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Becoming the Ideal Engineering Manager

Medical Device & Diagnostic Industry
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An MD&DI February 1997 Column


Maximizing management and leadership skills produces engineering managers who can meet today's demand for getting innovative products to market quickly.

I recently heard someone sum up the many contributing factors of a successful design program as "the right people, the right process, and the right tools." Perhaps the list is too simplified, but I believe the order is right. With today's emphasis on tightening the development process, medical device companies should not forget that people are key. Successful device development requires both engineering management skills and leadership skills. However, it is essential to separate the qualities that define engineering management and engineering leadership. In my experience, engineering managers have tended to focus on being good managers. It is equally important to possess leadership skills.

Over the last year, I have had the chance to study about 50 engineering development programs for devices ranging from large in vitro diagnostic systems to handheld surgical instruments. While some teams struggled to make scheduled milestones, others flew along. The engineering managers of the programs that were most successful had the highest combination of strong management and leadership skills.

Strong management skills are necessary for operating within the process and organizational structures of medical device companies. Management consists of the routine tasks of information collecting, reporting, forecasting, coordinating, and simply communicating. Good management skills lead to the funding of a program and so, in a sense, the existence of the engineering team.

Leadership, however, is about setting visions that are inspiring, understandable, and achievable. Leadership also requires the ability to project the contagious enthusiasm that can pull a team through a tough design issue and the frustrations that accompany subsystem integration. It is also effective leadership that supports the creative thinking that leads to truly innovative design solutions. Finally, it is leadership that loudly celebrates the team's meeting a seemingly impossible goal.


Plotting a manager's skills on a two-dimensional grid, with leadership and management abilities measured from 0 to 10 along the axes, provides a view of an individual's strengths. Few engineering managers are equally balanced; few score 10/10. Individuals that achieve high ratings along the management axis usually have the following skills:

  • A finely tuned ability to efficiently meet budgets and timelines. Often these individuals will devise their own spreadsheets and means of quickly collecting information for presentation.

  • A variety of tricks to streamline communications. These include canned presentation formats, fax formats, memo layouts, and so on.

  • Solid communication links to key individuals in each company department. These managers devote a great deal of attention to maintaining a network among those who interface with the project team.

  • A strong sense of strategic communications. These individuals will build support for ideas over a period of time realizing that buy-in at the executive level generally requires planning and persistence.

Some successful programs have managers that show strong management scores but fairly weak leadership scores. Typically, this situation is possible when lead engineers are effective in providing the missing leadership. A far better situation is for the project manager's performance to rate high on the leadership scale. Individuals that exhibit outstanding engineering leadership often have the following characteristics:

  • A sustained take-charge attitude. The best leaders understand that accountability for moving the program to the next milestone belongs to them. Highly experienced people can convey this motivation to everyone from engineers to technicians.

  • The ability to adapt. Leaders are usually highly effective at accomplishing a project by taking into account the skills of the team, the operating situation, and the nature of the product.

  • An innate ability to compromise. Development managers realize that the most important mandate is to maintain development momentum with an eye always on making a safe, marketable product. Products that reach the market are the result of compromises. This places the engineering manager in the decision-making position of saying when a design fulfills the requirements.

  • The ability to celebrate incremental steps in the design process. Seasoned leaders recognize that good products come about through the hard work of the team. Teams require positive feedback to reinforce their accomplishments. Leaders call attention to everything that signals progress, teamwork, and individual creativity.

It's difficult for engineering managers to achieve high scores in both dimensions all the time. Each takes a great deal of time and, short of working 70-hour weeks, too much attention to one set of skills shorts the other. But, in today's market, which requires attention to quality processes and lightning-fast development, a 10/10 score, strong in management and leadership ability, is necessary to be a truly outstanding engineering manager.

Bill J. Wood is vice president of research and development for RELA, Inc. (Boulder, CO).

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