|For Immediate Release ||Jeff Lenard |
Engineers: From the Drafting Room to the Board Room
NEW YORK CITY, OCTOBER 1 - Every year, a new management fad seems to emerge that "guarantees" success to those who apply it. But, those looking to succeed in the upper levels of management may want to consider a more traditional approach that many of today's top executives have used - a degree in engineering. According to a recent ranking by Business Week of CEOs of the top 1,000 publicly held US companies, more chief executive officers majored in engineering - not marketing, not finance, and not law - than any other discipline.
To determine why engineers are "suddenly" leading major corporations, perhaps one first needs to look back in time. In fact, at the height of the industrial revolution in the late 1800s and early 1900s, engineers were much more visible as business leaders. These entrepreneurs - such as Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and the Wright brothers, to name a few - not only invented new products, but developed the means to produce them. As a result, new corporations were formed to manufacture, market, and distribute their innovations. These organizations were usually led by the engineers who founded them. Succeeding generations of leadership often possessed many of the characteristics of their founders, including an engineering background.
Today, a second industrial revolution, this one involving communications, is also being led by engineers. Like their predecessors, they are also founding and leading large corporations that are at the forefront of the communications revolution.
The Second-Largest Profession
Another reason that so many engineers are advancing from the drafting room to the boardroom is that there are so many of them. According to some estimates, there are nearly two million engineers in the United States - making it the second-largest profession in the country (behind only teaching). And, as society increasingly requires more technically literate graduates, that figure stands to remain constant, if not increase.
In fact, some may even view an engineering degree much the way law and medical degrees are - as a "marketable skill" that could be applied in a variety of careers, whether industry, academia, or even government. Four current members of the 104th United States Congress have been, or are, registered professional engineers - Joe Barton (R-TX), John Hostettler (R-IN), Jay Kim (R-CA), and Lewis Payne (D-VA) - and five other Congressmen are engineers by education or experience. In addition, two governors are engineers: Jim Gerringer (Wyoming) and Kirk Fordice (Mississippi). As far as the country's chief executive, the President, three have had engineering backgrounds. Jimmy Carter was a nuclear engineer, Herbert Hoover was a mining engineer, and George Washington, although not a degreed engineer, is considered one by most historians because of his surveying skills.
Engineers are also well represented in the Wall Street financial community, since most investment banks require not only detailed information on a firm's financial status, but its technical standing as well.
The Technical Know-How
Even in established multi-billion dollar corporations, engineers are at the forefront. One just needs to look at a roster of today's top corporations - General Electric (Jack Welch), Xerox (Paul Allaire), Lockheed-Martin (Norm Augustine), Eastman Chemical (Earnest Deavenport), Chevron (Ken Derr), Phillips Petroleum (Wayne Allen), and 3M (Desi DeSimone) are all led by CEOs with engineering degrees. In corporations that produce technical products and services, it's probably to be expected that engineers will lead them into the next millennium; after all, engineers are the ones most familiar with the technical attributes of their products.
"Since engineers are the bridge between true science and the benefits received from its application to real problems, they get to remain close to the new and exciting breakthroughs," said John Mihm, vice president of R&D for Phillips Petroleum Company.
But what about other companies, such as consumer products giants Ben & Jerry's (led by CEO Robert Holland, a mechanical engineer) and Coca-Cola (CEO Roberto Goizueta is a chemical engineering graduate)? Even though the products may not be cutting-edge technology, the processes to deliver them are. Factors such as distribution links, production, R&D, and warehousing all require enormous analytical skills and an understanding of technical processes. The problem-solving skills mastered through an engineering education are often essential in balancing objectives and priorities and developing an action plan. "The opportunities to move and work in varied locations also adds greatly to one's ability to see and grasp opportunities," Mihm added. "The engineering logic that is part of all engineering also lends itself well to management, with most engineers going from technical expert to project management and on up the management ladder."
The Leap to Management
Regardless of specific area of study, engineering is concerned with a disciplined approach to analyzing data to permit conclusive and appropriate action. These same requirements are also essential in business management.
Earnest Deavenport, a chemical engineer and CEO of Eastman Chemical Company, the eleventh largest chemical producer in the United States, feels that the leap from engineer to manager is a subtle but direct one. "Supervisory jobs often involve significant technical contributions. One eventually evolves through these jobs, starting from a '100 percent technical' position to something like '80 percent technical and 20 percent supervisory.' As time goes on, one's role becomes less technical, with more significant supervisory opportunities," Deavenport said. "Even today as CEO of our company, I would consider that a segment of my job continues to be technical. Not that I would come up with the technical ideas, but I clearly see how my technical background enables me to understand the marriage between technology and business, an understanding that is vital for a company executive," he added.
"There was a time when we may have thought about our chemical scientists and engineers in terms of sheer technical knowledge. In a total quality environment, you expect more than that. Your employees work in a team environment and must be able to lead and to support effectively. A major shift I have observed is how technically trained employees have taken on more interpersonal responsibilities, including networking and collaboration. These people skills are important areas in the professional evolution of all our employees," Deavenport said.
No matter what the course of study, all engineering graduates are well schooled in the art of problem solving. Engineers are taught to identify a problem, consider all the variables, and develop the best solution based on the information available. This is, essentially the same process involved in managerial decision-making. Law - perhaps the second-most popular background of CEOs - is similar to engineering in that both disciplines require the same analytical skills to identify all possible scenarios before charting a course of action.
Another advantage engineers may have over other potential leaders is their ability to understand and manage risk. All engineering solutions require building in factors of safety, an understanding of acceptable risks, etc. By "over-designing," engineers are essentially stating they have anticipated "worst-case scenarios" where a product may be used beyond its stated limitations. This foresight may also help prepare engineers for weighing risks and benefits in managerial decisions. Deavenport, for one, has described himself a calculated risk-taker, someone who carefully analyzes all the data before making a decision. However, he added: "Life would be very dull if you did not take any risks."
Despite the solid managerial training that an engineering background can provide, many experts also suggest additional education in specific areas of business management. Deavenport suggested: "If you have a technical undergraduate degree, you might choose to get some years of experience in the workplace and learn how businesses operate. Then you might pursue an advanced degree, such as an MBA." (An MBA was the most popular postgraduate degree among the top 1,000 CEOs according to Business Week).
Of course, an engineering education doesn't guarantee a quick rise into upper management - or even success in the field. Other characteristics - such as perseverance, dedication, and teamwork - are vital to eventual success. But, great engineering is a combination of technical and analytical skills and the ability to sell them. And, the same skills are often required by leaders in the business community.