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How I Went from Individual Contributor to Leading a Team of 5 Engineers in a Year

I was six years into my engineering career, and itching badly for a new challenge. I wanted to light other people up with the work I did, not just make cool CAD. And I longed for more connection and impact in my work, to share my skills and strengths with others so they could benefit.

Working in consulting gave me a lot of that, but it was always with people who were a few degrees separated and never with the people I sat next to. I wanted to lead, not just be an individual contributor.

But I was missing some key skills and didn’t know how to approach the transition.

I’d been gunning for the lead role for a few years without much progress, but once I started doing the things that actually mattered, I got traction quickly.

It was hard, I had to do a lot of work on myself and check my ego. But by the end of a year, I was leading a team of five engineers and it felt amazing.

Before you continue, I want to check one thing:

Do you want to lead because it’s prestigious and pays more and you get more authority?

Or do you want to lead because you feel called to take responsibility for a team, and want to support and nurture others in their careers?

If it’s the former, I’d recommend you pause and reconsider if this is the path for you. I’m not saying you can’t become a lead for those reasons, I’ve just seen people with that approach fail and ultimately be more stressed and less fulfilled. Until you get your intentions into good alignment, it’s an uphill battle.

If you’re in the second camp, that’s awesome, read on.

Leading is a totally different skill set than technical engineering.

Here’s what I learned going from individual contributor to leading a team of 5 engineers in a year:

1. Get Clear on Your Destination “It’s never too late to get off a train going to the wrong city.”

I’d wanted to be a lead for a long time, and felt like I kept getting blocked or sidetracked. After two years on a particularly tough project, it sunk in — there wasn’t any opportunity for leadership on that project, so if I wanted to become a lead I needed to get off of the project.

Once I was off the project that wasn’t serving my goals, I had room to start making progress in the direction that actually excited me.

Here’s the question, are you willing to give up on something good in order to create something great? It can definitely be scary, but in my experience the itch never goes away.

Practice: Create a vision for where you want to be in two years, then check whether your current path leads to that destination. If not, it’s time to have some tough conversations.

2. Advocate for Yourself Bring Solutions, Not Problems

I’d made it very clear to my manager and my director that I had an interest in leading, but that was about all I brought up every time we did a review “if you find any opportunities for me to be project lead, let me know.”

This lesson really clicked for me when a perfect opportunity came up, exactly the scale, scope, and duration we’d talked about being appropriate. And it was with a client I’d worked with multiple times before. And it got assigned to someone else.

It really hit me in the face: “Oh, my boss is never going to advocate for this for me, I have to do it myself.”

So I came up with a solution where everybody won, and pitched it to the project team. The other lead would handle a different project while mentoring me on this one, and we’d collaborate on technical work. He wanted experience mentoring other leads, and I wanted experience leading.

Each project had a point person, and got the benefit of two minds being familiar and tuned in with the technical details.

I then got buy-in from the project manager, and pitched it to the electrical and software leads. Once I had the support of the team, and a clear plan for how it was all going to go down, I laid this plan out for my boss and director. I’d done all the work for them, all they had to do was say “okay great” which they did.

Practice: Outline a plan that has just as many wins for everyone else as it does for you. In order to do this you’ll need to understand what a win looks like for everyone else!

3. Your Job is to Make Their Job Awesome Out of the five engineers on my team, three were more experienced than me. Two of them had at least ten years more experience than me. I learned real quick — it was rare that my job involved giving them technical advice.

As I saw it, my job was to give them a clear direction to aim for, clear success criteria, breathing room to try new things and fail, and enough context to be engaged, but not so much that it was confusing. And most importantly, to celebrate their wins and advocate on their behalf.

A big moment for me was when one of the engineers showed me the CAD for a complicated molded part he designed. I’d wanted to design that part because it was an exciting technical challenge, but I had to delegate based on deadlines.

I was thrilled when I saw his completed design, even more excited than I would have been if I’d done it myself. This was a pivotal moment for me — this was the moment I knew, not just thought, that I wanted to lead.

So if the team’s job is to do awesome technical work, what does the lead focus on?

I handled communication with the client, writing contracts, scoping ongoing work, weekly status updates, and scheduling and planning. The team got to focus on designing parts, building prototypes, calculating reliability, and building test fixtures.

In short, my job was to make their job awesome. And I loved it.

One of the key things here is — you have to know what each individual’s definition of “awesome” is.

Some people really enjoy knowing what’s going on with the client, and knowing all about how the product will be used by the end customer. And other people just love tinkering and building in the lab.

Some people love digging into theoretical models, and others like getting their hands dirty. Some people like high fidelity detail work, and others like pushing the envelope with new and innovative ideas that may not work.

The bottom line is you have to learn what awesome is for each person. Dig into this in your 1:1s — here are some useful questions:

  • “Which of your past projects was your favorite?”

  • “What did you like most about it?”

  • “Given the choice between these two parts of the project, which one sounds more enticing?”

4. Lead Yourself First Once you’re leading, it’ll be even more critical than it is now for you to set expectations, stick to commitments, and honor boundaries. You need to be able to do this for yourself before you can do this effectively for others.

Here are the three most important from my perspective:

  • Set a “stop work” time: Where no matter what, you put the laptop down, stop answering emails, and unplug. For me this was 6pm. If I didn’t honor this boundary I’d set with myself, things went out the window real fast.

  • Prioritize yourself first thing in the morning: Even if only for 30 minutes to start. The biggest part of this is not looking at your phone. Have a set routine of things you do to take care of yourself that you do before looking at the phone — NO EXCEPTIONS. This is so critical. Everyone else has an agenda and they want you to use your energy to make it real. This isn’t evil, it’s just called getting paid to work. But if you want to lead you absolutely must have time to yourself in the morning before you let other people’s priorities cloud your vision and priorities.

  • Keep small promises to yourself: If you don’t keep promises to yourself, nobody else will either. One that sounds silly but is a really effective practice is to promise you’ll go to the bathroom when you need to. Middle of a meeting? Go to the bathroom. One sentence left in an email? Go to the bathroom. Bug in the code you can’t find? Go to the bathroom.

Are you willing to make taking care of yourself more important than the opinions of other people? Until you’re willing to do that, you’re probably not ready to lead. Because if you don’t prioritize your basic needs, you won’t be able to effectively care for your team.

5. Develop the Strength to Ask for Help Asking for help is a super power, not weakness.

When you realize you’ll need more people on your project, frame it as an opportunity to get more experience leading as opposed to feeling like you’re falling behind. Leadership requires you to delegate and trust that others will get things done.

Practice: Who’s someone you look up to, fictional or otherwise, who wasn’t afraid to ask for help and rely on others? The next time you find yourself overwhelmed and needing some help, channel that person to remind yourself that asking for help is a sign of strength.

Summary Going from individual contributor to leading a team of five engineers was one of the most fulfilling and challenging periods in my engineering career. I learned a ton about myself and what’s most important to me, and I learned some critical lessons for what it takes to succeed:

  1. Get clear on your direction, and take action to align your circumstance with that direction. If what you’re doing now isn’t getting you closer to the career you want, rip the Band-Aid off and make a change. This may be painful, but wouldn’t it be more painful to never achieve your goals? Make an effort here to make it a smooth transition for the other people on your team, so long as it doesn’t jeopardize what’s important to you.

  2. Advocate for yourself, and be specific. Take responsibility for making things the way you want them to be, by coming up with a plan that’s a win for you, and a win for everyone else involved. That’s what leadership is really. Make it easy for your boss to say yes by evaluating it from their perspective and ensuring it either makes for less work for them, or helps them get closer to their goals.

  3. Make a priority of making other people’s jobs awesome. Your job as a lead is not to be the technical superstar. If you do that, who’s keeping things on schedule, communicating with the client, and making sure everyone has a clear path to success? Your job is to make this an amazing job for everyone on the team (including you).

  4. Lead yourself first — honor commitments you make to yourself, set clear expectations, and respect your own boundaries. If you don’t keep commitments to yourself, neither will anybody else.

  5. Develop the strength to ask for help. Asking for help is a signal that you’re mature enough to know what you can and can’t handle, and aren’t so consumed by your ego that you’re afraid to ask for help.

Want to Become a Lead Engineer? Maximum is a Career and Business Coach who specializes in working with engineers and entrepreneurs. Get his free Weekly Planning Checklist as the first step in streamlining your journey to becoming a lead.

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