Six Essential Traits of Effective Managers

February 22, 2014

This look at the management/leadership career track builds on last week’s post. Frequent contributor Rachel Cantor Fogarty explores the traits of successful managers and identifies ways that engineers can prepare themselves for future roles.

(R. Cantor Fogarty, February 22, 2014) I often get asked by YPs how do I become a manager/leader in the engineering field? In an attempt to answer this question to all the aspiring engineering leaders out there, I thought we could spend a few minutes examining this topic further.

Unlike many of the career paths for engineers, this track is only destined for a small minority. I’m sure many of you have heard of “the Peter Principal” – that one is only promoted to one’s highest level of incompetence. In other words, a person is promoted because they are good at their current job, until they are no longer good at their job and stop getting promoted. This seems to happen all too often in the engineering field.  Good technical engineers are promoted into management or leadership roles only to find that they prefer doing the technical work and are not good at overseeing a large group of people or setting the direction and vision of their firm. So how do you determine early on that a management leadership career path might be right for you one day?  Let’s look at a few common traits of managers/leaders:

  • Strong communication skills – The ability to convey information effectively with people from all backgrounds and technical areas.
  • Business acumen – One who has a penchant towards business and sees the bigger picture.
  • People person – The ability to relate well and be respected and revered by peers and subordinates.
  • Ability to multi-task and handle stress under fire – An individual that comes out calm, cool, and collected in high stress situations.
  • Confident decision maker – One capable of problem solving and exuding clear thought in matters of all levels of importance.
  • Team player – A true leader/manager is one that knows there is no “I’ in teamwork.

Now this list is not all encompassing and only touches upon a few traits that are common for a strong manager and leader. For all of you that are interested in pursuing a track in this direction, start small by first taking on a project as a project manager or managing a part-time employee or intern. As they say “Rome wasn’t built in a day” so taking a small amount of management and leadership experience gradually and building upon that over the course of your career is the best course of action and the best way to learn how to be a successful leader.

Achieving a management and/or leadership position takes career-long training to foster and mentor an individual towards success in such a role.

What can you do to prepare yourself for a management/leadership position?

  • Take a business class. Many leaders and managers have a strong foundation in business, strategic planning, financials and people management skills. You may also consider continuing on to get your MBA.
  • Ask a mentor or an established leader to take you under their wing and train and guide you towards this path. Many of the best leaders have learned from on the job training and have been groomed over the years on the job to become a successful leader.
  • Observe and take a lot of notes from the leaders that you admire. As the saying goes “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and in this case the imitation of the traits and skills of a well respected leader can be a valuable training tool for someone wanting to learn about leadership.
  • In some companies, employees are offered a management or leadership training program. Seek out programs like this and volunteer for as many activities, promotions, or projects as you can to help you to gain experience in this area.

For all of you aspiring managers and leaders out there, your journey towards one day running your own business or serving as the Executive Vice President has just begun. Enjoy the journey as one day down the road you will look back at your career path and know that the small steps you took along the way are what set you up for success.

Rachel Cantor Fogarty is President of RC Associates, an engineering recruiting firm, which provides retained recruiting services to growing engineering companies nationwide. For more information visit or contact Rachel at or 813-286-2075.

  • Very nicely done article! There are so many different talents and capabilities that an effective manager has to combine. If you are interested in construction, check out our infographic about the role of a construction manager:

  • A later blog counsels against multitasking. So the question is whether multitasking is a necessary trait of an effective manager?

  • Avatar Brandie Miklus, AICP

    What a wonderful article, Rachel. Thank you for sharing this with me! Some of the key suggestions I took from this is to look into taking a business class as well as a management or leadership training program, and of course, finding a mentor (I have quite a few that I work with so I’m fortunate in that arena!) as well as an established leader, most likely someone outside of my company that is someone I can check-in with. And I completely agree about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, it’s the easiest way to find the areas you excel in as well as where you want to improve!

    Thanks again!

  • Great article, Rachel!

  • Avatar Madhusudan Joshi

    Nice article.

  • After many years in State Government in the Engineering supervision field I have moved to the dark side (Design Management). My company has allowed me the wide area of claims and law suit avoidance and maintains a confidence that we can design to perfection and still have a situation which slips past even the best. When these issue hit the streets with Contractors who have to construct what we design it gets changed to a death blow to the schedule or a monumental cost extra or if your lucky a small meeting with some corrective advice. In Construction and Design it is far better to know how to fix the problem than call the Lawyer. Construction and Design Management must have a knowledgeable, calm and known entity representing the firm in dealing with the Owners and the Contractors. Respect is earned not credentialed and nothing succeeds better that fixing the problem so that the cost and delay is something that is never burdensome. It mostly the big picture and some real ability to get to the problem without drama and solve it with as much buy in by all parties can bring to the table.

  • Avatar Douglas McCall, PE

    Excellent article and well written – I agree with it on many levels. So to add a little – yes, being a real good technical engineer and being a “people person” or manager is somewhat at the opposite ends of the continuum in many aspects. If you are trained to solve problems which involves focusing on the facts of the problems first; is this not the opposed to what a “people person” or even an entrepreneur does who may look at the positive first? An entrepreneur’s focus is on the positive possibilities that minimizes the risks. An engineer focuses on the problems (risks) to solve them. There are many, many examples we can talk about here. A real good technical engineer does not spend much, if any, time thinking on people’s “feelings” or spirit / soul motivation which can be essential to management. That engineer is about facts of the problems to solve and that can get negative and not be very motivating in a group. Also, engineers have many college years of very in-depth study of math and science, an engineer naturally tends towards details and can jump into those details and miss the big picture. But, this can be natural after all those years of engineering study. This again works opposite to being a manager or big picture person. Essentially, running my own business and being able to tend toward the leadership you talk about, I had to “train” out of me the really in-depth technical knowledge powerhouse I was trained in engineering college to be able to be more successful in the “real” world – meaning, I use way less of my engineering study knowledge and way more leadership … and, consequently, I make way more money. When I did the technical calculations and heavy calculation work, the world did not pay me much for that. But, then again, the world pays millions of dollars to athletes we watch on TV and not much to teachers, police, people solving cancer, etc. … who said the world was fair and salary and indication of human excellence. Being an engineer manager / leader / big picture entrepreneur – a lot like mixing oil and water. You might have to train out of you all in-depth highly technical carnal knowledge and train into you management skills – because, I find, if you don’t use it (the engineer math and science knowledge) … you lose it.

  • Terrific article, Rachel. Thanks for sending me the URL.

    I hope all is going well with you and that we continue to see you at FSITE Meetings.


  • Hello Rachel, Great article, thanks for sharing it.

  • Avatar Engr.Sadiku,Fatai.Adenola C.Eng,M.ASCE.

    Management is not only confined to theory,it’s a function of practice and experience. Engr.F.A Sadiku,C.Eng,M.ASCE.

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