Last week I had the pleasure of holding my Engineer2Leader workshop at the Sheffield Engineering Leadership Academy, which has the aim of developing engineering undergraduate students to become leaders of tomorrow, who create positive impact in research and industry.

So what did we get up to? Read on….

Introduction: what makes a good leader?

The participants first had to consider what makes a good leader, and they came up with the following skills:

Communication and eloquence, assertiveness, time management, vision, creativity, delegation, confidence, empathy, respectfulness, listening, organisation.

Warm-up exercise: try this at home

This is a really cool exercise to get everyone thinking and moving about (from Skills Converged Ltd. ). You basically try yourself in a knot with another person as shown below and then try to escape! It’s got a really simple, counter-intuitive solution, which I’m not going to tell you - try it yourself! The point of doing this wasn’t just to have fun, but to observe different methods that we use to solve problems. These included:

Reverse engineering, trial and error, analysis, considering all options.

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Problem-solving methods

After thinking a bit about problem-solving, I demonstrated two different methods of solving peoples’ problems (instead of puzzles), without describing the methods in advance. Method 1 demonstrated a technique that engineers tend to use (making lots of suggestions), whereas Method 2 demonstrated a technique that is more appropriate for leaders (listening, asking questions, making space for the other person).

The particpants observed the following regarding Method 1:

  • I mainly asked closed questions.

  • I shared personal experience, which didn’t work well.

  • I made suggestions before understanding the problem.

  • The conversation was very rigid.

  • I came across as dismissive.

They made the following observations regarding Method 2:

  • I made more progress and got better results than for Method 1.

  • I mainly asked open questions.

  • I listened actively.

  • I helped the volunteer analyse his own methods and find his own solution.

  • I was encouraging.

  • I was relaxed and had open body language.

  • I thought logically about the problem together with the volunteer.

Trying out Method 2

The participants then got to try out Method 2 in groups of three, in which one person was the team member with a problem, one person was the team leader and one person was the observer. The main observations and discussion points were:

  • In order to decide whether to use Method 1 or Method 2, it might help to consider what you actually want to achieve from the conversation.

  • Is doing what the other person wants (tell them a quick solution) really right? Probjably not!

  • Is Method 2 too passive? How to structure and lead the conversation despite listening a lot?

  • How to combine Method 1 and 2? When is which method best?

  • The key to Method 2 is getting to the root of the problem and understanding the colleague.

  • Method 2 can involve a lot of leading questions in order to help the colleague reach the solution that you think is best (but one has to watch out not to influence too much, in case the suitable solution is different).

  • The exact phrasing of a question can have a large effect on the conversation.

  • How to combine closed and open questions? Are there some situations which are more suitable than closed questions?

  • Time seems to be an important factor in the success of Method 2: we tend to resort to Method 1 when we are pushed for time (like in the “real world” too). How to deal with this best?

  • Method 2 feels good!

Finally, the participants wrote down their learnings as well as three goals for the next few months based on their experience at the workshop. The main learning was reported to be the understanding of two possible problem-solving methods for helping people in your team - and the advantages of actively trying to use Method 2 as much as possible.

Find out more

This workshop is suitable for teams of engineers and/or technical staff who are leaders or have leadership ambitions. It helps them to develop the specific skills that they tend not to learn in their traditional education or training, including:

  • Stop solving problems.

  • Listen to other people's ideas.

  • Utilise your well-honed analytical skills....but differently.

  • Make mistakes and deal with them effectively.

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