Unsplash: Markus Spiske
When people learn that I became the head of engineering of a leading UK insurer at 35, they often express surprise and curiosity. While I don’t consider 35 particularly young, it isn’t the norm in the industry. My path to this position was filled with hard work, continuous learning, and various experiences that shaped me into the leader I am today. In this blog post, I will share my journey and the lessons I learned along the way, hoping it might inspire and help others who aspire to progress in their careers.
The purpose of this post is not to boast about my accomplishments but to provide insights and guidance for those looking to excel in the engineering field. By sharing my experiences, I can help others understand the importance of continuous learning, stepping outside their comfort zones, and embracing new challenges. Through the following sections, I will delve deeper into the key factors contributing to my success, including going deep on subjects I needed help understanding, embracing meetings as a learning tool, diversifying my experience across companies and sectors, and developing a personal knowledge management system.
So, whether you are an aspiring engineering leader, a seasoned professional, or simply someone interested in understanding how to excel in your chosen field, I invite you to join me on this journey as we explore the steps I took to become the head of engineering at 35.
Going Deep on Subjects I Didn’t Understand
A critical factor contributing to my success was my commitment to continuous learning and self-improvement. In the ever-evolving engineering field, staying up-to-date with the latest technologies, methodologies, and best practices is crucial. Unfortunately, this often meant that I had to invest time and effort into understanding subjects that were initially beyond my expertise.
For instance, early in my career, I realised that my architecture knowledge needed improvement. So, instead of shying away from the challenge, I took it upon myself to work long hours, often from 7 AM to 7 PM, to dive deep into the subject matter. I attended workshops, read books, and sought guidance from experts in the field. By doing so, I improved my understanding of architecture and gained a newfound appreciation for its value to the engineering process.
Being knowledgeable in various areas within the company has numerous benefits. Firstly, it allows you to communicate more effectively with colleagues from different departments, fostering a collaborative work environment. Secondly, it enables you to make better-informed decisions when faced with complex challenges, as you can draw from a diverse pool of expertise. Lastly, it demonstrates to your superiors that you are a proactive and committed team member, which can lead to career advancement opportunities.
Embracing Meetings as a Learning Tool
Meetings are often seen as a necessary evil in the corporate world, and individual contributors are sometimes advised to refrain from attending. However, meetings can be an invaluable learning tool when approached with the right mindset. For example, I embraced meetings as an opportunity to learn more about the organisation, improve my skills, and build relationships with colleagues.
One of the advantages of attending meetings is that they provide insight into the inner workings of the company and its various departments. By actively participating in discussions, asking questions, and sharing my ideas, I gained a deeper understanding of the organisation’s goals, challenges, and priorities. This knowledge not only helped me make more informed decisions but also allowed me to contribute more effectively to cross-functional projects.
To get the most out of meetings, it’s essential to be discerning and identify which ones are worth attending. Here are a few tips on how to do that:
Determine the purpose: A productive meeting should have a clear agenda and objective. If the purpose of a meeting is vague or undefined, it’s less likely to be valuable.
Assess the attendees: A good meeting should involve relevant stakeholders and decision-makers.
Evaluate the format: Effective meetings should be structured, with time allocated for presentations, discussions, and decision-making. Avoid meetings that lack structure or tend to veer off-topic.
By embracing meetings as a learning tool and being selective about the ones you attend, you can gain valuable insights, develop new skills, and establish yourself as an engaged and proactive team member. This can lead to increased recognition and opportunities for career advancement, ultimately helping you achieve your professional goals.
Diversifying My Experience Across Companies and Sectors
Another crucial factor was my decision to diversify my experience across multiple companies and sectors. By exposing myself to various work environments, cultures, and challenges, I developed a well-rounded skill set and a more adaptable mindset, which ultimately contributed to my professional growth and success.
The advantages of experiencing different work environments and cultures are numerous. Firstly, it allows you to develop a broader perspective on engineering practices, as each organisation and sector may have unique approaches to problem-solving, project management, and collaboration. This diversity of experience can help you identify best practices and adapt them to your current and future roles, making you a more effective engineer and leader.
Secondly, working in different companies and sectors enables you to build a robust professional network, which can be invaluable for future career opportunities, knowledge sharing, and mentorship. By establishing connections with a diverse group of professionals, you not only expand your horizons but also contribute to the growth and development of others.
Some key takeaways from my experiences in various companies and sectors include:
Embrace change: Change is inevitable in any industry, and being open to new experiences and challenges can help you grow personally and professionally.
Be versatile: Diverse experiences can help you develop a wide range of skills, making you a more versatile engineer and leader. This adaptability can be a significant asset in addressing complex challenges and navigating evolving technologies and methodologies.
Learn from others: Each organisation and sector has experts and professionals with valuable knowledge and insights. Be proactive in seeking guidance and learning from their experiences to enhance your understanding and skillset.
Developing a Personal Knowledge Management System
One of the most valuable tools I developed was a personal knowledge management (PKM) system. A PKM system is an organised approach to capturing, organising, and retrieving information and insights you acquire throughout your professional and personal life. By implementing a PKM system, I could connect ideas, improve my memory, and effectively harness the knowledge I gained over the years.
A well-designed PKM system can provide numerous benefits, such as:
- Enhancing creativity and innovation by connecting disparate ideas and concepts
- Facilitating better decision-making by providing quick access to relevant information
- Boosting productivity by minimising time spent searching for information
- Supporting continuous learning and professional development
This blog is the product of notes I’ve taken over the past 14 years.
Additional Factors That Contributed to My Success
While the previously outlined factors played significant roles in my development, additional elements contributed to my success. These include finding good mentors, investing in my education, and knowing when to leave a company for personal growth.
Finding Good Mentors and Asking for Mentorship: Mentorship can be a powerful catalyst for professional growth and development. I made it a point to seek out individuals I admired, both within and outside my organisation, and ask for their mentorship. Remember that a successful mentor-mentee relationship is a two-way street; you should also be prepared to bring something to the table. This could be your unique perspective, a willingness to learn, or even helping your mentor with their projects.
Self-Funding Your Education: Investing in your education is essential for personal and professional growth. In my case, I decided to self-fund my enrolment in the Oxford Executive Leadership Program, which turned out to be one of my best investments. This program equipped me with valuable skills and knowledge, expanded my professional network, and exposed me to new ideas and perspectives. Remember that investing in your education doesn’t always have to be costly – numerous accessible or affordable resources are available, such as online courses, books, and webinars.
Knowing When to Leave a Company: Sometimes, the company you’ve dedicated time and effort to may need to provide more opportunities or an environment for your personal growth, which it can’t offer. Recognising when it’s time to move on is crucial for your career advancement. Reflect on your goals, the growth potential within your current organisation, and whether your skills and expertise are being utilised effectively. If your growth could be improved, consider exploring new opportunities that align more closely with your aspirations.
Moving from an Individual Contributor to Management
One of the most significant challenges I faced in my journey was transitioning from an individual contributor to a management role. While engineering tasks tend to be systematic and methodical, managing people involves navigating the complexities of human behaviour, emotions, and interpersonal dynamics. This shift requires a different set of skills and a new mindset.
The differences between engineering tasks and managing people are notable. As an individual contributor, your primary focus is solving problems, optimising processes, and delivering results within your expertise. In contrast, a management role requires you to oversee a team, delegate tasks, set goals, and ensure each team member has the necessary resources and support to succeed. This involves understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your team members, fostering a positive work environment, and addressing any conflicts or challenges that may arise.
To adapt to a people-centric role and develop leadership skills, consider the following strategies:
Develop empathy and active listening skills: Understanding the needs and concerns of your team members is crucial for effective management. Practice empathy and active listening to build strong relationships with your team and better address their needs.
Foster open communication: Encourage open communication within your team, be approachable, and create an environment where team members feel comfortable sharing their ideas and concerns.
Learn to delegate: Trust your team to handle tasks and responsibilities. Delegation not only empowers team members but also allows them to focus on higher-level management duties.
Balancing technical expertise with effective management is essential for success as an engineering leader. While maintaining your technical skills is important, it’s equally vital to invest in developing your leadership abilities. By embracing the challenges of managing people and focusing on personal growth, you can excel in your new role and contribute meaningfully to your team’s success.
Experience vs Time Served: Changing Perceptions
A common challenge faced by many professionals, including myself, is the misconception that experience is solely based on the number of years worked. This belief can lead to skepticism about the capabilities of younger leaders who have not spent decades in the industry. However, experience should be measured by the quality, relevance, and diversity of the challenges and opportunities one has encountered, rather than just the time served.
Demonstrating the value of diverse and relevant experiences in your career is crucial for overcoming this skepticism. Highlight the projects you have worked on, the skills you have developed, and the successes you have achieved. Don’t be afraid to share your failures too to showcase your ability to adapt, learn, and excel in various contexts and environments. By focusing on your accomplishments and the unique experiences that have shaped your professional growth, you can challenge the notion that years in the industry are the only determinant of expertise.
To overcome skepticism and prove your capabilities as a leader, consider the following strategies:
Build a strong track record: Consistently deliver results and demonstrate your ability to tackle complex challenges. A proven track record of success can speak louder than the number of years you have spent in the industry.
Share your experiences: Use your diverse experiences as a source of learning and inspiration for others. Share your insights, lessons learned, and best practices with your team and colleagues to demonstrate your leadership capabilities.
Leverage your network: Build relationships with mentors, peers, and industry experts who can vouch for your abilities and provide support when needed. A strong network can help counter skepticism and reinforce your credibility as a leader.
Emphasise your adaptability: Showcase your ability to learn quickly, adapt to new situations, and thrive in different environments. This skill is especially valuable in the rapidly evolving engineering industry and can help demonstrate your potential as a leader.
Stay updated and continue learning: Pursue professional development opportunities, stay informed about industry trends, and continuously improve your skills to demonstrate your commitment to excellence.
Adjusting Knowledge to the Context
One challenge I faced was learning how to adapt my knowledge and skills to different situations and environments. Every project, team, and organisation is unique, and it was crucial for me to develop the ability to tailor my approach according to the specific context.
Initially, I struggled with recognising the nuances of each situation and understanding how to apply my expertise effectively. This led to difficulties in communication, project management, and team dynamics. However, I realised that overcoming this challenge was essential for my success as an engineering leader.
To address this issue, I focused on developing a flexible mindset and embracing continuous learning. I actively sought feedback, stayed informed on industry trends, and embraced new challenges to broaden my experiences and enhance my adaptability. This allowed me to better align my knowledge with the needs of each project, team, and organization I encountered.
In conclusion, my career has been filled with challenges, learning opportunities, and personal growth. By embracing the value of continuous learning, diversifying my experiences, developing a personal knowledge management system, and overcoming the struggles of transitioning to leadership, I achieved this milestone. I hope that sharing my experiences and insights can inspire and guide others in their pursuit of professional success in the engineering industry. Remember, the key to excelling in your career lies in your adaptability, commitment to growth, and the ability to navigate both the technical and interpersonal aspects of leadership.