Developing Engineers as Managers

A talent management practice for energy industry

Dr. Alka Rai – Assistant Professor, NTPC School of Business 

The present situation in the energy industry is complex due to many factors including regulatory challenges, geopolitical pressures, and environmental issues. Moreover, the scenario in the energy industry is very dynamic surrounded by continuous change, disruptions, and innovation. Given such a background, the industry demands attention to manage capacity and resources. In order to tackle the present condition, HR challenges at the energy industry should be dealt with on priority. The industry is facing HR challenges like succession planning, leadership development and talent management. The present HR challenges hint that the gap in competency could be at the core of HR issues in the sector. It is observed that the present pool of competency is not sufficiently ready to tackle the present scenario as well as future challenges. Competency scarcity is creating a crisis for both present and future situations in the energy sector. Dealing with the competency gap in the industry is very crucial as it is limiting the performance and progression of both individuals and organisations.

To understand the competency crisis, there is a need to understand the current workforce of the industry. Due to the nature of the work, the workforce in the energy sector is majorly dominated by people with engineering background. The major workforce in these organizations is comprised of people who entered the organization as graduate engineer trainees, and have worked their way up from the shop floor/office. The executives with strong technical skills are very pertinent for the energy sector; accordingly, technical skill is a major criterion to hire graduate trainees. In the early career stage, engineers with specific occupational skills may have to centre around their technical engineering expertise in their particular sphere of the job. Similarly, in the energy sector, for most of the people in the workforce, the first part of the career is about engineering jobs, but with progression over time, the executives move to middle management level as head/supervisor of the team and project. Being the supervisor/head of the team and projects, the executives have to perform a general management role along with their technical expertise. There is a possibility that the engineers who have been hired on the basis of their technical expertise would not be well proficient in a management function. Thus, it is argued that the middle management level people at energy sector might not be equipped with the necessary management knowledge and skills to confront the present scenario in the industry. Indeed, the paucity of talent at the intersection of technical skills and management/leadership functions is a major hitch for energy companies. Such scarcity of talent at middle management level makes the situation intense as these people are critical for succession planning and future leadership position. On the other hand, it can be an opportunity for those companies who excel at dealing with such a crisis.

As discussed earlier, a large number of people at energy organizations are engineers by profession and acquire the management and leadership position with career progression. No doubt, technical competence should be an entry token for the technical leadership position. In fact, engineers are most relevant for a leadership position in the energy industry as these people have a thorough understanding of the context. Despite the significance of the technical skills for the managerial and leadership role, the importance of management skills at these positions cannot be ignored. Moving forward in the career, proficiency in technical skills is not only sufficient but as a manager and leader, an engineer should have a broader understanding of the context to manage and control the situations. A manager and leader should well comprehend all the organizational functions including operations, finance, marketing, and human resource. Against such backdrop in the energy sector, organizations need to develop their engineering workforce as effective managers and leaders. The knowledge, skill, and ability of middle management people need to be strengthened to enable them for management functions. In fact, placing engineers to management and leadership positions without enabling them with sufficient management skills could bea disaster.

It is also true that the engineers, management and leadership skills cannot be separated from each other as these make the triad. All these skills complement each other as an individual move forward to the organization positions. At the manager position, the significance of administrative skills such as task planning and execution capabilities cannot be overlooked, yet the people factor is most critical at organizational functioning. Interpersonal skill is trickiest as it causes shifting of management of the tasks to the leadership position. How well the individuals interact and communicate, how a person takes and executes decision and how he/she negotiates conflict, all are crucial for organizational functioning. In a nutshell, the middle and high level position at organization demands to master in many skills like a visionary, wise use of resources, interpersonal relationships, effective communication, effective delegation and execution of tasks. As stated in the management literature (Katz, 1955), the three management skills, i.e., technical, human and conceptual, are essential for organization function, yet the proportionate use of these skills changes with succession at management levels. It is suggested that technical skill is essential at low organization level whereas human and conceptual skills become important at middle and high-level positions at the company.

 Suggested Action

Engineers are uniquely well-suited for management and leadership positions through their problem-solving skills and analytical skills but a transition from engineer to manager requires an individual to be prepared for several realities of organizational functioning. Hence, the practitioners and policymakers in the energy sector need to prepare the blueprint for the effective transition of engineers as managers and leaders. Along these lines, it is suggested that the intervention should be planned strategically with the well-defined objective at the career intersection of an engineer (i.e., before moving to the middle management level). 

The intervention should aim to develop the executives thoroughly from developing fundamental competencies to big-picture subjects. For this, the intervention may integrate both on the job and off the job methods. At one side, off the job, the programme will help engineers to learn the management fundamentals and their appropriate use at the job whereas on the job methods help engineers to transfer their learning at the workplace. The intervention objective should be properly aligned with an organizational objective.

As it is agreed that engineers are the most suitable for future management and leadership positions in the industry as these people are having the necessary basic technical skills that could be instrumental to gain supplementary management and conceptual skills. The formal management training to engineers will help them develop as effective manager and to reach their highest potential. After going through a formal program, an individual gets an opportunity to analyze his/her own attributes and decision-making styles, strengthen essential communication, motivation, and influencing skills, and ultimately plan for future personal growth and success in the management of technical and project teams. 

It is obvious that off the job programme will enrich employees with fundamentally sound principles of management. But exactly how these principles will be incorporated at the workplace depends on the context factors such as the external and internal business environment, company’s long and short-term objectives. Further, it is also notable that energy sector is quite different from other sectors in many domains. Following such realization, it is argued that a generic management training or development programme may not bring the desired result. Hence, it is emphasized that the programme should be customized and designed specifically for energy sector as per the demand of the industry and target participants. The programme curriculum should be unique and designed especially for training and development of the energy industry people. Accordingly, the content, material and cases should be from energy sector only. The curriculum of management programme needs to be developed in consultation with important stakeholders from the sector including academicians, practitioners and policy makers. Based on the objective, content, target participants; the programme duration could be from one week to a year.

Off the job programs mayfollow case based teaching pedagogy. The pedagogy should include the cases from the energy sector only to make people understand the link between the concept and practice. Teaching fundamentals through case based approach may lead to lasting learning as it allows understanding the right approach to reach the solution and facilitate dealing of the real-time situation. The approach will also help the participants to assess their own competency gaps, see how they are functioning and scope for improvements and finally lead them to understand how to excel at manager and leadership roles.

Offering off the job training and development program to employees is a cost to company. Hence, the company needs to ensure that whether a particular program will fill the competency gap or not. For this, the authentic identification of individuals’ limitations is required as without knowing the gap, there is no solid platform that could work to build on. Similarly, for the high-cost long-duration program (e.g., one-year duration) aiming to develop organization leaders, it is suggested to find people whose leadership talent is equal to their technical talent. As the common core competencies of leaders such as emotional intelligence, self-awareness, resilience and tolerance of ambiguity are not easily teachable skills.

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