My father spent 25 years in Industrial Relations, back when it meant negotiating with unions for contracts that spanned many plants across the country. One benefit of this for me growing up was that I got a chance to see how the business world worked. Another was that I got to meet a whole passel of pilots, astronauts and assorted engineers as they came through on business tours. Dad figured out pretty early that instead of taking them out to dinner at a nice restaurant (on a trip undoubtedly full of nice restaurants), he would offer them the choice of coming home with him to a home cooked meal (with me in attendance). It was, a great way to grow up during the space program, and one of the many ways that my father was truly the best father a boy could ever have.

Another interesting part of growing up was that I continually heard how horrible engineers were as managers. The other side of it was that professional managers could rarely get engineers all headed in the same direction (the phrase “Herding cats” comes to mind), because they were not really respected by a group of people where your standing was based on your technical and project completion skills. When my choice of careers became obvious to me (in the second grade, after my first Tom Swift book), I resolved to do better than my average compatriot.

I succeeded, but to a great extent because it was a pretty low bar. My average compatriot had little or no idea how to run a crew, shop or plant. It wasn’t part of their schooling, and honestly, most engineers are a bit introverted to start with. I, at least, had the benefit of 20 years of my father’s work environment. Even then, I found working with folks who were a lot older, and with a lot more experience, rough. Most of those problems went away as I got older, but as far as mentors went, most of my superiors were worse at managing than I was, in some cases, horribly worse.

The final straw came when at the staff level, I was tapped as a plant manager. I wanted to be a plant manager about as much as I wanted open heart surgery without anesthetic, so I took that as a sign from the universe as it was time to get out of the business world and into running my own company.

My point is, most engineers don’t like the idea of being managers, don’t want to be managers (no matter what the pay) and will, therefore do a lousy job at it. The ones who do well at it, often are sneered at by their compatriots as folks who couldn’t make it as an actual engineer. Finding an engineer who can manage well, and has the respect of his peers is like the guy with the beard and the lantern looking for an honest man. Most companies make do with what they find and wonder why things blow up after awhile. I don’t know all the answers, but I do know if I had a pretty good engineer who could also manage, it would be worth a bit of training. Send him to some week long classes on management theory and such. It’s a situation where just trying to hire the right candidate probably isn’t going to help, you need to build him on your own. You will probably loose him after the training (or within a few years) because HR will not keep up on salary, but that is a whole ‘nuther issue…