Survey Says Engineers Don’t Have What It Takes To Be CEOs

The U.S. public doesn’t think engineers make the best chief executives

13 March 2014

Photo: iStockphoto

Even though engineers run some of today’s best-known global companies including Apple, Facebook, General Motors, Google, IBM, Microsoft, and Yahoo, a recent survey published by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel showed the majority of Americans don’t believe that an engineering degree prepares one to succeed at the top levels of management.

According to ASQ (formerly the American Society for Quality), only nine percent of respondents believed engineers would make the best chief executives. Those with a degree in finance, marketing, and sales made better leaders. ASQ is an association whose members are focused on improving quality in their organization. It administers the prestigious Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. More than 14 000 of its 80 000 members are engineers.

The survey, conducted in January in advance of this year’s Engineers Week , held 16 to 22 February, was done in conjunction with another of ASQ member engineers exploring their opportunities and desires to be corporate leaders and the skills needed. According to the engineers polled, 69 percent said their skill set provided a solid foundation to become a successful CEO. Nearly 30 percent of ASQ member engineers cite honesty as the skill most important to being an effective leader, followed by communication skills at 20 percent.

Despite the fact that some of the greatest business leaders in history, from Henry Ford to Lee Iacocca, have been engineers, many people don’t connect engineers with the boardroom,” said Cheryl Birdsong-Dyer, an ASQ member and professional process engineer, in an interview with the Sentinel. “But engineers who can combine their analytical and critical thinking skills with strong communication ability can be a powerful asset when it comes to top-level decision making.”

The engineering profession and engineering schools are often criticized for a lack of training on soft skills such as decision making, setting priorities, running meetings, and negotiating. This is the kind of training IEEE offers its members through the popular IEEE eLearning Library Course series, “Stuff You Don’t Learn in Engineering School.”

When it comes to communication skills, the IEEE Center for Leadership Excellence recently partnered with the IEEE Professional Communication Society to offer a series of short webinars and podcasts on effective communication techniques. Such skills can also be picked up from holding IEEE volunteer positions. According to our article, “Volunteers Develop Management Skills,” members pick up leadership and organizational tools, learn to manage others, hone their networking skills, broaden their perspective of the engineering field, and expand their professional contacts.

Do you think engineers make for good CEOs? What skills do engineers either embody or lack that are necessary to run a company? 

Kathy Pretz is the editor in chief of  The Institute.

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