Engineers as Future Leaders

Oct 21, 1996

I spoke last week at the Iowa Engineering Society’s Annual Meeting in Cedar Rapids. My topic was “The Future of the Engineering Profession: Engineers as Leaders.” But before I get into that, I want to digress briefly to tell a good-service story. When I arrived at the Cedar Rapids airport, I checked outside for the Five Seasons Hotel shuttle bus. It wasn’t there, so I called them. The woman who answered the phone said the bus should be there, right outside the baggage claim, and she asked me to check again. I did and it wasn’t. So when I called back, she said: “Take a cab, and tell them to charge it to us.” Not many hotels that charge $79 a night would care enough to empower the person who answers the phone to spend $20 on cab fare like that, but I think it’s great. Now back to my presentation. First, I want to qualify my comments. I think that engineers are great people. They are the salt of the earth— as honest, ethical, and hard-working a group as you’ll find in any profession. Engineers do a lot of good things that help all of us. Without engineers, we wouldn’t have the quality of life that we have in this country. But that doesn’t make engineers perfect, nor does it mean that they are all doing what they should be to get ready for the next century. The group I spoke to included engineers from all areas of the profession. Here, in a nutshell, is what I told them they should be thinking about if they want to be leaders in the future: Open up— engineering is not the only science. Too many technical people think that anything they haven’t been schooled in isn’t real. This hurts engineers’ ability to learn and interact successfully with non-engineers. There are many other sciences— i.e., subjects that have an extensive body of knowledge about them available— including business, psychology, communication, and so forth. The engineer of the future will keep his or her mind open to ideas coming from these other sciences. Learn about business. Let’s face it, engineers are prejudiced. And I’m not talking about racial prejudice. I know engineers pretty well, and many engineers, even some in management jobs, have very little use for business. They think, “It’s all B.S.” But it’s not (although I will admit that the comic strip “Dilbert” strikes a chord!). The engineering profession of the future will require a business orientation. Resources are scarce, potential for conflicts of all types are high, and the golden rule is that the one with the gold, rules. Engineers need to stop fighting business and instead start to learn about it. Learn to communicate— it’s not what you know, but how well you can get it across. I cannot overemphasize this. It’s really bizarre that that more engineering schools do not put sufficient emphasis on turning out graduates who can speak and write well. In our corner of the engineering profession— the A/E/P and environmental consulting industry— the best communicators, not the best technical people, always end up at the top of their organizations. It’s not what you say, but how you say it. And another thing— I’ve worked with a lot of engineers over the years, and they aren’t all great writers. Some use big words and technical terminology to make themselves look smart. This hurts their ability to influence other people— whether it’s clients, regulators, the public at-large, or any members of a project team they may be working with. Learn about people. Engineers go into engineering because they are interested in things, not people. But the engineers of the future will realize that being knowledgeable about people is probably more important to their success than their knowledge of engineering. Read a lot of different things. Everyone needs a wide range of general knowledge to be successful in the diverse and interrelated world we live in today. One way to get that is to read— and not just the sports page or the antique auto section in the classifieds (one of my favorites!). I have learned more about the world, human behavior, leadership, and history from reading fiction than I have from just about any business book. Specialize— not technically, but in a client type or industry. Because technologies are changing so quickly, it means what you know today may be worthless tomorrow. I was reminded of this when, while cleaning out my garage a couple weekends ago, I came across my old dwell tach— you know, the device we used to use to set points on cars. I gave it to the kid across the street from me who has a bunch of older American cars because I no longer had any use for it. Can you imagine if the engineer that designed that tach thought of him- or herself as a “dwell tach engineer” instead of an automotive diagnostic equipment engineer? It is for this reason precisely that engineers need to identify their specialization with a client type or industry, as opposed to a technology. What I mean is being a land development or developer’s engineer instead of a civil engineer. This helps engineers adapt to changes in technology and not become obsolete. The dual career path is a myth. I’ve said it before. This is the biggest dead end an engineer in an A/E/P or environmental firm can go down. There is no dual career path, or at least no equal path. The path for technical people ends at a lot lower level than does the managerial path. Engineers need to stop kidding themselves on this one and face up to the reality that most of what we do in this industry is applied technology. That means the better communicators and managers will be in demand, and they are always less available than technical people who don’t have those other skills. Don’t become obsolete. The best way for engineers to avoid becoming obsolete is to keep doing work and serving clients, and to not become full time paper-pushers. If you do (end up a paper pusher), no one respects you. Learn to delegate. Engineers care about quality, and that leads many to think they can’t delegate anything. But you have to delegate something to someone if that person is ever going to learn how to do it. And this learning period will almost always mean that quality declines first. But then, after they learn, the “delegatee” may actually do it better than the “delegator.” Even though I said this to a group of engineers, I think anyone working in an A/E/P or environmental firm could benefit from my advice. Expect even more of what it takes to succeed today to be required in the future. Originally published 10/21/1996

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