This is Part II of a six-part series about leadership for engineers preparing for their first professional leadership role.
It was the first day as project manager and Ed was sweating the moment he got into his car for the fifteen-minute drive to the office. This wasn’t just any sweat. It was the sweat that comes from fear. Ed figured that he had a lot be fearful about. Selected a month earlier to fill the role as project manager for his first major construction project, he had spent the intervening time with his head buried in the project specifics: the expected technical challenges, special design considerations, the schedule and resource plans.
Then a week ago his mentor and champion, Cindy, asked him how it was going with his team. Had it been assembled? Had he met with them? What did he know about them? What strengths and challenges did he foresee with the members? All good questions, except Ed lacked answers. Sure, the team had been assembled and he’d met with them. But his focus had been entirely on the project’s technical aspects. He hadn’t a clue about their strengths or the challenges that might arise. Although he knew their names and what expertise they were bringing to the team, he had no idea about who they were. Besides, was that really necessary? He was being paid to get a project designed and built, not hold hands.
Yet for some reason, Ed’s anxiety level was increasing the closer he got to the office. Although he thought he had a good grip on the project, he seriously questioned whether he really did after his talk Cindy last week. This morning he was bringing his team together in an attempt to get them more involved in the project as the start date approached and to get to know them personally. But he was stressing big time about this. Were his efforts too little and too late? Worse, would the team see his efforts as genuine? What if they figured out that he was scared about delivering success on his first run as a project manager?
Confidence Begins With Courage
Confidence and experience are battle buddies in the leadership business. As your experience grows, your confidence builds in strength and as your confidence expands, your openness for experiencing new things increases. This isn’t necessarily a linear relationship, but it is certainly one that’s co-joined. When starting with no experience, however, it’s completely understandable that confidence levels will be low as well.
I certainly felt this linkage between experience and confidence when I took my first project leadership position. The technical aspects of engineering were taught to me in a structured fashion, complete with a feedback loop to tell me objectively that I was getting it right or wrong, and what to change. When I stepped into my first project management role, however, the feedback was structured and it wasn’t necessarily objective. Each time we enter into the void that is our lack of experience, we can expect to feel a twinge of fear, a dip in our confidence.
In the story above, Ed’s in this gap because of his lack of experience in team leadership. The discussion with his mentor opened his eyes to a blind spot: he needs to build teamwork and empower others to accomplish project tasks. Despite the discomfort he’s feeling because of this realization and his lagging confidence, he has the opportunity to turn this experience into a success with courage.
Courage isn’t just reserved for the battlefield. It’s for each of us to use when we must act despite our fear. In every leadership role, mistakes will be made and our confidence may wane. When our confidence drops we become fearful and when we become fearful, we can make mistakes. A self-fulfilling cycle of despair…not good.
Ed needs a dose of courage to bridge the gap between his experience and confidence. He needs the courage to admit he focused too much on the technical aspects and hardly any on the people aspects of the project. He needs the courage to act and turn the project team into a cohesive group of individuals, each rowing in the same direction. To do this, he will need to summon the courage to admit to them that he made a mistake in not bringing them together as a team. He will also have to admit to them that he lacked the experience and the confidence to delegate to them.
Leading when you lack confidence takes courage: the courage to let others share in the efforts, to let others make mistakes, and the courage to act in the best interests of your team. When you enter your first professional leadership position everyone knows this. Have the courage to accept this fact and then use the four skills covered in Part I to build your experience so you can increase your confidence in a continuous cycle of leadership success.
“I believe the process of going from confusion to understanding is a precious, even emotional, experience that can be the foundation of self-confidence.”
~ Brian Greene
We would love to hear any questions you might have or stories you might share on relying on courage to bridge the experience gap.
Please leave your comments, feedback or questions in the section below.
To your success,
Christian Knutson, PE, PMP
Engineering Management Institute