Published: May 21, 2019

man standing at the top of mountain peaksOn the surface, the concept of leadership seems straightforward and fairly simple to understand. But when you take a deeper look at all the elements that are involved when it comes to effectively leading others, a much more complex and comprehensive picture emerges.

This more nuanced view is something that engineers and technical professionals interested in engineering management and preparing for leadership opportunities quickly come to understand. There are many dimensions to being a leader in a professional setting and some aren’t always immediately considered.

Most of the time, it takes the advanced education, training and preparation in a top-notch engineering management program to learn the skills necessary to understand how to be a leader in a technical organization, as well as how to rise up and overcome the many challenges management can typically present.

What Does It Take to Be an Effective Leader in the 21st Century?

One of the first considerations when it comes to preparing for leadership opportunities in engineering management is: Are there common characteristics that are shared by those who are effective leaders? And, if so, what are they?

While good leaders come in all shapes and sizes, and bring traits and perspectives that are unique to them, there are some characteristics that form a good foundation to build upon if your goal is to reach a higher position in technical and engineering management. Some of these include:

Proven Engineering & Technical Skills

In order to lead a technical organization or the technical operations of a broader company, it’s essential that you bring proven experience as an engineer or technical professional. This will position you to fully grasp the complicated technical issues at hand and effectively lead a team of engineers and other technical experts.

Outstanding Communication Abilities

As an engineering manager, you will essentially serve as a bridge between your team’s technical operations, and those at the very top of the organizational hierarchy. You’ll need to take what can be very complex information, issues and projects and effectively communicate about them to those who may not have as deep a technical background.

Intellectual Adaptability & Nimble Thinking

Any engineer understands that problems happen. When those inevitable challenges and roadblocks occur, it will be up to you as the organization’s engineering manager to have a clear vision for successfully moving the team ahead, overcoming the issues and getting the job done in a way that will positively impact the bottom line.

Strong Leadership Instincts

It takes more than an elevated job title to truly be an effective leader of engineers and other technical professionals. You will need a deep understanding of ethical leadership principles and practices that resonate with those on your team, motivates them to share in your vision and inspires them to want to do their best possible work.

Clearly, there’s a lot that goes into being a successful technical or engineering manager and these represent just a brief, overarching list of traits and characteristics that typically form the building-blocks for those roles.

Take It From an Accomplished Leader

Kathy Tobey

Kathy Tobey

One person who is a proven authority on leadership is Kathryn Tobey, Professor of Engineering Practice at CU Boulder’s highly-respected Lockheed Martin Engineering Management Program (EMP).

After earning her Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering at CU Boulder, Tobey went on to earn her Master of Engineering in Engineering Management through the EMP. She provides an excellent example of just how powerful the Program at CU Boulder can be in terms of preparing for leadership opportunities.

Tobey brings more than 34 years of experience supporting critical national security space missions, spending much of that time in key leadership positions. She held leadership positions in functional organizations and program management for Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, and developed a depth of expertise in areas such as:

  • Production of space hardware and software
  • Business development including strategic planning, investments and business case analysis
  • Technology maturation for rapid insertion
  • Business acumen with respect to industrial base and supplier competitions
  • Large scale program management
  • System of systems engineering

What Does This Mean For You?

As an engineering management student at CU Boulder, you will learn directly from Tobey’s decades of experience as a technical leader at the highest levels of business and industry. She created the Program’s course, Leading Technical Organizations, which provides students with a broad and deep immersion into key, relevant principles of leadership.

“It’s an aspirational class, associated with being a program manager,” Tobey says. “It’s about preparing to lead leaders. It speaks to team accountability, creating strategies, leadership presence, talent management, and value creation. All the things that are important to understand as a program manager.”

In addition to Tobey’s course, other courses focused specifically on leadership are available to EMP students including, Leading Oneself and Leading Others. All the leadership-related courses are standalone courses and students can take one or all of them in any order. Here’s a quick look at these courses:

Leading Oneself

This course provides students with an exploration of leadership concepts and methods associated with topic areas such as authentic leadership, motivating self and others, cultivating emotional intelligence, personal mastery, creating accountability, conflict resolution, leading change and organizational culture.

Students learn to practice foundational leadership skills, enhance personal and professional effectiveness and develop communication and conflict resolution skills, among other valuable outcomes.

Leading Others

This course is designed to empower students with leadership techniques necessary to thrive in an engineering and industry environment, covering areas like negotiation, managing organizational politics, practical leadership activities and hiring and building a team.

Students gain a greater understanding of a leader’s responsibilities, principles of leadership, team building, communication and maximizing performance.

A Scenario-Based Learning Experience

students sitting in classThe course Tobey teaches, Leading Technical Organizations, offers students a very relevant, engaging and pragmatic learning experience as it relates to preparing for leadership opportunities.

“It’s largely based on my years of experience,” Tobey says. “We create scenarios that present leadership challenges or dilemmas that they will face and those scenarios become the focal point of the class. The activities speak to things like team accountability, creating effective strategies, having a leadership presence, talent management and value creation, among others. All the things that are important to understand as a program manager.”

Leading Technical Organizations begins with students taking part in self-assessments that help determine each student’s personality type, strengths and areas for growth in terms of their leadership abilities. “These are very important tools to have entering into the course,” Tobey says. “We draw upon them throughout the course as we work our way through the various learning activities.”

Again, most of the course involves Tobey presenting students with a specific scenario based around a leadership challenge or dilemma that they’re likely to encounter in engineering management. From there, students spend time researching, reflecting and doing readings about the scenario at hand.

Students then are required to post a blog every week outlining the challenge they’ve been presented with and detailing how they would go about overcoming the challenge from a leadership perspective. “We then have a lot of discussion around everyone’s contributions,” Tobey says. “We talk about the various solutions and strategies, the similarities and differences in approaches that emerged, and how everyone went about strategizing their response.”

This dynamic, discussion-oriented classroom experience is bolstered by a variety of other types of activities and projects that Tobey incorporates to provide a well-rounded overall experience. Visiting industry experts are brought in regularly to share their experiences and insights as they relate to a wide range of topics associated with preparing for leadership opportunities.

“Leadership isn’t done just one way,” Tobey says. “I bring in multiple perspectives and different approaches to leadership.”

Some examples of issues that guest speakers have addressed recently include:

  • Changing a corporate culture
  • Moving from customer satisfaction to customer partnership
  • Business ethics in leadership
  • Value creation

Throughout the course, students also write and maintain a personal journal where they reflect on class activities, their personal strengths and potential areas for growth as a leader, and their opinions on different strategies and approaches to leadership challenges.

“They leave this course with that journal and it provides a very valuable tool for them,” Tobey says. “It’s very personal to their leadership style and will offer them insights when they achieve the program leadership role they aspire to.”

Building an Accountable Team

At the conclusion of the course, students take part in a final project, which involves a videotaped presentation and oral proposal. It’s focused on the students pitching themselves as a program leader, synthesizing their leadership approach and philosophy and outlining how they would go about building their team.

And, Tobey says, a big part of building any team is instilling and fostering the concept of team accountability.

“I like to say that you can be given responsibility, but you have to take accountability,” Tobey says. “When you’re a leader, you have to commit to your actions and you have to take ownership of them. Only then can you expect your team to act in an accountable way. You want the members of your team to think beyond individual accountability and realize that the outcome of the team is the most important thing. That’s what team accountability is all about, and it starts with the program leader.”

In addition to being able to demonstrate their mastery of leadership concepts and principles, the final project also is a chance for students to highlight the verbal communication, written communication and presentation skills they  have developed throughout the course.

Establishing a Leadership Presence

Equally important to understanding team accountability to succeed in engineering management is having the ability to establish a leadership presence. Not an executive presence, Tobey says, but a leadership presence.

“Establishing a leadership presence has to do with how you show up with respect to competence and confidence,” Tobey says. “As a leader, you’re going to be tested on that the very first time you’re called upon to present something.”

Tobey points to things like how well you communicate, listen to others and show confidence from day one as key aspects to establishing a leadership presence. “These are things that the team you’re leading is going to want and expect,” she says. “When you’re in that leadership role, the time will come where you are going to have to fight for resources, fight for your budget and stand up for your team. To do that successfully, there has to be some gravitas to the presence you bring.”

Communication skills are so important that the EMP offers a course, Engineering Communication, designed specifically to help students learn to communicate effectively and build confidence in their communication skills. Communication is one of the factors that can help any professional stand out as leadership material.

Preparing Graduates Who Are Ready to Stand Out

Tobey’s course, along with the rest of the offerings through the EMP learning experience, deliver the kind of preparation that empowers graduates to outshine their fellow candidates when a technical or engineering management opportunity is in front of them. 

“Our graduates arrive at those new opportunities much better prepared,” Tobey says. “They bring better context than another candidate for the position who hasn’t really gone through these learning experiences or thought about these issues.”

For students currently in the Program or who have recently finished, the outlook is promising. In fact, according to data from the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, there will be nearly 10,000 new positions for engineering managers between the years 2016 and 2026. And the need for engineering managers in the engineering services industry, such as with consulting firms, is projected to grow 6% over the next decade.

The Engineering Management Program at CU Boulder

When it comes to preparing for leadership opportunities in engineering management, few programs in the country are at the level of the Engineering Management Program at CU Boulder.

From its primary focus on preparing students to lead and overcome challenges leaders confront in technical organizations, to its constantly evolving and relevant curriculum, to its exceptional faculty of accomplished professionals and flexible methods of delivery for working adults, the Program offers an ideal path for experienced engineers and technical professionals who aspire to leadership positions.

Offered through the University’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, which has been meeting the needs of students for more than 125 years, the Program has earned a reputation among engineers and technical professionals as one of the finest of its kind.

As a student in the Master of Engineering in Engineering Management Program, some of the topic areas you will focus on include:

  • Innovation and entrepreneurship
  • Finance and accounting
  • Leadership
  • Project management
  • Lean and agile management
  • Quality sciences
  • Research methods

In addition to being designed with flexible and convenient course options, including engineering management online courses, EMP offerings are characterized by a faculty of experienced industry leaders and a curriculum that is constantly reviewed and optimized to ensure students are covering the must current trends in business and industry.

Recent additions to the Program’s curriculum includes  courses such as Advanced Project, Program and Portfolio Management; Global Products in Aerospace; Principles and Practices of the Sustainable Enterprise; Engineering, Product Liability and the Litigation Process; and several others.

In addition to teaching Leading Technical Organizations, Tobey also created a new EMP certificate option in Engineering Management In the Aerospace Industry.

“The certificate program includes Leading Technical Organizations, and other courses are Global Topics in Aerospace, Aerospace Program Management and then the completion of an elective,” Tobey says.

And if you are not sure if the Master of Engineering in Engineering Management or one of the certificate programs is the right fit for you and your career goals, you can even take up to three courses before enrolling in the Program. This will allow you to get a feel for the Program, faculty and mode of delivery to make sure it will meet your needs.

Every year, students make the decision to take their careers to new heights by joining the EMP. They find a community and culture defined by proven quality, engaging coursework and flexibility. While many of the offerings are delivered online and via distance learning, the experience is anything but solitary.

Through the Program’s Zoom web conferencing tool, which works like Skype, you’ll be able to have regular interactions with fellow students and faculty. You can watch your instructor and engage in discussions through Zoom in real-time. Or, for lecture-based classes, you can watch a video recording at a time that’s most convenient for you.

In the end, students benefit from a distinctive learning experience that’s been designed to help them achieve their career goals  in technical and engineering management, without having to sacrifice their current professional or personal responsibilities. And they leave with a valuable network of new friends, colleagues and professional connections formed by fellow students and faculty.

If you think you’re ready to learn more about CU Boulder’s respected EMP offerings and how they can empower you to achieve your professional goals, you can speak with an advisor or request more information. Visit the CU Boulder EMP website or contact Kendra Thibeault, Admissions, Graduate and Undergraduate Advisor at: or call 303-492-0954.