Published: Nov. 16, 2020

Engineering Leadership: It’s Not Just Technical Skill

When it comes to technical skills, Public Works Officer Eric Hower is an engineering pro. A 13-year member of the U.S. Navy, Lieutenant Commander Hower serves as an engineer within the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC), supporting Navy and Marine Corps base infrastructure planning, budgeting, design, construction, operations, maintenance, repair and demolition. “An easy way to describe it would be to think of a county public works department in the States,” he says. “A  large portion of CEC jobs serve in similar public works and utilities divisions and departments  onboard Navy and Marine Corps installations, or also at larger regional  commands and headquarters.” Eric Hower

Hower would be the first to admit that technical skill is only one part of his career success. He holds a BS in Engineering with Civil Specialty from the Colorado School of Mines. Still, it was at the CU Boulder Engineering Management Program (EMP) that he would hone the engineering leadership skills that would help advance his Navy career. “The EMP highlighted numerous gaps in my leadership knowledge. Leadership and learning are lifelong endeavors.” 

Becoming an excellent engineer and becoming an excellent leader are not one and the same. For one thing, success as an engineering management leader is less clearcut and often less obvious than the success gained in tackling a technical problem and finding a solution. Engineering leadership requires focusing beyond an immediate problem, looking at the big picture and making decisions spanning a much broader field. Applying leadership principles to team building and retention, risk assessment, communication, mentoring, and analyzing and prioritizing issues across teams and tasks are all part of an engineering leadership role. 

The “Soft Skills” Matter

Engineering leadership is a learned skill, much like any technical skill, even if leadership is a broader concept and harder to define. That’s no less true in the military than it is in a civilian work environment. “A lot of military training is trial-by-fire, on-the-job experience,” says Hower. “While I certainly don’t think that’s unique to military roles, it does sometimes feel that the pressure of mission/program/project success is compounded by the sometimes rigid structure of the armed services. It can be easy to get tunnel vision.”

Hower believes that his military experience and the CU Boulder EMP experience combined prepared him for the leadership role he now holds. “Whether as a branch or division lead handling your smaller piece of the overall program or as the department director making a decision that the entire group will follow, the ability and willingness to listen, to exchange ideas and assess viewpoints, is key. The Engineering  Management Program helped focus and refine the often-overlooked aspects of leading a team through success and failure.” 

When asked about what he enjoys most about his current role, Hower, who is now stationed in South Korea, is quick to bring up leadership aspects. “I enjoy working with and leading a diverse and committed group of colleagues (inclusive of both U.S.  civilians and South Korean nationals),” he says. “Doing the best that I can to support the development of our individuals, the collective growth of our team and accomplishing our public works tasks in support of the camp’s mission.” 

As a Public Works Officer, Hower lists many of the same leadership challenges his civilian counterparts face. “Getting the same workload (or more) done with less — either from a lack of personnel or funding resources, for instance. Time management issues — dwindling time amid more and more projects and tasks. Isolating and making headway on the critical priorities amongst a sea of priorities,” he says. He cites one additional challenge facing most managers and leaders in this extraordinary year, “Leading from afar or virtually, particularly during the pandemic.”

According to Hower, meeting these challenges requires the kind of characteristics and skill sets that make an engineer a good leader. Many of these characteristics are the result of mastering critical soft skills. “You need to be comfortable in setting and meeting goals and offering a team or project vision,” he says. “You need refined critical thinking skills and you need to be open to other ideas, designs and viewpoints.” He adds one other unique characteristic: “Many good leaders also carry a humble mindset.” Beyond those traits, Hower identifies one of the most important soft skills an engineer needs to develop to become a good leader: “Improved communication is the first skill that comes to mind,” he says.  

How to Develop Leadership Skills

Hower says the Navy recognizes that structured military classes and on-the-job learning aren’t always enough to develop exceptional leaders. “As part of the development of CEC officers, the Navy sends career-oriented officers back to college to pursue graduate degrees. Jobs, stakeholders and locations consistently change within the military. However, through my experience with the CEC to date, the common obligation that runs throughout is to provide effective leadership and management. I wanted to take the opportunity, via my graduate education, to grow and strengthen my capabilities within these skill sets.”

When deciding which program to choose to further his engineering management education, Hower had specific reasons for choosing the CU Boulder EMP.

flatirons“I selected CU’s EMP based on positive program feedback from peers, the professionally diverse and talented faculty that I saw when reviewing their website, and  the ability to start and finish the ME in Engineering Management within a 12-month period.” Last but not least — location, location, location. Hower was quick to point out the appeal of “the magnificent Colorado campus location just east of the Front Range!”

The EMP gave Hower a break from full-time Naval duties, and the experience of being a “regular” on-campus student proved to be a rewarding one. “I very much enjoyed hitting ‘pause’ on the military, slowing down just a bit, listening to varying experiences and new viewpoints, and doing my best to grow. I appreciated having the opportunity, if only for what felt like a very quick year, to be free of some of the conditions of the military and to live a more deliberate existence.”

Not surprisingly for someone aspiring to a greater leadership role, Hower found the people component of his on-campus experience especially engaging. “I enjoyed meeting and interacting with new people including my fellow students, EMP instructors and staff, and other campus staff. I also gained back a little levity to my perspective, which I think perhaps had been whittled down a bit.”

Perhaps the biggest Program takeaway for Hower was a better understanding that leadership requires seeing connections, identifying gaps, and building a climate for success. “Your people make you a leader,” he says. “You need to be able to inspire action, set the cultural tone, create togetherness, provide trust when warranted and safety when needed. You need to be able to assume the risks of leadership.” 

As a military officer, leadership and ethics are critically important. Hower says the CU Boulder EMP expanded on these areas in the curriculum.  “Ethics is a part of the EMP bedrock and was reinforced in each engineering management course that I took at 

CU Boulder,” he says. “Program instruction continually highlighted the direct link between leadership and a resolute ethical approach. I think that above all, the Program widened my aperture and strengthened my understanding of the connection from ethics to leadership.” 

Applying Leadership Principles On the Job

Hower credits three specific areas of his professional development to his experiences at CU Boulder EMP: “Growth in perspective. Confidence in performance. And a resilient mindset,” he says.

He took the leadership principles he learned in the classroom and began to apply them back on the job with the Navy. “I am working to ingrain learning as a part of the organizational culture within my department and to identify and remove roadblocks. I’ve shared my intent across our department, delegated that our leads reestablish training plans for their staff and we’ve carved out a section of the fiscal year budget to fence for training requirements,” he says. “Learning is a continual process for us all.” 

Hower says another important leadership skill he puts into practice is trust: trusting individuals or your team to perform at a successful level. “Our team here was successful well before I arrived, and I know that they’ll continue to be after I depart. I lean on their know-how and challenge our staff when necessary. New impediments or tasks may occasionally slow us down. But I understand that missteps or failures are a part of the learning process too.” 

As an engineering management leader, Hower has his own professional goals. “I’d like the opportunity to lead a major Naval installation public works department, or fill an executive leadership position at a Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) regional office or headquarters,” he says. 

Engineering Leadership and Career Growth

Given what the CU Boulder EMP has contributed to his own career growth so far, Hower would not hesitate to recommend the Program to his fellow Naval officers. He believes the benefits of the EMP pay off for both students and their employers — in this case, the United States Navy. “In the Navy, CEC officers are tasked with leading and managing diverse groups of people and resources across a wide array of organizations in accomplishing a vast collection of technical and administrative responsibilities and missions. When considering a graduate degree, I believe that an engineering management degree like the CU Boulder EMP best merges the CEC role’s technical and managerial facets and produces the best value to the officer/student. “ He adds, “Simply stated: The Program and the team supporting it are superb. I highly value the time I was able to spend learning with them.”

As he continues his own engineering leadership path and career growth, Hower offers some advice to colleagues who want to develop better leadership skills — advice fine-tuned by his own professional and educational experiences: ”Pursue leadership challenges in whatever shape, size or situation that comes,” he says. “And always be on the lookout for learning opportunities.”

To learn more about the CU Boulder EMP, speak with an advisor or request information, visit the Engineering Management Program contact page, reach out to or call 303.492.0954.