Managers in Rail Engineering – Expertise Vs Leadership

‘The logical choice for an internal promotion from the engineering team is the best engineer’

A fair enough comment but what happens when a few months down the line it becomes clear that ‘the best engineer’ has very little idea or experience of how to lead a team. This is the problem that a number of our rail clients and contacts have faced when looking at senior technical appointments. I have highlighted some of the common challenges below and some of the solutions an executive search process can provide in addressing these challenges;

‘I need a strategic leader, but they want to get involved in projects instead of delegating to the team’ – A fantastic railway engineer has a passion for the industry, they will have worked their way up from the very bottom of the ladder and proven their engineering expertise time and time again, which unfortunately means it will be hard for them to step-back from being hands-on. 9 times out of 10 these guys will be perfectionists, so when work is being carried out that doesn’t meet their high standards it is hard for them to direct and teach as opposed to jumping in and fixing it themselves.

There are a number of ways companies can address this challenge; whether it is through benchmarking current star performers in order to set the bar or by profiling candidates (external and internal) to understand their capabilities in terms of leadership potential.

‘They are not strong enough to lead the more established members of the team’ – Let’s face it, there is a mentality among certain more mature railway engineer that anyone who didn’t cut their teeth in British rail isn’t cut out to add much value. This is a mentality that very few non-BR engineers struggle to break down. Respect, trust and good communication are pivotal to a successful engineering manager in Rail, if an individual fails to achieve these (and achieve them early) they will be fighting an uphill battle.

By carrying out face-to-face competency and behavioural interviews you will be able to ascertain whether your candidate has the gravitas and experience to demand the respect required to build trust within their prospective team.  

‘Why does everyone either have 4 or 40 years’ experience?  Where is the middle ground?’ – Those who have worked in the industry for any amount of time will know that, due to the skills gap caused by structural changes and privatisation, the ‘middle ground’ are very few and far between. As the more mature engineers edge closer to retirement and the younger, graduate level, recruits continue to learn their trade, there are less and less people ideally suited to take engineering leadership roles.

This is where executive search comes into its own. As a process, it doesn’t rely on just those actively looking for a change but targets identified individuals. During the engagement phase, an experienced executive search consultant will be able to build rapport and sell the potential opportunity to attract interest in the right candidates.

These challenges are commonplace in a lot of engineering driven organisations and are the reason why our executive search services are utilised, to bring expertise into companies who are looking to promote internally or struggling to find an external appointment.

The biggest worry here is that this is a problem which will get worse before it gets better. Investment in the rail network and significant upcoming projects mean that demand for people is far outweighing numbers available. As the industry continues to age, the number of people we will lose from the sector will be significant, and they take with them the expertise that is currently slow in being passed on. As good as the graduate engineers coming through the ranks are, they are highly unlikely to be in a position to move into strategic leadership positions in the near future.

All of this leaves business leaders and HR professionals with a real upcoming problem unless they are willing to invest in a process that shows proven results.