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What is leadership and management in engineering?

June 5, 2023

Great leadership and management in engineering (as well as comparable positions in other fields like urban planning) stem from the ability to integrate hard and soft – or technical and human – skills.

Think of the engineering leaders and managers you know and respect. They are technically adept and have an insightful understanding of a broad range of disciplines and how they interconnect with and influence each other. They also bring strong communication skills and emotional intelligence to their work.

Great engineering leaders understand the big-picture strategy, and they set clear and ambitious goals. They’re good managers, supporting their team members through regular check-ins and feedback and keeping everyone accountable and on track.

They inspire others to innovate, do great things and achieve more than they thought possible.

Education is key to gaining engineering leadership and management skills

If you want to move into an engineering leadership or management position, you might need to develop some new skills. Your current professional role may have given you opportunities to stretch yourself as a leader, but just as you wouldn’t expect to understand carbon capture technologies, error-resilient computing, infrastructure asset management or sustainable process design without investing in structured learning, so too is there value in taking the time to build and develop your leadership and business skills.

That’s where a master’s degree like the UBC Master of Engineering Leadership (MEL) can play a pivotal role in your professional development. By taking a pause from your career to focus on learning new knowledge, concepts and skills, you can return to the workforce with a new set of tools – and the credibility of a master’s degree from an internationally respected university – to advance in your field as an engineering leader or manager.

The program offers seven sector-specific specializations that combine in-depth technical education taught through the Faculty of Applied Science with business and leadership courses taught through UBC Sauder School of Business.

This integrated curriculum is crucial to your development as an engineering leader.

Opportunities to practice being an engineering leader

Like any skill, the best way to develop your leadership abilities is through a mix of learning, reflection and practice. As an MEL student, you’ll be exploring theories of organizational management and leadership, and will be reviewing industry-relevant case studies in the business courses that make up 40 to 50 percent of the curriculum.

You’ll be working on projects where you will have opportunities to be both a group member and group leader, trying out different ways of communicating, managing projects and setting goals. Your classmates are students from a range of professional and personal backgrounds, giving you experience working with and leading diverse teams.

MEL students have access to professional development opportunities throughout the year that reinforce the foundational leadership skills taught in classes. You are also expected to complete a career portfolio, which includes monthly reflections on what you are learning and encourages you to set professional and leadership goals.

Learning how to lead is as crucial to your professional success as being on top of the latest technical advances in your industry. As Tsubasa Bolt, a 2022 MEL student in High-Performance Buildings shared:

“In building design, you can have the best technical people, but no matter how good they are and how well-intentioned, at the end of the day, if you have a people problem, the team will not be able to meet its technical objectives.”

Integrating your engineering and business knowledge

“These experiences prepare our graduates to be leaders,” says Martino Tran, former co-director of the MEL in Urban Systems.

“Our industry partners tell us time and again that they need employees whose technical expertise is matched by their ability to communicate effectively and lead across different domains.”

That big-picture understanding – matched by strong communication and leadership skills – is what sets an engineer apart from an engineering leader. “Engineers need to know the answer; engineering leaders know how to put answers in context,” explains Justin Bull, Academic Director of the MEL.

“Engineering leaders can think through the business implications and operational considerations, and identify stakeholders who need to be persuaded. This means getting out of the technical detail and into the big picture economic and organizational context that influences how engineering work is done.”

A credential that confirms you are ready for engineering leadership

A master’s degree is an important credential, signalling to potential employers that you are committed to lifelong learning and that you have proven your ability to think and work at a high level. A degree like the Master of Engineering Leadership shows that you are able to excel both technically and as a leader in your field.

Since our first cohort of students graduated in 2015, hundreds of MEL alumni have used the degree to excel in engineering leadership and management positions. The degree enabled them to advance in their professional career, giving them the confidence and credentials to be taken seriously for positions of responsibility and leadership.