and trying to calm the daily drama. All my years that I had to overhear soap operas on TV was coming in handy. I was quickly needing mental health help myself. I liked the people – most of them – but could we all just get along?
The truth is, looking back, I had nothing to do. The team was set up so that they did all the work, and I just “managed”. But, the leadership/management was hard work- and very frustrating.
If you think my situation was unique – dream on. I have talked to leaders in all kinds of companies. Some lead highly educated professionals, some lead first-line workers. All will tell you that dealing with children is easier. As one friend, who is a Chief of Staff at a hospital told me, “At least I can spank my kids.”
So as you look at leadership – understand that it is a very different role. Even small changes in leadership responsibilities can be a big change in your work life. You can handle it if you want with a new (and growing) knowledge of soft skills – but do you want it? Some love it – some hate it.
Leadership in Your Current Company – Moving Up
Most people seem to want to move up in leadership in their current company. Sounds easy enough – you already know a lot about the company. But, each company has their own culture. Before you decide you want to move up the food chain in yours, make sure you know what leadership looks like. What is a leaders life like?
Recently, a friend of mine was seeking VP positions in his company. He is a great leader – awesome on the soft skills. But, as he was seeking the new position, his VP wisely said to him, “Are you sure you want this? Look at us, we all wear suits and ties every day without exception – you hate that. Then we go to meetings all day, and you are a guy who manages to cut meetings short. That will not happen here. “
Wise advise. To have some idea of what leadership looks like – look at how your current leaders spend their days. How do they dress? Are they happy? Do you want that?
When I worked for BellSouth, (now AT&T), I saw a lot of people who were union (first line workers) want to move into management. They would go through training, and when a position opened – some would get those management roles. They would trade in their tools for a clipboard.
While some prospered, most asked for their old job back. We would say “John has asked for his tools back.” They would discover that their old non-leadership job had less frustration and often – because of overtime, more money. When they moved back out of leadership – they would have these massive smiles on their face.
So, before you start down this path, ask questions of those other leaders and get an understanding of what their life is like. You may love it, you may hate it – but see clearly where you are trying to go. Not all companies will let you take your tools back.
Leadership in Another Company
But, what if you are looking for another company. The same issues are true, but it can be harder to see inside to learn how a leader lives. Look carefully at how the company operates. Get in touch with leaders at a level or two above where you are in the company (check out my post on using LinkedIn to find the right people). Take them to lunch or coffee and ask a lot of common sense questions about their day to day life on the job. Being informed will help you make a better decision. Making these connections is also a great way to open doors to opportunity and get offers.
Every company is different, and even inside companies the leadership teams often operate differently. So, do not set your sights on just one person or team inside the company, talk to a few and learn all you can.
I have spent a lot of time with corporate leadership. With some, they are excited and motivated and talk about their role with the company and their vision with great delight. They love what they do. Others hardly talk about their company or what they do. You can tell they hate their job. Some just complain about their job. It is not rocket science to figure out the culture of leadership. Find out before you leap.
Leadership Does Not Mean Being in Charge
I have often heard people say they want to be in leadership because they want to have more influence. I get that – it sounds noble and all – but it is not always reality.
One of my greatest lessons in leadership came very early in my career. I was to pick up one of our top executives at the airport to bring him to a meeting. Instead of going to the main airport terminal, I was directed to where the private jets came in. Wow – I thought – he is really important. Why was I picking him up? But, once I met him, I realized I was picking him up (instead of a limo or something else) because he was really pretty down to earth and a nice guy. (Yes – he was great at working with people – those soft skills again.)
On the way to the office, he was telling me that he had started in the company at the bottom climbing poles and doing the actual work. He spoke with great admiration of the company he served (something I did not feel).
“How does it feel after all these years to finally be in a position where you can make things happen?”
He looked over at me and simply said:
“I will let you know if I ever get there.”
Even in his senior position, as an international expert and leader in his field, he felt he had limited control and influence over such as huge company and industry. He was not frustrated about it – but he was aware that his authority and leadership had severe limits. He was a real leader.
Do You want to Be a Leader?
Leadership at its basic core is getting people to work with you to accomplish a mission. You have to LEAD and not TELL. You have to be the one to influence people and motivate them to want to serve a mission bigger than them.
Leadership is a powerful thing, and if done well, you can impact a lot of lives in a positive way – including yours and your families. But, it is a whole new kind of work that will require you to learn new skills and grow on a daily basis.