Designing for leadership

August 2007 » Business
Nine components of a leadership development program for engineering firms.
John Doehring

Important components of a leadership development and succession program

Lately, I’ve been discussing leadership development with engineering firm leaders more than perhaps any other subject. It’s clearly a priority in these firms and an increasingly systemic issue across engineering organizations both large and small. In fact, leadership transition and succession may be the overarching issue in the firm today, as existing leaders and owners think seriously about their own changing roles, and about creating and enhancing the legacy value of their companies.

However, in contrast to strategic business planning, where many share a similar understanding of the process and its basic scope, in leadership development I find a much wider range of understanding, perceptions, definitions, and expectations. One principal is thinking primarily about training, another about assessment and feedback for key staff, still another about ownership models or incentive compensation. (Each of these is important and may be distinct components of a comprehensive leadership development program.) Additional clarity might be helpful—better defining what we mean, and what is and what should be included in the firm’s leadership development program. Following are the major components of a program.

Future vision—Successful engineering firms realize the importance of a clearly articulated and understood vision for the firm—where the company is headed. Additionally, today’s firm leaders must clearly articulate what they’re specifically after in leadership and what the leadership team of tomorrow will likely look like. As in all visioning, it’s important to be not only bold and optimistic, but also action oriented—tangible and prescriptive. Those envisioning leadership at the firm should focus less on ambiguous concepts, such as building a "premier leadership team," and more on measurable metrics (for example, numbers of individuals involved with certain backgrounds, expertise, and role expectations).

Strategic planning—Much engineering firm success begins with strategic planning, which is simply the verbal articulation of leadership within the organization. This plan should be completed early on, with implementation in place and in progress. Additionally, the firm should establish and commit to an ongoing planning process to ensure that early wins are fully enjoyed and that additional success becomes an ongoing part of leadership development. Frankly, strategic planning should be a central role of every engineering firm leader, including the aspiring leaders of tomorrow. This is simply one of the best venues for developing bold leaders with both future vision and the right focus on execution and actionable success.

Leadership profile—Many engineering companies become trapped in thinking that transition is about finding one leader to succeed the current president. This often leads to a conclusion like, "I don’t know what to do; I just don’t see any of these folks doing what I do." Successful transition planning should be broader than that, separating the question of what must be done by the new leader(s) from the question of who will do it. It’s quite likely that the leader(s) of tomorrow will do it differently. That’s OK, and maybe even desirable.

Owners must also think more dispassionately about their choices, as it is evident in many organizations that this focus on what needs to get done results in understanding that no one in the firm today can meet the requirements. Again, this is desirable, if it results in the company taking action to address the issue positively. The firm should thus clearly articulate a model or profile of the desired leader or leaders. What background, experiences, expertise, and other attributes will he or she possess? What values and value systems does the firm consider to be non-negotiable "must haves?" Which others are desirable and important? What leadership styles are needed in the firm, fitting in best with the organizational structure and culture?

Organizational assessment—Against the profiled leadership model, the next question is how today’s leaders and those identified possible successors stack up? What or who is obviously missing from the future team? How should the company go about addressing identified obstacles or shortcomings (training, developmental experiences, additional candidates)? This organizational assessment is conducted using a variety of tools, such as annual performance reviews, mentoring program notes and plans, personality assessment profiles (for instance the Myers Briggs type indicator), internal organization peer reviews, client perception surveys, and upward feedback processes.

A common terminology, "360-degree feedback" simply refers to gathering feedback from multiple parties and from multiple directions (not just from the top down). The nature of this multiple-source feedback is to balance out the story, relying less on any one party’s perceptions. This approach also explicitly acknowledges that the effective leader is generally one who is immersed in multiple stakeholder relationships both within and outside of the firm.

Training programs—Many engineering companies have frankly been too slow to embrace formal training as a part of professional development. The many reasons (or excuses) cited for this include a past history of successful development "on the job;" reluctance to add to overhead, with additional un-billable time investment; skepticism of the value, often because a poor history with classroom-based training; and other priorities in the firm, including being "too busy" with client work. All of these are real and understood, yet one need only look at what the AEC industry’s "Best Firms to Work For" are doing in this area, or indeed, what other highly successful companies beyond the industry have accomplished through training to sense the real opportunity.

Moreover, though technical, disciplined-based continuing education is and will continue to be important, this is not the area requiring the most attention. Today’s more progressive management and leadership training programs are pushing well beyond technical subjects into advanced project management; basic business development; and the fundamentals of supervision, management, and leadership competencies. So called "soft skills’" such as communication, team building, coaching others, delegating responsibility, and managing firm resources are likely to be the big areas of payoff in the firm.

Mentoring processes—Mentoring is not only a simple concept (really just the idea that more junior staff can learn from the more experienced and wiser veterans) but also the way that many current engineering firm leaders learned the ropes themselves. And yet in today’s world, with less resources and less people doing more work, this basic idea of knowledge sharing and individual partnering has become less and less available. The need is still there, and companies can achieve a great deal of success in this area without a substantial amount of structure (in fact, overt structure often seems to sink the mentoring effort, particularly in its nascent stage). And despite the popularity today in highlighting the role of the junior "mentee" (I prefer protégé) in aggressively pursuing these relationships, it’s the senior and experienced staff in the firm who can really create a successful mentoring process, one that is embedded deeply in the firm’s culture.

Development experiences—Much of the inherent challenge of leadership development in engineering results from how staffing is done: building the team primarily to staff the project and get the work done, rather than to lead the organization over the long term. If one could step back and consider the types of experiences that make for successful leaders, the firm might then approach the issue differently. In my own early career (at a big Fortune Five firm), I experienced a much more tangible sense of this development focus. In that company, one’s career path—jobs, roles, and experiences—involved a progression designed not only to build technical competencies and capabilities, but also to separate out and identify those with managerial and leadership potential. Engineering firms should do the same, constructing career experiences for staff that support execution of the firm’s core projects while also supporting a broader range of projects, people, and initiatives within the firm. The company can build this plan in two ways, including a more explicit developmental model for each job type or family within the firm, as well as a documented career development plan for each individual.

Succession plan—Beyond plans for individual positions, roles, or employees, the firm should create a more global succession plan for the entire organization from the top down. Even experiencing this process once can be a most valuable, and eye-opening exercise (through this the average firm realizes just how thin its development ranks are). But note that a robust succession plan is much more than simply identifying the likely successor for the CEO, since there are usually a number of critical roles and potential transitions within the firm. Moreover, because the eventual picture often turns out differently than expected, another crucial element of success is depth in the potential candidates and possible choices. Having options almost always leads to better outcomes, for individuals and for the company.

Ongoing effort—Finally, it should be affirmed that successful leadership development and succession planning must by nature be organic, fluid, and flexible. Like all other planning in the firm, it’s really a process rather than an event. It takes time to get it right in the company. In fact, success in this area is really best measured over meaningful time, rather than simply at one point in time. So the firm’s senior leaders should have a Plan B (and perhaps a C or D as well) and be prepared to take a step or two backwards, or change tact as necessary at any point along the journey.

Sustainable improvement
Leaders should avoid the temptation in management of the business to "over-engineer" a solution. An engineer’s daily project work is often quite complex, and we assume firm management is likewise so. I think this instinct is wrong. Complex client solutions demand superb performance, highest quality, and ongoing dependability. They must work as advertised (if the bridge falls into the river, it’s a bad day). In managing the firm, however, our solution need not be complex; it’s just often difficult to implement, largely because plans deal with perceived "softer" subjects and don’t receive the same level of attention and management rigor. Adding to this, managing the firm involves human beings, who don’t always respond appropriately or as predicted by the physical models.

The goal in managing the firm should be continuous improvement—moving forward in the right direction. One doesn’t have to (and can’t afford to) be perfect; perhaps a 70-percent solution is fine for today and this year. A commitment to sustainable improvement will lead to ever increasing success in management systems and processes. (If the firm’s mentoring system falls into the river, you can fish it out and try again.)

Leadership development is a key issue in virtually every firm today, and thus is a crucial issue in the future health of the engineering profession. Firm leaders who move forward boldly and with courage toward finding, developing, and promoting the engineering leaders of tomorrow will most definitely be rewarded with higher quality staff, clients, and projects, as well as higher quality success in their companies.

John Doehring is principal and managing director of ZweigWhite’s business planning and marketing consulting group. He can be contacted at

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