The Quintessential Blog

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Building Leaders in STEM

In 2016 and 2017, I delivered a program with the Science and Engineering Faculty (SEF) at QUT.  Together with the SEF academic program director, we sought to explore ways of equipping future STEM leaders, with the essential skills to navigate challenges they would face when leading teams.  The program has continued to receive great support by the Engineers Australia – College of Leadership and Management.

Ask anyone who has been in industry for a short while about project management and they will be able to describe its basic principles. However, I challenge you to answer the same question about project leadership, and my guess is that you would have to think a lot harder before being able offer a similarly detailed response.

Those that I coach are either already in management or have a desire to move into management and leadership roles as they seek to develop their skills to more effectively relate and influence others. They are predominantly from a STEM background, and they have had to learn many of the ‘people’ skills on the job with little or no preparation prior to their formal appointment. Inevitably they lament, “I wish that I was taught about people skills before I moved into a leadership role.”

The leadership qualities we seek to acquire in order to be good project managers include traits such as:

  • inspiring a shared vision
  • being an effective communicator
  • emotional intelligence
  • promoting team learning
  • complex problem solving skills
  • effectively influencing and motivating
  • managing conflict

Rarely are any of these skills taught as part of engineering or project management basics, yet they are essential for any project leader to able to influence stakeholders, motivate people and ultimately attain the desired performance outcomes.

In 2018, I am collaborating with QUT to offer Project Managers the opportunity to learn first hand what it takes to lead teams and manage people. After being equipped with some initial grounding in basic management and leadership skills, the Project Managers will lead groups of first year students through a design and build task, and in the process, experience what it takes to manage teams. Importantly, the leadership development that they will undertake will be based upon a solutions-focused coaching methodology. This approach will challenge the fundamental engineering mindset of ‘creating solutions for others’, and shift their thinking about leadership to adopt a more people-centric approach of ‘enabling others to create solutions.’

We will put around 30 aspiring Project Managers through their paces in leading teams, made up of 1000 first year students. The Project Mangers will have the opportunity to develop and practice their project management and project leadership skills by guiding their teams of first years in an assessable design and build construction activity. What they will learn as leaders will compliment their technical skills, requiring them to utilise their people skills in order to navigate their teams to a successful outcome. Their role as leaders won’t be to solve the technical problems that their first year team members will face, but rather to facilitate and guide them through a process of discovery and learning.

For many of the aspiring Project Managers, this will represent their first time in a leadership role. Mistakes will be inevitable and the learning will be intense. Fortunately, Engineers Australia – College of Leadership and Management Queensland and Young Engineers Australia (Queensland) will be on hand to offer support and guidance, continuing their involvement from the 2016 and 2017 programs by providing mentoring, ‘real world’ guest lecturing and networking opportunities. If 2016 and 2017 was anything to go by, the journey for the Project Managers won’t be easy and the majority of challenges they’ll face will be people-related issues, but it will be a great experience. Their performance will be assessed both academically and also through 360 degree feedback, which will offer them an incredible head-start as they enter the workforce.

The program continues to grow and the possibilities are exciting in building the next generation of STEM leaders.