Confessions of a lapsed engineer

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Written by Liz Hill-Smith on 10 April 2014
This month I’m going to examine a subject of vital importance to our economy: UK Plc simply doesn’t have, and isn’t growing, enough technically qualified people to maintain us as a knowledge economy. Too many kids drop out when faced with the demands for high grades in maths and science, and many students who have done a three or four year technical degree get lured into finance and other roles that are more highly paid, but do not really need the depth of their hard won qualifications.   
 
As a lapsed engineer myself, I know from my own experience - and that of my peers - that although technical careers can be exciting, creative, and hugely satisfying (I still go back and stroke my work from time to time) the development on offer, and the leadership one is exposed to, typically doesn’t make the most of what’s to offer in these careers. As an L&D professional, I’ve since worked with clients in the engineering sector, and found populations of talented engineers starved of good development, hungry for anything we could offer them. I was thrilled by the significant differences to the motivation and engagement of the teams they created by applying the insights they gained from our work. Very satisfying; but there is still so much work to be done. 
 
So, my hypothesis is that technical talent is just not adequately leveraged: the vital ingredient of developing leaders is missed out. It is a bit like baking a cake without using eggs – you’ll struggle to make it rise at all. The learning and growth rate for people is just not fast enough, so talent leaves.  We know that growing and developing in a role is exciting and motivating for people. Talented people actually like being stretched – if they get the support and development to match – but so many technical firms miss this trick time and again. 
 
A massive win would be for technical firms to invest in leadership development in the same way that other industries do. Somehow, they just don’t, or when they do it is typically too little, too late, or of poor quality – more old style ‘in-house management training’, rather than state of the art leadership development. We know that good leadership development can help leaders create jobs that people love and that add real value. It can whack up the rate of innovative thinking, build skills and talent, and, crucially, leverage those sought-after technical skills.   
 
The Bersin Deloitte Predictions for 2014 report quotes: “We must continuously engage our people by: creating a meaningful, exciting and flexible work environment; giving people lateral and vertical career opportunities; and making sure that management is focused on coaching and development, not just performance. Leadership will be a big challenge in 2014.” 
 
To get business impact, we need to change outer behaviours and to do that, we need to spark and embed shifts in people’s inner worlds. This is where quality leadership development kicks in: leaders who place a heavy focus on value tomorrow, as well as value today; who believe in the value of giving their time to develop others; who have emotional intelligence; and who combine empathy with self-confidence and a strong locus of control. It is a shift in perception of purpose, identity, beliefs and values that will drive leverage of skills and the right behaviours.   
 
So, what steps do L&D professionals need to take to enhance the leadership development of our technical talent? Here are my top five priorities: 
 
1.        Make a serious investment in high quality, innovative leadership development. 
 
2.        Bring inspiration to the design of your leadership development programmes by using specialists who have real experience at the leading-edge of current thinking.   
 
3.        Make it tangibly clear across the whole business that talent is a key asset to be developed. Then demonstrably reward those who build and share it. 
 
4.        Be curious about how other leading UK industries build talent - such as media, insurance, finance and pharmaceuticals - and learn from their successes. 
 
5.        Spell out your leadership development pipeline, so that those starting out know they are embarking on an exciting journey! 

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