This is Part IV of a six-part series about leadership for engineers preparing for their first professional leadership role.
You learn that you’ve been selected to take on a leadership position within your firm. While the extra salary and corner office are what you’ve sought, you feel a little tight in the chest when you think about the responsibilities you’ll be taking on. Until now you’ve been responsible for yourself, your work and being a team player. Starting next Monday you’re going to be responsible for a branch of six engineers, three technicians and an administrative assistant, their work, their mistakes, and building the team.
Where to begin?
Every engineer-leader has found themselves in some form of the above situation on their journey from engineer-employee to engineer-leader. When you break the barrier between self-responsibility and team responsibility it’s only natural to feel some anxiety. I certainly did when I assumed leadership of a 250-person public works organization. Not only was it my first major leadership role, but I also had a language barrier to overcome since over seventy percent of my workforce was German. Then add 9/11 to the mix, a new child, and working on my master’s degree. Stress? I could cut it with a knife and chew on it.
Rest and Relaxation: The Power of Pausing
I learned very quickly the need to relax. I don’t mean kick-back and watch the world flow by, but relax in my need to do everything, be everything, and accomplish everything. Tied very closely to delegation, effective engineer-leaders know how to relax in order to get the job accomplished.
The military calls it rest and relaxation: R&R. Soldiers take R&R when on deployment in order to decompress and step away from the 24/7 full-on environment. If anyone spends too long in a chaotic, dynamic and non-stop environment, they will run out of energy and start making mistakes.
What I learned about rest and relaxation from my first major leadership role is this:
Rely on the team that’s been in place. Most often a first-time engineer-leader is promoted into a leadership role that already exists. This means that there’s already a team in place, one that has written/unwritten rules that guide workflow, responsibilities, and the norms of getting along to get the job done. Once I figured out what these teams were, I leveraged them to accomplish the organizational goals. To try to do all this myself would have been impossible and to build new teams counterproductive. Use what you have at hand to the utmost to get your time back.
Focus on health like a laser. The fact is, no one else is going to hold you accountable for your health. Even in the military, where I spent two decades, although physical fitness regulations exist and each member have physical standards to uphold, there are still those who elect not to achieve them. When you’re stepping into a leadership role for the first time you absolutely must protect the most important asset you have: your health. This means a diet that gives you energy, not saps it away; drinking plenty of water; getting sleep even when you think an all-nighter will solve your task load problem; and the big one – doing physical fitness.
Schedule time for family. That’s right, schedule it. I schedule Friday and Saturday nights for my family and look to block Saturday and Sunday for personal or family activities. This developed because of my experiences in that first major leadership role with so many competing commitments. By scheduling time with my family, for my masters, and for weekend’s away; I knew when I would have down time. This actually helped me maintain focus on the work I needed to do, which kept me focused on end results.
If you have a family, you absolutely must schedule time for them. Professionals who are truly dedicated to their work can develop all types of excuses for why they work so much. But they’re worthless.
It can be painful to purposefully step away from work. But it has to be done, period. I had a powerful piece of wisdom given to me by a mentor once: when it’s all said and done, anyone can do your job, but only you can be the father to your children and husband to your wife.
I couldn’t argue with that and haven’t since.
Put processes in place to allow you to disengage. It’s been said that an effective leader is the one who can go away for a month and their organization doesn’t miss a beat. I didn’t have access to this concept back in my first major leadership foray, but I did figure out that processes would help me to disengage from a constant focus on work.
Being a public works department we had 24/7 responsibilities and it wasn’t uncommon to get calls in the middle-of-the-night two to three times a week. Those calls would come to me to keep the boss informed. Information is good, but when it isn’t critical, it means I don’t get sleep. So I instituted a ‘duty-officer’ roster and my senior managers shared the responsibility for being on-call during the night. Along with the duty roster was a set of criteria for what issues needed to be transmitted to me immediately, regardless the time. The process not only allowed me to disengage because I knew I had qualified people still minding the store, it also gave the managers on-call increased responsibility and a stake in our organization’s success. A win-win.
As a leader you don’t have to be on-point 24/7/365. In fact, if you do attempt this you’ll burn out and crash. While you will have episodes where you’ll have to be all-in, most often you have the opportunity to relax through the implementation of processes, procedures, and forcing yourself to look after yourself and your family. Leadership is a long-game activity, treat it that way.
“To lead people, walk behind them.” Lao Tzu
We would love to hear any questions you might have or stories you might share on why rest and relaxation are vital for a successful engineering career.
Please leave your comments, feedback or questions in the section below.
To your success,
Christian Knutson, PE, PMP
Engineering Management Institute