Leadership for Engineers

Engineers rule. Literally. Researchers at SpencerStuart found that 33% of the S&P 500 CEOs have undergraduate degrees in engineering compared with only 11% in business administration. A 2012 study of 36 million Facebook profiles found that company founders and CEOs across all industries are more than three times more likely hold advanced degrees in engineering over business.

So why is it that engineers are so often thought of as being introverted, difficult to work with, or lacking in the soft skills needed to be a good leader? It might be because they have such high-level technical skills combined with a strong desire to get to the root of a problem, that they immerse themselves in details and data so deep, that they never get a chance to look up long enough to interact with you. It’s true that most engineers like working with things more than they like working with people – especially in the IT field. And some fit the model of a nerd with above average intelligence and somewhat awkward social skills.

The most successful engineers, however, recognize that to truly excel in business, one needs a good combination of those technical, problem solving skills and people skills - communication, relationship building, team building, and influencing. In working with a mixed group of R&D engineers, process engineers, production supervisors, customer service, sales, and marketing managers, it is wonderful to see how the stereotypes begin to break down as we explore the various behavioral styles and realize that people are much more than the styles and roles they find themselves most comfortable in.

While engineers are generally the most skeptical about the results of any personal styles inventory, after a few days of processing the results through team building activities, communication exercises, and dialogue, they become believers that indeed, there is a “science” behind how people work just as there is one behind how physics and materials work. What’s more, that down in there, they possess all that it takes to become an excellent leader.

Building on their own analytical skills, attention to detail, and drive, their “real life” observations of people and their own interactions with people in the workplace can very quickly put them on a fast track to becoming a great leader. Yes, despite, the unspoken thinking in business that nerds cannot be leaders, engineering is the underlying foundation of many great leaders from Thomas Edison to Jimmy Carter to Bill Gates.

Joe Blotnick, President, Team New England Associates