Despite the stereotypes, many engineers have the vision, capability, creativity and problem-solving skills to become excellent candidates for leadership positions.
On the surface, the responsibilities, past experiences, skills and characteristics vary drastically between a stereotypical leader and an engineer. So how do engineers make the leap to a leadership position? After all, building a top-quality microcontroller is very different than overseeing an entire department or company. Leaders are generally expected to inspire and create a vision for their team or company, and unite people, processes and systems to enable that vision. They can build a team or organization from the ground up, problem solving all along the way. On the contrary, engineers are typically more focused on creating products and services; taking ideas and making them into reality. Their goals are often concentrated on managing time and costs, and streamlining processes to improve efficiency.
However, there are also many ways in which engineers are actually very well suited to become leaders.
“Studying engineering gives someone a practical, pragmatic orientation,” says Nitin Nohria, Dean of Harvard Business School, who holds an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. “Engineering is about what works, and it breeds in you an ethos of building things that work — whether it’s a machine or a structure or an organization. Engineering also teaches you to try to do things efficiently and eloquently, with reliable outcomes, and with a margin of safety. It makes you think about costs versus performance. These are principles that can be deeply important when you think about organizations.”
Engineers are also detail oriented, analytical and experienced in problem solving, all characteristics important to business leaders.
In recent years, the rise of technology has ushered in a new wave of engineer/leaders. There are many success stories in the companies of Silicon Valley, as well as the automotive and biotechnology industries. In the U.S., 33 percent of CEOs are engineers according to Business Insider.
Bridging the gap between engineer and leader
Engineers who are interested in making a move to leadership should take strategic steps to prepare. They should increase their familiarity with the non-engineering areas of the company — sales, human resources, finance, legal and marketing/communications. To broaden their exposure to a diversity of thought, they should participate in cross-functional teams with co-workers who have different skill sets and focus areas. And they should also explore leadership roles in nonprofits or student bodies.
Successful leaders place a high value on EQ, or emotional intelligence. The ability to work well with people from varying backgrounds and with different roles in the company is a key differentiator for talented leaders. For engineers, who have highly-technical responsibilities and who spend a significant amount of their time dealing with products and processes versus people, the need to ensure “soft skills” can be especially important.
It’s useful to note that being a leader isn’t dependent on actually managing other employees. It’s achievable at every level of employment, and usually occurs when the employee feels an ownership stake and helps ensure that others perform at the same level of excellence. Taking opportunities to mentor or help others in their day-to-day responsibilities can be an effective way of working toward the goal.
Engineers have the DNA for leadership. Like successful leaders, engineers have vision, which they apply to the projects they work on. They have an innate need to build things, which can also be effective when applied to relationships and teams. Perhaps most significantly, engineers have an interest in finding solutions for problems, overcoming obstacles and achieving successful outcomes, which is a key trait of most effective leaders.
At EASi, helping engineers develop into leaders is an intrinsic part of how we do business. We look for opportunities where our engineers can stretch their abilities and learn to deal with the ambiguity of leadership versus the precision of engineering. We’ve found the real world experience of exceeding our customers’ expectations is the perfect environment for empowering the next generation of leaders.
Top U.S. leaders who majored in engineering
Mary T. Barra, CEO, General Motors Company
B.S. in Electrical Engineering at Kettering University (formerly General Motors Institute); MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business
Jeff Bezos, Founder and CEO, Amazon
B.S. in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at Princeton University
Ursula Burns, Chairman and CEO of Xerox
B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering; M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Columbia University
Tim Cook, CEO, Apple
B.S. in Industrial Engineering from Auburn University; MBA from Duke University
Greg Garland, CEO, Phillips 66
B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Texas A&M University
Lowell McAdam, CEO, Verizon
B.S. in Engineering from Cornell University and an MBA from the University of San Diego
Satya Nadella, CEO, Microsoft
B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the Manipal Institute of Technology; M.S. in Computer Science at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business
Larry Page, Co-founder and CEO, Google
B.S. in Engineering from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; M.S. in Computer Science from Stanford University
Virginia Marie "Ginni" Rometty, Chairwoman, President and CEO of IBM
B.S. degree in computer science and electrical engineering<
Gwynne Shotwell, President-COO, SpaceX
B.S. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Northwestern University
Jeremy Stoppelman, Co-Founder and CEO, Yelp
B.S. in Computer Engineering from the University of Illinois
Rex W. Tillerson, Chairman and CEO, Exxon Mobil
B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin