Even though it’s not a route every engineer should go, a good number of them do end up in management roles. Whether you really want to be at that spot or you get thrown there, you need to learn basic leadership skills. In that case, this episode has everything you need!
Today’s guest is Patrick Sweet, an engineer who spent 13 years leading and managing people through complex engineering systems in the rail and defense industries. Tackling the stigma that engineers do not make good managers, Patrick takes you on a journey of what leadership really is, how anyone can succeed at it, the resources to learn about it, and much more!
What You’ll Learn:
- From Electrical Engineer to Systems Engineer Solving Complex, Automatic Projects
- What is Systems Engineering? And What Does it Entail?
- Who Sets the Rules for How Those Automatic Systems Will Safely Work?
- The Fundamentally Different Roles of Engineers and Managers…
- …And Why Engineers Do Make Good Managers
- The Two Aspects of Succeeding as a Leader Regardless of Your Personality Type
- Resources to Learn About Leadership and Management You Can Take Advantage of
- Pat's Business Helping Engineers Succeed in a Management and Leadership Roles
- Why Companies Should Have Management Training for Their Managers
- Two Ways Managers Can Assess How They're Doing at Their Job
- How Managers Should Correctly Receive Feedback (Both Good and Bad)
- What Companies and Managers Can Do to Keep Their
- Why You Should NOT Go Straight into Management if You’re a Recent College Grad
- The Two Most Common Problems Engineers Face When Moving into Leadership Roles
- A Resource That Provides Practical Tools to Improve Your Leadership Skills
Engineering and Leadership – https://www.engineeringandleadership.com
Engineering Leadership 101 eBook – https://www.engineeringandleadership.com/leadership101
John Maxwell – https://www.johnmaxwell.com
Brené Brown – https://brenebrown.com
The Ultimate Civil FE Review Course – https://civilfereviewcourse.com
The Ultimate Civil PE Review Course – https://civilpereviewcourse.com
CEA FE and PE Practice Exams – https://civilengineeringacademy.com/exams
CEA Free Facebook Community – https://ceacommunity.com
CEA YouTube Channel – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCPeFLBZ2gk0uO5M9uE2zj0Q
CEA Newsletter – https://civilengineeringacademy.com/newsletter
CEA Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/theceacademy
Reach out to Isaac – [email protected]
Additional Resources Mentioned:
NCEES – https://ncees.org
Engineer to Entrepreneur – https://engineer2entrepreneur.net
Civil Engineering Reference Manual – http://www.civilengineeringacademy.com/ppi (Use this link to grab a copy for a 15% discount)
Transcript of Show
You can download our show notes summary here or get our transcript of the show below!
Isaac Oakeson: All right, Patrick. Thanks for jumping on the Civil Engineering Academy Podcast. I appreciate you joining me today.
Pat Sweet: Likewise. Super excited to be here.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah, this is gonna be great. So, I always love to hear people's own journeys into civil engineering, how you got here and figure out what you're doing. But maybe in your own words, it would be nice to hear how you found yourself, what was your journey into civil engineering? What was that like for you?
Pat Sweet: So I should pause here, because I'm not actually a civil engineer.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh. I mean engineering. Let's back up. Let's get rid of "civil". How did you get into engineering?
Pat Sweet: Yeah. So, probably like most people, math and physics were my favorite subjects in high school. It seemed like a natural fit. My dad is a computer scientist. So kind of exposed to that world from the get go. Had relatives who are engineers. And you know, seem the natural choice. So went to engineering school, did electrical engineering here at school Dalhousie University here in Halifax, and started my career in building and facilities design. So certainly rubbing shoulders with civil engineers and engineers of other disciplines. But eventually got into what's called systems engineering, which is a totally different discipline. And what systems engineers care about is the -- It's kind of like the level of engineering that has to happen in mega projects before the detailed design stuff can start.
Pat Sweet: So my introduction to that was in the world of rail. I ended up being a chief engineer and product manager for a company designing driverless, autonomous rail systems. Really, really cool stuff. The train would pull up to the station, doors open automatically, people get on, doors close automatically, and it drives itself to the next station. Really, really cool stuff. But as you could imagine, these are phenomenally complex systems, safety is critical. You've got to be very, very careful about, you know, routing trains, automatic train controls. So phenomenally complex. And it was through that experience that I got into systems engineering. Thinking through, "Okay, this train, this system as a whole, we can make it do anything. So what are the right things to have it do? What are this system's requirements? How are we going to make sure that at the end of the day, instead of just having a bunch of trained parts, we have an integrated, working, safe train." So that that's what systems engineering is all about.
Pat Sweet: And then I took those skills into the defense industry, and got into the world of ship building. And same fundamental problem. When you have the time and the money and the smarts, you can make a ship do anything, right? These are world-class, phenomenally complex, phenomenally advanced systems. The question gets to be more about, "Okay, what's the right thing to do?" And then, "What's the smartest way to achieve those goals and allow the ship to execute the missions that it's going to go on? So very, very cool stuff.
Isaac Oakeson: You bring up a point that's been bouncing around in my head. Who sets those goals, who sets those values, who tells when a train to stop and not to stop, you know? Like, who teaches it values and ethics? Like, I know that comes from the creators. But you know, who sets those rules?
Pat Sweet: Yeah, it's really, really -- It's a great question. And you know, over the course of generations of designing trains -- In train building and the ship building world, you're pretty lucky because there's a long, long history of both, right? So there's a great deal of not just institutional knowledge within large organizations, but knowledge within the industry.
Isaac Oakeson: Got it.
Pat Sweet: So there are standards that get set that everyone knows about and everyone respects. But also, there are kind of "tools of the trade" to understand things like, for example, the adhesion values between a steel rail and a steel wheel, and what happens when it's raining, right? And what happens when it's snowing. There's all this knowledge stored up that helps us understand how a train is going to behave in certain situations, and what you need to do in order to keep it safe. And in the world of automatic train control, these systems are phenomenally safe. And if you look at the history of the company that I worked for, accidents that happen on systems like that, 99 times out of a hundred, maybe 999 times out of a thousand, it occurs when a person is in charge of the train as opposed to the automatic train control.
Isaac Oakeson: Interesting.
Pat Sweet: Yeah. Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: Well, sorry for that tangent. You started talking about that and I'm like, "Hum, who's setting that up?"
Pat Sweet: No! That's great.
Isaac Oakeson: So Pat, why don't you tell us more about what you do today, and how that's going for you? So what are we doing now?
Pat Sweet: What we're doing now, I just launched a company called The Engineering and Leadership Project. And the reason I launched this business is, I recognize through my own experience as a product manager, a people manager, and project manager that these skills are critical in terms of having an engineering team succeed. Having a really strong manager, a really strong leader to work with and work for makes all the difference in the world in terms of the success of the work, in terms of work-life balance, in terms of engagement.
Pat Sweet: The problem, though, is that most engineers, when they get promoted into management or pushed into a leadership role, really aren't supported the way they need to be. If they're really, really lucky, they get a half-day seminar from HR on, you know, "Here's leadership." And the problem is that these are fundamentally different jobs. And if Joe is the best engineer in the team and Joe gets promoted to management, why is it that we expect Joe to be a good manager? It's not really fair. And it doesn't make sense. We would never take a great manager who doesn't have an engineering background and say, "Well, you're a great manager. Let's put you in engineering."
Isaac Oakeson: Right. Right.
Pat Sweet: It doesn't make any sense. These are two fundamentally different jobs. And my mission is to equip engineers who, by the way, I think have the potential to be phenomenal managers and phenomenal leaders, and equip them with the tools, the skills, the mindset to thrive in that role. So it's not just someone being thrown in the deep end and being asked to swim. That's the whole mission of the project here.
Isaac Oakeson: There's almost a stigma out there that engineers don't make great managers. I've heard that many, many times. And I'm curious your thoughts around that. Why is that kind of the saying that you hear in the industry?
Pat Sweet: I think there's an assumption that a certain kind of person is best suited to be a leader or a manager. And you think of extroverted, life of the party, talk to anyone, baby-kissing politician type people. And the truth is, your personality and your disposition really don't have a lot to do with your success as a leader. Success as a leader comes down to having the right mindset and having the right skill set. And anyone can learn that. And if you look at engineers who, you know, work real hard to get through university, work real hard in their careers, are really interested in doing good work and learning and growing. Those are all things that translate super well to becoming really good lead leaders. And there are really good examples of more reserved, more introverted people becoming great leaders.
Pat Sweet: And the reason for that is these are people who tend more naturally to connect one-on-one with people, right? It's easier at times for an introvert to really sit and engage one-on-one with their staff. Make their staff feel heard and appreciated and valued and understood. And that's something that at times is hard for extroverted people, right? So yeah. And honestly, if people listening to this could walk away from the conversation with any one particular lesson learned or takeaway it's that I really do believe that anyone has the ability to become a leader or a manager. It's really just a matter of figure out what the skills are and then practicing.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. Great advice. I mean, this is kind of jumping the gun a little bit, but have there been resources that have helped you learn this? Something that is top of mind that helped you learn these skills? Or you personally, do you feel like, maybe, you were gifted with additional things that have helped you become a leader? Or how did you go about learning some of the skills in your own life?
Pat Sweet: Yeah. Gosh, it's a good question. And honestly, I did get a bit of a lucky start through sport. You know, when I was a kid, I played every sport. I was in hockey, soccer, basketball, you name it. I played it. And that was a really good opportunity to practice leadership skills and grow as a leader. And you know, from there, I got into things like student counseling, went to leadership camp, and all those things, which in high school is maybe a bit nerdy, but it certainly served me as I've grown. But I didn't stop there. And there's a really great quote from Harry Truman who says, "Not all readers are leaders. But all leaders are readers." And one of the things that I found myself blessed with is a super long commute when I first graduated.
Pat Sweet: I'm from the east coast of Canada where a long commute is 10 minutes. But my wife and I moved to Ontario so that she could pursue her medical education. And in Ontario, a regular commute is an hour or more. So all of a sudden I had all the time in the world to listen to podcasts, audiobooks, you name it. And I really had this opportunity to dig into this vast body of knowledge in leadership and management. And I started listening to authors like John Maxwell and Jim Collins. And hearing this stuff, it just rocked my world. On top of being with an employer at the time who really valued leadership development in their technical staff. And I had no idea how rare that was. I had no idea how lucky I was to kind of end up in this environment. I just thought it was normal. I thought that's what the working world was like. Turns out it's not. So to have that reinforced from nine to five, then have it book ended with podcast time and audiobook time, I really learned a lot for sure.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. You know, I feel like most employee companies don't support management in that way where they're getting additional training, or at least making a point where they're sending their managers to something. You know, a lot of times it's just a company corporate get together, maybe they're going over financials or whatever it is. But sometimes managers don't even understand those financials either. So I just think there's so much training and support that could happen to really get managers on board with leveling up their skills.
Isaac Oakeson: One of the big things -- I mean, the number one reason why people leave a job right now is because of their manager. Like, who's directly managing them. How can managers gain that self-reflection that they might be the problem, and what can they do about it?
Pat Sweet: Yeah, it's a great question. And I'm sure everyone listening has heard the term "The Great Resignation" that's come up quite a bit lately. And it's true. It's true. People, more often than not, when they leave a job, they're actually leaving their manager as opposed to leaving the role. Most engineers love engineering. That's why they got in to it. And when engagement is lacking, when performance is lacking, you can often trace it back to the manager, frankly.
Pat Sweet: So one of the things I would suggest, and I realize this comes across as a bit blunt, but if you want to know how you're doing, you have to ask. And there's a couple different ways you can approach that. You can do what's called a 360º Review, which is an anonymous request for feedback from your management, your peers, and your staff. And you can learn an awful lot from that. And there are dozens of tools out there to help facilitate that and make that whole process pretty seamless.
Pat Sweet: The other thing you can do is you can hire a coach, right? There are coaches out there whose job it is not to understand what it's like to be an engineer or an engineering manager, but who are there to facilitate self-reflection. To hold you accountable. To really ask yourself, and honestly answer, "How are things going?" "Have I met my goals? Do I even have goals in the first place?" And to really bring you along that path. You know, the other thing -- Sorry, go for it.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh, sorry to bug you jumping in. My other thought is like, how should these managers interpret those results? Because it feels like if I'm going to go ask for feedback, I'm probably going to get pummeled with some stuff I might not like. Might make me feel a little bad about how I'm doing. What should be the mindset, I guess, if you're going to ask for feedback? What should maybe be the mindset of that manager in receiving it?
Pat Sweet: Yeah. I think, ultimately, if you can approach receiving feedback with a mindset of, you know, "I have room to grow", and I don't care who you are, Brené Brown would tell you, "I have room to grow", right? World-class leadership experts who've been doing this for decades at the highest level, still sharpen the saw, right? They're still perfecting their craft. They're still working to get better. And if you can go into it, looking for the opportunity to get better, then it doesn't sting so much. What stings often is being surprised. When you hear something that you didn't know about yourself, or you disagree with. But that should be a sign. When something stings, when something kind of smacks the inside of the head and you're like, "What are they talking about?"
Isaac Oakeson: You become defensive.
Pat Sweet: It's easy to become defensive. It's super easy to become defensive. And let that be a sign to you. You know, that that's where you call time out. You say, "Okay, why do I feel this way? Is it that I'm afraid it's true? Is it that I don't understand it?" What is it, right? That's a sign you need to dig into that, lean into that.
Isaac Oakeson: I like it. Yeah.
Isaac Oakeson: So you know, going back to this great recession, many companies are losing engineers. Originally, you know, it was like the service industry. But it seems like it's affected all aspects in every area of engineering as well. What do you think companies can do to try to stem that, to slow this great migration of people to different areas or quitting altogether? Are there some things, additional perks? Is it just because they want to work remote? What are your thoughts around trying to stem that for businesses?
Pat Sweet: Yeah, it's a great question. And it's an important question, always.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. You don't want to lose your people.
Pat Sweet: Yeah, that's right. But now, especially, you're absolutely right. And one of the things that I've learned, and my colleague, Anthony Fasano, has done some work in this as well, what's most important to people -- You might be surprised, it's not actually salary. Yes, you need to pay a competitive salary. And yes, going a little bit above market, of course that's going to attract people for sure. But that only takes it you so far.
Pat Sweet: What is most important to most engineers is understanding what performing well looks like, right? What are my goals as an engineer? What is it that you expect of me? And clarity around the role and clarity around progression is super, super important, and something that I think that a lot of companies don't do very well. You know, if you are in a role and you don't understand what it means to take the next step, and you don't understand what it means to do great work, all you're faced with is this constant onslaught of "more work, keep going. More work, keep going." And people get sucked into, "Okay, well maybe I need to work overtime. Maybe I need to do more." You know, which just leads to burnout.
Pat Sweet: If organizations can facilitate a person's growth, right? And see themselves as a partner along someone's career and help them grow, and help them go broader, or deeper, or whatever it is that that makes a person tick, then you'll find people are engaged. Then people will see, "This company's invested in my success." And then it gets to be much easier for an individual to invest in the organization's success. I think the more we look at the employer-employee relationship as partnership, the easier it'll be to retain people.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. I've also noticed, just personally, that, when management or others above you express their gratitude and are thankful for the work that you have done instead of just slapping another project on your desk, you know? Maybe a little bit recognition, doesn't need to be much, but just to let people know that you're valued and we care about what you're doing, that goes a long way, I feel like --
Pat Sweet: Big time. Big time.
Isaac Oakeson: in letting people know like, "Hey, we appreciate what you're doing for us." And you know, here's pat on the back for stuff.
Pat Sweet: Yeah. In my last role, one of the things that I did, we had monthly all-hands meetings that I held for my team. And at every meeting, I led the meeting with a series of kudos. You know, who had work anniversaries, who had birthdays, who did a great job on a particular project, who went above and beyond for a colleague. It took me 15 minutes to scan my emails and remind myself, "Right, this person did this. It was this person's 30th anniversary at the company, that's a big deal." And then to make a slide, right? It doesn't take any effort, frankly. But to recognize people first of all, and then recognize them in front of their peers, it can go long way. I've got phenomenal feedback from that.
Isaac Oakeson: I love it.
Pat Sweet: Yeah. It's amazing how a small effort can go a very, very long way.
Isaac Oakeson: That's great. You've shared a ton of advice with people. I'm curious, you know, if you went back to a graduate engineer just starting their career, would there be some pieces of advice you would give them as they're trying to fill their way through a company, figuring out what they like, dislike. Do I want to be a manager? Do I want to be a principal engineer? Like, what advice or tips would you give for a guy just starting out in this industry or being an engineer?
Pat Sweet: Yeah. I would say, don't rush. You know, allow yourself to be the graduate engineer that you are. Because if you are too quick to push into leadership and management -- And let me tell you, if you do push, and you do bring your A game, and you are, you know, even part ways intelligent, that will get recognized and you will find yourself into leadership, management, and even team lead roles relatively early. And that's great in everything. But the problem is, once you start down that path, it's hard to double back. And if you don't have a really, really strong technical footing, it will be very difficult A: to go back, B: to be a good leader and a good manager.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah.
Pat Sweet: I don't think you need to be the smartest person in the room. I don't think you need to be the best engineer in the room to be a great manager. But I do think you need to be good. You need to be at least highly competent technically. And early in your career is the time to double down on that, and really invest in your technical knowledge. And yeah, I see a lot of people who come to me because they want to get into leadership, project management, or people management. And that's great. And you can start that journey. But don't rush it.
Isaac Oakeson: And they've been in their career for a year.
Pat Sweet: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly. And honestly, like, I appreciate that ambition. I do. But --
Isaac Oakeson: I think they'll get recognized for it too. And like you said, I think they will get plugged into a spot. I've always appreciated a manager that I could go to and ask questions to that would have some good feedback. And I think, like you're saying, if they don't have the experience, the footing, the technical knowledge, it's hard to want to approach your manager when, you know, you might not get an answer at all. Or maybe they might send you somewhere else, I don't know. Which might be fine. But in my mind, like, I want my manager to be someone I could maybe ping some things off of them and ask questions and get answers.
Pat Sweet: Yeah. A manager's job is not necessarily to have the answers to all questions. It's okay. It's okay as a manager not to know, even for a technical question. But what you do have to be able to do is chart a path toward getting an answer? Whether that's through someone else or you doing a little bit of homework, you need at least that framework, that context, to understand the question. Why it's an important question. Or whether or not it's the right question to be answering. It's probably the more important skill. But yeah, you do need a certain baseline. And early in your career is the time to develop that.
Isaac Oakeson: Great. With your website and everything you've been moving forward on leadership and coaching. Has there been any common themes that you have seen as you've started this journey? Any particular, maybe, top three topics that you seem to hammer on a lot? Are there some themes around what you've been doing?
Pat Sweet: Yeah. It's a really, really good question. One of the things that comes to mind right away is people feel a lack of control in terms of the pace of work, the number of things that are being thrown at them, the number of projects they're on, the number of teams they support. There's this common sense that it's hard to balance it all. If not impossible. Let alone being a good spouse, or parent, or friend, or whatever. That's one major problem, I think, throughout our profession. It's just that people feel overwhelmed and feel burnt out. Particularly in the ranks of management.
Pat Sweet: One of the other themes that comes up is this difficulty with letting go, especially in that transition into leadership and management roles. Because like we talked about, often it's really bright engineers, really bright technical minds that move into management. So doing the engineering is all you've ever known. So it's very difficult to let go and let, now, the junior engineer that we were just saying needs to develop those technical skills. It's very hard to let work go and let them do it. Because they're going to mess it up. Because they're going to take forever. Because they don't know what's going on. And they're going to ask me a thousand questions. So I'm just going to do it.
Pat Sweet: It's this self-perpetuating cycle, these two problems, right? The first one where the manager's overwhelmed, the second one where I don't want to let anyone else do the work. Leaders do it to themselves without realizing it.
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah. I can see that. I've seen that in my own industry. I work in the transmission engineering industry, which is the utility world. And I have seen where engineers rise up to be managers, directors, and they are still so heavily involved in the design aspects that they don't become managers anymore. They're still the go-to source for the final say on the engineering, which you know, might be okay. But I feel like when you get to a management level, there's some things that probably, like you said, you should let go. Let the engineers run with decisions that, you know, may or may not be great decisions. And maybe you can step in as a manager and say, "Why don't you think about doing it this way?" But to make all the decisions, I can see definitely burn you out quickly if you're managing people plus managing projects. That probably doesn't get you very far in the long run without burning out.
Pat Sweet: Yeah. Big time, big time. But at the same time, it's hard to blame new managers and leaders. Because they've probably not learned how to delegate or when to delegate. They've probably not learned that it's okay to let little bad things happen for the sake of someone's development and to put checks and balances in place to catch those little bad things. Again, it comes back to --
Isaac Oakeson: Those are skills you gotta learn.
Pat Sweet: Absolutely.
Isaac Oakeson: That's why Pat's doing this.
Pat Sweet: It's exactly why I'm doing this. Because people aren't taught, and they're not provided feedback. And you're left to the school of hard knocks. And that's pretty miserable for a pretty long time.
Isaac Oakeson: Well Pat, I have another question for you. This is just kind of a fun question, but how has engineering helped you appreciate what you have in your life?
Pat Sweet: Yeah, it's a good one. Engineering's helped me appreciate just how complex and interconnected the world is. And, you know, I had this moment here the other day where my wife needed an orange. Okay, so I live in the east coast of Canada. Oranges do not grow in Nova Scotia. And it was a blizzard. So you know, I trudged my way to the grocery store, picked up an orange for under a dollar, and it occurred to me kind of leaving the grocery store, how phenomenal it is that we live in a time where in the middle of winter in Nova Scotia, I can produce an orange almost magically for under a dollar. And to know that the systems, the logistics, the technology that's in place to facilitate that, is just incredible to even have an inkling into how complex that all is down to when I was able to pay for the orange, with my watch, right?
Isaac Oakeson: Yeah.
Pat Sweet: It's mind boggling. It's mind boggling how -- You know, for all the things that we see as engineers that are problems, things that don't work, things that you're struggling to get going, the systems that do work and are interconnected is just mind boggling to me. And it really does help me appreciate the world we live in.
Isaac Oakeson: I totally agree with you. I also think about, you know, everything's so -- You know, it seems so sensitive. And when you know as an engineer how things all work, you almost wonder like, "Man, how are we still keeping things running?
Pat Sweet: Yeah. How do we pull this off? It's amazing.
Isaac Oakeson: How do we pull this off when it could go so bad so quick. But yeah. I mean, I definitely have appreciated everything. Engineering has opened up my eyes to the world around me and how things work and how far we have come even as a society and developing things. And the complexity of it all. It's just really neat and fascinating. So good thoughts on that.
Isaac Oakeson: Pat, this has been fun. I appreciate you doing this. I'm wondering, could you give us a reminder of your website, and if there's any other tools or resources you'd recommend to our audience.
Pat Sweet: Yeah. You bet. The website is engineeringandleadership.com and you can learn all about my work. I write articles, I've got a podcast, quite a bit of free material on there. And then if you're looking to go deeper with coaching, consulting, training, anything like that, you can learn all that on the website. But I do have a bit of a freebie for the folks who are listening. I've got a book that I wrote a while back in e-book, called Engineering Leadership 101. And it's for engineers, doesn't matter where you are in your career. Whether you're in the early stages or you're already a leader, it doesn't really matter what industry you're in. The idea is that it provides kind of concrete, pragmatic, practical tools that you can use to improve yourself as a leader. And people can download that at engineeringandleadership.com/leadership101.
Isaac Oakeson: Oh, I love it. Well, this has been really fun. Is there a best way to connect with you, Pat? If people have questions or wanna follow up.
Pat Sweet: Yeah. Absolutely. There's contact page for the website. But I'm most active on LinkedIn. So you can find me at the linkedin.com/in/patricksweet. Also on Twitter and Facebook as well.
Isaac Oakeson: Okay. This has been a really engaging conversation. I really appreciate your thoughts on leadership, on management, helping other engineers get to where they want to go if they want to go a leadership path. So appreciate you jumping on doing this with me, Pat.
Pat Sweet: Thanks so much. This is a lot of fun.
Isaac Oakeson: All right. See you.
Pat Sweet: Bye.
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