SEMS Says ... Empathy, feedback and mentoring in leadership transition; welcome aboard

By the Society for Engineering and Management Systems Board

Transitioning from a technical role to a leadership role

Role and job transitions always test your flexibility and willingness to learn.

For more than eight years, I was in a deep technical role as a data scientist and industrial engineer in the corporate human resources organization. I enjoyed every minute of the challenging and groundbreaking work.

Recently, I became part of a leadership team in a different part of the business that focuses on creating a client experience. This role has been a great learning experience, especially given the breadth of business I get to lead. But most importantly, the opportunity to interact with a larger team and provide guidance and mentoring were new to me. The following are some behaviors I had to learn (and sometimes, unlearn) during this transition.

Lead with empathy: One of the skills I had to work on is listening to my team with empathy – put myself in their shoes. When the workload and demands of the business rise, it is important not to treat your team as commodities. Instead, create an environment where your team can share their concerns and provide feedback on any barriers they are facing. Understanding their feelings and thoughts can drive the team's engagement. I use "empathy maps" as a way to understand how my team members are feeling and thinking and what they are saying and doing. Using this input, I try to mitigate some of the pains and focus on providing them a positive working environment.

Two-way feedback: Giving and receiving feedback are crucial for effective leaders. Learn to provide direct, open and sensitive feedback to your teams (emphasis on the sensitive). Use this feedback loop as an opportunity to recognize team members and also to gauge the mood of the team. Often leaders tend to focus only on providing feedback to our team members, rarely seeking feedback about our leadership styles. Understanding our blind spots and lowering our masks are critical to being effective leaders. Frequent communication channels facilitate this.

Mentoring: As a leader, this is the aspect I am enjoying the most, and it probably is the most rewarding. Steven Spielberg said it best: "The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image but giving them the opportunity to create themselves." Mentoring is also a two-way street – I pick up certain skills from my mentees as well.

If you consider the three viewpoints above, all of them are built around a core value – trust. As leaders, we need to strive hard to create an environment that fosters trust. This is a delicate balance between your rational/analytical skills and the interpersonal skills required to be an effective leader.

— Sreekanth Ramakrishnan, president-elect of SEMS, is a client experience program manager and a senior data scientist for IBM Corp. 

Introduction to new SEMS board member: Patrick Hester

As one of four new board members who began our term this year, I was asked to provide a short introduction of myself and to outline my vision for my term.

My experience with industrial and systems engineering is through both practice and academia. As I proceeded through my undergraduate studies in naval architecture and marine engineering, I began to understand the importance of a holistic (i.e., systems) approach to engineering, as the engineering of a complex system such as a ship could not be accomplished without an accompanying systems engineering function.

Upon graduation, I took a job as a project/systems engineer at a shipyard, part of a small team that oversaw many engineering management and systems engineering functions for a large program. My lack of experience and my job forced me to learn quite a bit in a short period of time. No engineer in a modern enterprise works in isolation. As a practicing engineer, I began to understand the importance of an integrating function in creating successful systems. This on-the-job education opened my eyes to the value of engineering management and systems engineering.

After two years, I decided to pursue my Ph.D. studies full time. Since 2007, I have been on the faculty in the Department of Engineering Management and Systems Engineering at Old Dominion University. My focus has been on teaching and research in the areas of systems thinking and decision-making. As our department name implies, we see an obvious synergy between the engineering management and systems engineering disciplines. We are not alone, as many academic departments nationally and worldwide brand themselves as "engineering management and systems engineering" or some similar permutation. This synergy and the opportunities it presents are where I would like to focus during my time as a board member.

The recent vote to change our name from IIE to IISE clearly shows the value that members see in systems engineering, yet systems engineering has no division or society home within IISE. My broad goal is to help integrate systems engineering into SEMS and IISE at large. Having experience as both a practicing systems engineer and academic provides a well-rounded perspective, which aligns quite well with IISE's recent focus on promoting systems engineering.

My specific SEMS responsibility is updating the SEMS website and other online content such as webinars. My initial focus will be on improving our online body of knowledge to act as a resource for SEMS members concerned with both engineering management and systems engineering. If you are interested in helping with this effort, adding to our online body of knowledge or hosting a webinar, please contact me.

— Patrick Hester is an associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at Old Dominion University.