How Engineers Get on The Fast Track and Navigate Their Careers

September 15, 1995.

I came across this article that I would like to share with you. I do not quite agree with some of the somewhat cynical views presented here, but I do recognize that they are also realistic and do occur on the job.

Today, engineers and engineering managers must realize that they have to take control of their careers and manage circumstances for their own benefit. Nobody realizes this more than John A. Hoschette, staff engineer, Loral Infrared & Imaging Systems (Lexington, Mass.). "I naively entered the work force with many misconceptions about how business is conducted," he said. "I believed that one only needed to do a good engineering job to get promoted, and that your supervisor would immediately reward you upon successfully completing an assignment." Recounting his 18 year career, which includes several engineering management responsibilities, he admitted, "Many of my preconceived notions were wrong. To get ahead I had to change my thinking and educate myself about the business side of engineering."

Based on his experiences, Hoschette has written a new book, "Career Advancement and Survival for Engineers" (John Wiley & Sons, Interscience Division, 605 Third Avenue, New York, NY 10158; price: $15.95). It is an excellent reference for engineers and engineering managers. The advice and information he offers should promote a better understanding of what it takes to get ahead, clarifies how companies do business and promote people, and explains the dynamics involved in getting promotions. We would like to shares Hoschetteís plan for engineers and engineering managers getting on the fast track for advancement.

o "SELECT" YOU SUPERVISOR. The quickest way to advance is to "attach yourself to a fast-rising supervisor and ride along." With luck, every time your supervisor is promoted, you are also moved up the ladder.

Fast track supervisors can be identified by their visibility with upper management. "You can also identify them by the fact that their groups usually receive most of the special assignments from the vice presidents. Another trait is that their groups usually receive more awards and recognition than most," he writes. Once you've identified the fast-track supervisor, "the engineer needs to get transferred to the group." Once in the group, you stand a better than average chance for fast-track advancement.

These supervisors generally rate their group members high, which gives upper management the impression that the group has superior performance. The fast-track supervisor realizes the value of overrating his or her people. Another characteristic of such supervisors is their tendency to know how to get upper-management visibility for their employees. "A fast-track supervisor will always have employees nominated for awards. Therefore, you stand a much better chance of getting an award for your accomplishments when you work for a fast-track supervisor," Hoschette claims.

When working for this type of supervisor, remain alert and be ready to put in extra effort. "Your primary objective is to make your supervisor look good so he will be promoted." Finally, "you must show that you have the skills and knowledge to do your job successfully," he comments. "Your ability to get the job done and exhibit excellent work are basic requirements for successful career advancement."

o DEVELOP EXCELLENT COMMUNICATION AND PRESENTATION SKILLS. "If you communicate in an average manner and your presentations are just average, you can only expect to advance at an average rate," he observes. "To get an the fast track, you must have excellent communications skills and excellent presentation skills."

Generating excellent written reports is not a natural talent, it is "something acquired through practice and training." To this end, he recommends that engineers and engineering managers take technical and advertising writing courses. The first will show how to organize technical material and advertising will show how to "accentuate the positive and give the material the additional flair to make it stand out."

Having great oral communication is even more important. "Engineers absolutely must know how to give a good oral report," Hoschettc says. To develop this skill he recommends taking a speech course or joining Toastmasters (TT: Here we go again!-)) ). Finally, he says, all engineering managers must be able to make great presentations and get the skills to speak effectively in front of a group. "Great presentations are an absolute must for fast-track deve1opment."

o VOLUNTEER FOR SPECIAL PROJECTS. Choose projects that will give you the most visibility. "Projects that lock you in a lab with little or no visibility require special effort to gain visibility. While technically challenging, they can keep you away from the eyes of management." The fast-tracker, he observes, realizes that selecting the right project is important. When you have a choice of assignment, "choose the supervisorís pet project," he strongly urges potential fast trackers.

o HONE YOUR INSTINCTS AND TIMING FOR WHEN TO GET ON AND OFF PROJECTS. Typically, fast-track engineers and managers have an acute awareness of when to get an a project and the ideal time to bail out. At the beginning of the project there is usually a lot of visibility by management to ensure that it gets off to the right start. Upper management is normally involved and monitoring initial progress, he says from experience. "Getting on a project at the beginning provides the engineer with extra visibility. The beginning of a project is when most of the promotions are usually handed out."

As the projects progress, unforeseen problems may arise. These may result in schedule delays and large cost overruns and usually surface about a year into the project. "If you see that the project is headed for disaster, the fast-track response will be to get off before the problems are discovered." The fast-track engineer can honestly say the problems occurred after they left and be "disassociated with any problem projects and always present a successful image."

When a project hits major problems, management often assembles teams to fix them. Hoschette states that fast-trackers definitely should join a project that has severe problems but only as a member of these special get-well or tiger teams. These special teams often have extra visibility with upper management and usually report daily progress directly to upper management. "A fast-track engineer who has excellent reporting and presentation skills is now in a great position to move ahead quickly." This is the only good way and good time to get an a problem project.

o DRESS AND ACT THE PART. Hoschette says that many engineers do not realize that informal criteria often play a role in evaluating performance. A most important informal criteria is neatness or appearance. Thus, he advises engineers who want to move ahead rapidly to study the dress and mannerisms of management. "Learn the dress code and dress accordingly," he advises. "The fact is that supervisors tend to promote people who look like them and act like them. If it worked for them," he asks, "then why not copy the successful formula?"

o SEEK OPPORTUNITIES TO EXCEL. These opportunities to excel present themselves every day, Hoschette believes. "Most people refer to these opportunities as big, unsolvable problems." Consequently, they avoid them. Unfortunately, by avoiding them, they lose the opportunity to shine. The fast-track engineer or manager looks for such opportunities to excel and selectively chooses to work on them. Naturally, choosing the opportunities to excel that your supervisor considers the most important is one master key to rapid advancement.

What if the opportunities to excel are on unsolvable problems? "Don't worry," he writes, "this is even better." The supervisor, does not expect the engineer to solve every problem, but just the willingness to try separates them from the rest.

o MAKE YOUR OWN LUCK. Fast-track engineers realize that most projects are not going to be highly successful and result in promotion. Most projects will have severe problems and setbacks. Therefore, the fast-tracker accepts and plans for this: The forward thinking engineer will always have a contingency plan. "If you have that you can fall back an and keep the project moving ahead, it will appear that your project is successful." He advises: "Stick to your plans and put in the effort to see things through. Donít give up at the first sign of trouble. Extra visibility comes from trouble, and with extra visibility and great performance comes promotion."

ONE WORD OF ADVICE. Simple, and as basic as it sounds, Hoschette stresses, "Your supervisor is not your enemy." He has been there before, he explains, and knows what is going an. To engineers, his advice is, "Make your supervisor your ally. Make your supervisor look good and make yourself look good in the eyes of up-per management.

A WORD OF CAUTION TOO. Hoschette, based an his experience, sounds a warning to potential fast-track engineers and managers: Occasionally an engineer may move up two levels in a single promotion. This can be a great career advancement, but it also can be a fatal career move. With each level of promotion comes new responsibilities. At each level, you need to develop the skills to perform at that level and make sure you can handle them. If you move too fast and skip levels, you will not have time to develop necessary skills to survive at upper levels. By skipping levels, you more than likely will end only demonstrating how incapable you are rather than how capable you are.

Experience has shown that there are reasons why people only get promoted one level at a time. Hoschette admonishes, "If you start fast-tracking and start to move rapidly, make sure you can handle it."

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