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Engineers make bad leaders?

January 5, 2017

 Engineers, pay attention! This article is predominantly about you and for you, and it is not pretty. However, there is a silver lining behind this, so read to the end.


Global HR consulting company DDI published a wide-ranging report entitled "High Resolution Leadership". It used big data analysis, drawn from 15,000 assessments from more than 300 organisations across 18 countries and 20 industries. Some elements of normalising had to be done - for example, the data on education level was taken by holding elements like gender and number of years of experience constant. In this article, we will look at two such reports, Not Merely a Matter of Degree, which looks at which degrees contribute better to leadership competencies, and Dys-FUNCTION-al Skills Gaps, the impact of functional focus on leadership skills. Both these reports say the same thing - if you have an engineering degree, and are working in the engineering department, you face huge leadership gaps!


The context

Before we unwrap the information and look at what impact an engineering degree and a job in the engineering department have on our future, one needs to remember the context of these reports:

(1) They are with respect to leadership progression. Although it does show that engineering skills don't augur well with leadership skills, it does NOT mean that engineering as a profession is bad. We will look at the specific impact of engineering on an organisation later, but the data that is being presented is vis-à-vis leadership competencies, and it does not bode well for engineers. That is an important context.

(2) They are big data information, which means that they are more global and less local. Singapore, by dint of its size, would not be able to skew the data at all. Hence, the data portrayed in reports may be more reflective of larger economies than it would be for Singapore per se. Yet, it is important for us to remember that Singapore is a very open economy, and we are home to many MNCs. Hence, there is a need to be mindful of the global trends so that we can better position ourselves in the midst of international shifts.


So, on the back of these two caveats, let us uncover DDI's data... (take a deep breath...)


Not Merely a Matter of Degree


 Infographic taken off the DDI Report


According to DDI, a person's educational background plays a big impact on leadership performance later in life. This table is based on the highest educational level attained (hence, someone with a B.Eng and an MBA, like me, will be listed under Business, not Engineering). The bad news for engineering graduates is that its curriculum does not impact any of the 8 leadership skills positively. In fact, it is identified to be weak for 6 of the 8 skills! Engineering happens to be the worst-performing educational course for leadership development! So, does this mean that engineers cannot become good leaders? Absolutely not! However, it does mean that they will have to develop themselves outside of their functional requirements, which might be a stretch for some. Speaking of functional requirements...


Dis-FUNCTION-al Skills Gaps




Engineering as a function is again at the bottom of the table (tied with operations) where it is only a strength to one leadership skill. It is seen that engineering functions only impact customer focus positively, and is a weakness for 5 of the 10 skills. One could argue that without engineers and coders, there would not be any new organisations like Google, Facebook or Uber. True. Yet when you dive deeper, these organisations are successful, not for their ability to build, but for their ability to market and sell. There have been many electric cars before, but none as successful as Tesla because Elon Musk is such a consummate communicator. Oh, by the way, Musk has a BSc in physics and a BSc in economics. According to DDI's research, if you have always been working in engineering, then your likelihood of developing leadership skills has been greatly diminished.


What can an engineer do to develop greater leadership skills?

Two things...

(1) develop your skills outside of your functional requirement. It might be good to take up a new course or enrol in a new programme that specifically target these skills. If you know you lack financial acumen, take a course in finance. If you need to develop your communication skills, sign up with Toastmasters. You'd have to break certain functional stereotypes like engineers can't sell, or engineers can't cut a leadership figure. A large part of big data can be driven by stereotypes, and the devil is always in the details; hence, in moving ourselves away from the stereotypes, in putting more details in our broad picture, we also move ourselves towards being a better leader.


(2) choose to work in sales or marketing. Moving out of your engineering function and onto marketing and sales allows you to work with the bigger picture. It will hone your skills in selling the vision, in creating compelling communication, in developing business savvy and entrepreneurship. You might have to take some flak for "joining with the enemy" and your first few years may be hell as you move from the certainty of "yes/no" to the fuzziness of "maybe". You also learn about positioning, about forecasting, about negotiating, about pulling the team together. You don't have to totally forego your engineering skills - there are sales engineers who fill a useful gap between technical and customer, and who can earn a lot more - not just monetarily, but also in respect and gratitude from the customer - when they upsell a solution.


But what if you are happy where you are?

Apple was founded by two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak. Jobs was the leader, Wozniak was the engineer. Wozniak never wanted to be the front of the company, although Apple would not be anywhere without his genius. Although Wozniak did become VP of R&D, with many people working with him to develop his designs, (so by definition he was a leader), he left much of the front of the company to Jobs. Engineers, in many respects, are like Wozniak;they prefer to work at the back, to solve problems, to develop new things. (Woz left Apple after a plane accident but did return to later as an engineer.) They like their role as an individual contributor (IC). Many ICs are content in being a subject matter expert without having anyone to lead or to report to them. Some engineers are especially drawn to this scheme of work because they prefer to have someone else map the direction that the company is moving, and instruct them on what to do. They don't have to cosy up to the many different stakeholders, and they don't have to answer for things when they go wrong - they just needed to work hard, and solve problems from within. If that is you, then leadership may not be what you desire, and you certainly don't need to heed the contents of DDI's research.



Data - sometimes it is what you don't see that's important!

Big data is great; it allows us to see the shifts on a macro, global scale by taking out all the smaller nuances. Yet, as we aggregate the information, itbecome less about us and more about all of them. We lose the elements of specialisation that makes us different from others, while keeping the core which make us the same. This has the effect of working with broad strokes, masking the contexts that tell one apart from another. Take engineering for example. Research has not accorded it anything more than a cursory impact on leadership development. It is almost a "death sentence" to all would-be CEOs with an engineering degree. Yet, without engineering, we would not have power plants, we would not have the Internet, we would not have smartphones, we would not have transportation, we would not have skyscrapers. The world as we know it has been made possible by engineers.How can one say that it has little impact on leadership?


Furthermore, different economies are powered by different specialisations. We did mention that Singapore as an economy is too small to have affected the conclusions of DDI's research; yet, in Singapore's context, we need more engineers so as to build the next big thing. Singapore as a value-creating hub needs more engineers to solve global problems, and make new things. This has been the government's push for Singapore, so it does not make sense to say that engineering has little impact on leadership development. Instead, for Singapore, all leadership development should be done on the back of engineering, on the back of the ability to create. True, it does mean that we will have to upskill ourselves as we take on greater leadership responsibilities, for there is no way that our country can attain what it aspires to without leadership; but it does mean that there is greater primacy for engineering - we need to create the product first before we can market and sell it. Yet, having a country filled with engineers and no leaders will leave us floundering in the market. In a sense, that has been happening to us. Perhaps the reason why Singapore has not been able to take a lead in the innovative space is because we lack the last mile leadership push?


Everything rises and falls on leadership

In the end, we need to remind ourselves what John C. Maxwell said, "Everything rises and falls on leadership." Without the means to shape the vision, to position the company, to direct the actions, there will not be any progress. It is therefore time to acknowledge our weaknesses in Singapore and embrace a culture of continuous leadership development. To do anything less would endanger our future.


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