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Do ‘In-the-Trenches’ Engineering Managers Get More Respect?

Do you know of any engineering project that is overstaffed? Yes. That was a serious question. But I’ll take that as a no nonetheless. In that context, I’ve seen increasingly that engineering managers, even though they have taken on more responsibility in terms of managing a team, are still asked to work as an individual contributor. With regard to that, I ran across a couple posts that made me think.

The Carrot: Is It About Respect and Performance?

The first one I’ll reference is a post over at the HR Capitalist titled Do Managers Who “Do The Work” Get More Respect and Performance From Employees? Read on.

Conventional wisdom says that any manager of people who can do the work they’re asking others to do has a leg up on a manager who can’t. Do you buy that? All things being equal, I think it’s true. If a manager can be active in the type of work going on in his shop to show that he or she is a subject matter expert, I think it’s going to allow them to be a more effective coach. Case in point – Shaka Smart, the 33-year old basketball coach at VCU. VCU had an improbable run to the Final Four this year, and the video clip below is from their public Final Four practice. The drill is the “Ironman”, where each player has to take a charge, dive for a loose ball and then run/jump to save a ball going out of bounds. It’s a drill used to encourage players to provide more hustle, which in the workplace could be called “discretionary effort”. Which is what you want lots of… Here’s the twist. To pump up the players, Smart did the drill for the players. Before the cynic in you comes out with the blades, watch the video and observe the players following Smart around the court as he performs the work. What you observe could easily be catagorized as “engagement”. Doing the work you ask others to do. Not all leaders are in the position to do it, but when you can, it’s certainly an effective leadership tool.

Follow the link above to watch the embedded youtube video over at HR Capitalist. It’s worth your time to get the point. If you’re a college basketball fan, I’m sure VCU’s story will be a familiar one. This coach, Shaka Smart, was one of the most emphatic ones you could watch. And his players certainly are engaged.

Before I start asking questions, I want to juxtapose this carrot position with the stick position.

The Stick: Are Middle Manager Roles Just Going Away?

Now this perspective isn’t so positive. But that doesn’t mean it’s not true. JT Glass is a professor at the Duke Masters in Engineering Management (MEM) program. He wrote up this post titled Become an Expert on his blog. Read on.

There was a very interesting article in HBR (Jan-Feb 2011 issue) titled “The End of the Middle Manager” by Lynda Gratton. It notes that traditional middle manager roles are being automated such that technology is “replacing” the middle manager. Roles and skills based exclusively on monitoring, providing feedback, and generally keeping things running smoothly are increasingly being taken over by technology coupled with self-managed teams. So what’s a middle manager to do? Develop what the author calls “signature” competencies that are rare and valuable. In addition, develop new areas of proficiency or adjacencies throughout your career. Right on!

Jeff puts a cheery face on it, but he and the HBR article are essentially saying that the middle manager role is going away. Disappearing. Becoming extinct. Whichever colorful phrase you want to use. But the overall point is that these middle managers are being forced back into what was probably their prior role: individual contributors.

Conclusions and Questions

Overall, the point is that fewer and fewer managers are being asked to solely concentrate on managing their team and, instead, being asked to act as an individual contributor. The post from the HR Capitalist says it can be great motivation and a way to earn respect. Jeff Glass and HBR essentially say its a fact of life and show value by becoming an expert again.

So today, there’s just a few simple questions. Do you managers also act as individual contributors? And is it motivating or is it actually a negative? Sound off. I’d really like to hear from everyone on this post.

Take care. Talk soon. Thanks for reading.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.

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  • Tom Thomson

    Overstaffed engineering projects – I’ve known too many.  Understaffed, I’ve known far too many (many more than overstaffed).
    Middle managers – ever since I was first employed every competent middle manager I’ve known (and most competent senior managers too) has made a personal technical contribution in his field of expertise.  The idea of a middle manager who does nothing bu manage is a rerrible one.  As a senior manager I’ve dealt with customers, negotiated licenses and prices with suppliers, got my hands dirty crawling around on the floor looking at network problems, and written ad-hoic software tools to help get the job done. 
    I won’t be at all sad to see the “middle manager who does nothing but manage” role disappear completely(I’ just unhappy that it didn’t happen until after I retired) – it strikes me that we would have done better never to have permitted any such role to arise in the first place.

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