Engineers and The Executive Suite
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Engineers and The Executive Suite

May 1, 2014


Are you getting what you expect out of your leaders? According to a recent Kelton Global study, the qualities American workers value most in their company’s leaders are the same qualities they find most lacking. What’s even more interesting is that the public doesn’t see engineers as CEO material when engineering is one of the most popular areas of undergraduate study for CEOs.

This becomes a relevant discussion for this column because inherent in engineering training is a quality methodology foundation. Let’s begin with the general public and its view of CEO traits. Thirty percent of those surveyed say honesty is the trait they value most in their company’s leaders, while 22% cite communication skills. Critical thinking and commitment also were noted as key leadership qualities at 11% and 10%, respectively, according to the survey.

Yet, ironically, those surveyed said communicating well (20%) and honesty (16%) also are the qualities they believe to be leaders’ biggest shortcomings. While knowledge of a company’s product or service is useful, Americans find soft skills just as, or more, important for a CEO. Here is where engineers—with their solid background in quality—enter the picture.

In conjunction with the Kelton Group survey, a survey of ASQ’s 14,000 member engineers was conducted. The survey offers insight into an engineer’s desire to be a corporate leader and the skills needed to be successful.

Like those who responded to the Kelton survey, nearly 30% of ASQ member engineers cite honesty as the skill most important to being an effective leader, followed by communication skills at 20%.

According to the engineers polled, 69% say their skill set provides a solid foundation for a successful CEO. However, only 9% of those surveyed by Kelton say engineers would make the best CEOs, behind those in operations (23%), finance (17%), marketing (14%), academia (13%) and sales (11%).

It appears businesses agree with ASQ’s engineers. The most recent SpencerStuart study on CEOs and their undergraduate degree found 33% of S&P 500 CEOs received engineering degrees (compared to 11% in business administration). Many CEOs also have advanced degrees and that’s when business administration, finance, operations, and law appear more often. But 33% of future CEOs had an engineering degree as they entered the workforce fulltime, and with an engineering degree comes a solid grounding in quality methodology.

According to the ASQ survey of member engineers, 61% are currently in a management or leadership role, with nearly 75% overseeing up to nine employees, and 14% supervising 10 to 19 employees.

Here is what some of the ASQ engineers have to say about their technical skill set and the executive suite:

“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.”

On the other side of the long-term career coin, of the 39% of engineers polled who are not in a leadership role, 20% have no interest in reaching a leadership role, while only 16% have a high interest in attaining a leadership role, according to the survey of engineers. Here is what these engineers had to say about engineers in the executive suite:

“Engineers…say what they think. CEOs say what needs to be heard.”

“[Engineers] do not see the big picture!”

“Engineers are not people persons.”

These comments suggest the biggest barrier for engineers wishing to head to their company’s top spot is communication skills. Could it be this skill that keeps the public from thinking of engineers as prime CEO material?

“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,” says Cheryl Birdsong-Dyer, an ASQ member and professional process engineer. “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.”

Evidence gathered from ASQ member surveys and ASQ’s The Future of Quality Study indicate that quality professionals, whether engineers or not, need to concentrate on communication and general business acumen to further advance their careers.

The ASQ leadership survey was conducted by Kelton Global between Jan. 2 and Jan. 9 among 1,027 nationally representative Americans ages 18 and older.  The poll of ASQ member engineers was conducted between Jan. 2 and Jan. 16 among 444 ASQ members who identify themselves as engineers.


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