Top 3 Skills for Successful Engineers
Updated: Feb 8
I originally published this piece on Medium.
It’s more than technical ability alone.
When you first start out in the civil engineering field, your focus is completely on building your technical knowledge. And so it should be. However, if you want to progress in your career, you’ll need to develop other skills. (Looking for ICE Professional Review Report help, or advice about how to pass the ICE review? See here and here instead.)
Why is technical ability not enough? I’ve often heard colleagues speaking about the technically-strong engineers with an almost reverent tone, and a healthy dose of (well-deserved) respect. However, when they make the transition to management, things become far more stressful.
This is because engineering companies are not run by engineers. You may have (or aspire to) more post-nominals than the length of your name, but the fact is: engineers are not the top of the hierarchy where you work. Nor will that change any time soon.
If you want to stay as an engineer for the whole of your career, that’s great. We need good engineers, and we need them to teach the next generation. If that’s your strength and where you’re happiest, please consider sharing your knowledge either by taking the less-experienced technicians and engineers under your wing, or inspiring students as a STEM Ambassador.
However, if you want to progress beyond the inevitable ceiling that you will eventually hit, you need to develop in other areas. There are a whole range of skills that contribute to a successful career, but these three areas can help you make that leap as easily as possible.
Develop People Management Skills
You should already have a good grounding in working in a team, because as we know, no project is ever done by just one person. Try to extend that to learning how to motivate and influence others.
To progress beyond engineering, you’ll need to learn how to get others to commit to a goal — and deliver. To do this, you’ll need to assemble the right team, get their buy-in, assign tasks based on each individual’s strengths, and manage them in a way that they respond to — all while allowing everyone a chance to develop their skills and keeping everyone motivated and focussed on the project goals.
On paper, it sounds easy, but it’s truly not.
People management is one of the hardest things to do, and there isn’t a guide you can follow to get the best results — or even the same results — every time. Every person is different, with different strengths, goals, and motivating factors, so you will often have to adapt your style to suit your team members.
Think about how you like to be managed and try to identify others who respond well to this style. Also, take note of how other managers in your organisation get things done. Is it effective, or not? Why? You can learn something even from poor management techniques — learning what doesn’t work may save you some trouble in the future.
Learn the Commercial and Financial Side of The Business
Another key skill to learn is what the difference is between the commercial and financial teams. If you don’t work in that area, it is easy to lump everything into “commercial” and forget about it until you need to chase a payment.
Generally speaking, ‘commercial’ refers to the contractual and legal side of the business — so the contract your project works to, sub-contractor terms, etc. ‘Financial’, on the other hand, are the accountants who deal with the money and payments. There is of course some cross over between the two, but this will help you distinguish who has responsibility for what.
Showing an interest in the contractual terms that you are working to, or how project costs are built up, is a good indication to your manager that you have the potential to develop beyond design work.
Learn to Communicate Well
Traditionally, us technically-minded folk are not the best communicators, particularly in written works. Whilst this isn’t true for everyone, poorly written reports, specifications, and forms can give a poor impression that is probably not a true reflection of the author’s skills.
Why does this matter? Engineers do the work, but they don’t win the work – bid writers do. Good communicators write winning award submissions for their company or write and deliver compelling presentations and case studies that generate client interest. An engineer who can write well makes their company look and sound professional, with the added benefit of knowing what they are writing about thanks to their practical experience.
This is where you can truly stand out from your colleagues. Re-take your GCSE English course, get a tutor, do an online tutorial with Lynda.com, or practise your presentation skills in front of a mirror. Even becoming an avid reader will help you develop your sentence structure and vocabulary. Whatever works for you, but practise, and it will soon show in your work.
While there are a whole range of skills that you’ll need to develop to progress your career beyond design, these three are probably the most important. Even if you choose to focus on just one of these areas, you will already be ahead of most of your colleagues.
About the Author
Hi, I’m Tanya – a Chartered Civil Engineer now working as an engineering and construction copywriter. Having established and run professional development groups as well as acting as both a Delegated Engineer (DE) and Supervising Civil Engineer (SCE) for engineers looking to get professionally qualified, I’m keen on sharing knowledge and helping others achieve their goals. You can find all my professional development posts on my blog.
I currently do not offer one-to-one mentoring due to my work commitments. However, if you’re looking for a mentor to help with your Initial Professional Development (IPD) or career goals, take a look at the ICE Mentoring website where you can find a professional member who can give you advice and guidance.