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7 Tips for Professional Engineering Organization Leadership (Part1)

Start Wherever You Are In Your Engineering Career

Whether you're still in college, a recent graduate, or have been a practicing engineer for years, find a professional engineering organization, join it, and then volunteer to lead. I started my pursuit of professional organizational leadership in the Institute for Transportation Engineers back in the early 1990's while in college. I was studying civil engineering and focusing exclusively on transportation infrastructure design. The organization was perfect for expanding my technical knowledge as well as connecting me with practicing transportation engineers and giving me real world leadership experience.

I continued my active participation once my engineering career kicked into motion, switching to the Society of American Military Engineers as my primary professional organization. It fit nicely with my role as an Air Force civil engineer and gave me a greater perspective on the architectural/engineering (A/E) industry as a whole. What's more, through active participation in support roles I gained exposure with senior leaders resulting twice in my selection for hand-picked positions.

Tips for Professional Organization Leadership Success

Once you're in a professional organization seek opportunities to lead. This might be a member elected position or you may volunteer to organize and run events. Doing this gives you both exposure and leadership experience.

Here's the main reason why: people who are serving as board members in an organization are doing so as volunteers. They are already motivated people whose values align with the organization. Therefore as a leader of volunteers, you get to become an expert in influence, guidance, and servant leadership. This experience and knowledge will serve you well in your leadership roles in your engineering career.

Here are some tips for professional organization leadership success gleaned from two separate stints as an S.A.M.E. post president and from serving on several National Society of Professional Engineers committees:

Your Role is to Guide, Not Direct. Remember that everyone who has an elected or appointed position on your leadership "staff" are there as volunteers, not volun-tolds. That means they can vote with their feet if they don't like your leadership! This gives you a great opportunity to practice servant leadership and providing guidance and support to your team.

Plan to be an influencer. You'll be leading through influence versus direction or coercion. This means discovering why each person on your staff is there, determining what they hope to gain from volunteering, and then setting about using your position to enable them to achieve what they seek while furthering the organization’s goals.

Set A Vision for Your Tenure. Set aside some time before you take the leadership reigns, after you've studied the organization's national-level strategy and talked with your predecessor, to craft a vision of what success looks like at the end of your tenure. You also are a volunteer, which means you likely have other time commitments. This makes establishing a vision an imperative so that you can focus your efforts like a laser. Setting this vision then communicating it to the membership and sharing it with your staff will also allow them to understand where you're headed. Also, make sure your vision is linked directly to the national level strategy because you don't want to work cross-purposes with the parent organization.

Encourage your staff to set goals. Once you have your vision set and communicated, encourage your staff to set linked goals. For each position it should be no more than two in a year. This allows the entire leadership staff to make real progress during their tenure. One good idea is to look at any information the national level organization has on chapter performance expectations and at a minimum, setting your goals to meet these. In S.A.M.E., this is what I did as the post president; used the national post award criteria to establish our goals. It post was ranked number one in it's size category that year.

Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP is an international infrastructure development program manager, engineer, and author. He has extensive experience in leadership, management, and engineering earned from a career as a civil engineering officer in the U.S. Air Force. He now coaches engineers enabling them to create an engineering career and life of fulfillment at The Engineering Career Coach.

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