Engineers Are Not Good Leaders? We Beg to Differ

Problem solving and analytical thinking are cited by engineers as key leadership traits

19 March 2014

Photo: iStockphoto

Last week, The Institute wrote about a survey that says engineers don’t have what it takes to be CEOs. Despite these results, I happen to disagree. As mentioned in the piece, some of the greatest business leaders in history have been engineers—including Henry Ford and Lee Iacocca. Still, many American workers don’t see engineers as leaders in business, according to the results released last month by the ASQ (American Society for Quality).

Instead, workers feel those in operations and logistics, finance, marketing, academia, and sales would make better leaders in business than engineers. In fact, only nine percent of those polled by Kelton Global on behalf of ASQ think engineers have the skills to successfully run a company.

But contrary to those results, another ASQ survey tailored to engineers shows that 69 percent do feel they have the necessary skills to be successful CEOs, citing analytical thinking, organizational skills, and problem solving as key components for running a company.

In this survey, engineers said:

“Problem solving is at the root of engineering. That is at the foundation of what a CEO does.”

“Engineering skills include analytical thinking and problem solving, which are essential for being in a leadership position.”

“Strong engineering skills allow [a] CEO to make [wiser] decisions.”

“Engineers are more organized and logical thinkers. They reason through the consequences of a decision before making a commitment.”

But not all engineers think their skillset makes them well suited for the position of CEO. They blame a lack of communication skills and the fact that they are too candid. Here’s what a few had to say:

“Engineers tend to be too honest. They say what they think. CEOs say what needs to be heard.”

“CEOs should be people persons and know how to manage their employees—engineers do not learn these skills by virtue of being engineers.”

According to both surveys, communication and honesty rank high in the traits needed to be successful in running a company. Thirty percent of workers surveyed by Kelton said honesty is the trait they value most in their leaders, while 22 percent cite communication skills and the results were similar in the second survey. But, ironically, honesty and communication skills also ranked at the top of shortcomings with today’s corporate leaders. W. Edwards Deming comes to mind when I think of executives with engineering degrees that are great communicators. Communications are rarely taught in an engineering curriculum, however one common trait among great communicators is that they are great listeners and that can be critical for success.

However, being an effective leader goes beyond soft skills. Other traits deemed critical to becoming a successful CEO include critical thinking and commitment. Twenty-four percent of engineers that responded to the survey say business administration and public speaking courses in college would better prepare them for leadership positions. Eleven percent said marketing or public relations training would make the greatest impact on attaining a leadership position.

And according to the same survey, some engineers are already succeeding in managerial positions. In fact, 61 percent of engineers said they are in a management or leadership role (albeit not a CEO). And 74 percent of those already in leadership roles supervise up to nine employees, while the rest oversee 10 or more.

Yet not all engineers desire to be in leadership roles. A total of 32 percent have little interest in management positions, about the same percentage of those who have high interest.

It’s important to remember that surveys can be misleading. As a process engineer, I have to take into consideration the questions asked and the responses given based on the population surveyed before taking in the results for face value.

What do you think? Do engineers make for good managers and CEOs?

Birdsong Photo: Cheryl Birdsong-Dyer

Cheryl Birdsong-Dyer is senior network planning analyst for access strategy with Sprint and is the placement chair responsible for posting local job opporunities in the field of Quality and Engineering with ASQ. She has worked as a professional process engineer for global workforces and has significant experience in emerging markets, including in India, Mexico, and the Philippines.

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