Are Engineers CEO Material?

Americans believe that engineers are one of the least likely professionals to make it to the top rungs of the corporate ladder. That’s according to a new survey conducted by Kelton Global for Milwaukee-based ASQ (American Society for Quality).

The January survey polled 1,027 American workers over the age of 18 and found that only 9 percent believe engineers would make the best CEOs, behind other professionals in marketing, operations, finance, academia, and sales.

While the general population doesn’t view engineers as leadership material, another study by ASQ finds that engineers themselves think quite differently.

In conjunction with the Kelton survey, ASQ polled 444 of its member engineers and found that 69 percent believe their skill set provides them with a solid foundation for success as CEO. The engineers cited skills like analytical thinking and problem-solving as essential in a leadership position.

A large proportion of those polled in both the Kelton and ASQ surveys said honesty and communication skills were critical to leadership positions, but these same traits were identified as lacking in today’s company leadership.

So why doesn’t the general population believe engineers can be leaders, especially when there are so many clear examples—Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, GM’s Mary Barra—to the contrary?

Perhaps some of it has to do with perception.

Before the 1950s, when America was in its industrial heyday, business leaders were also industrial leaders. Demigods like Henry Ford, helping to build a stronger American economy. That group of elites tended to have technical or engineering backgrounds.

But in the 1950s and 60s there was a shift in American culture from industrial-focused careers to careers focused on business for business sake. MBAs started to win out against engineering degrees and business upstarts replaced engineers on the corporate ladder.

To some extent that trend remains today. And although engineers may think they have what it takes to become CEO, there are some key hurdles to be jumped along the way.

One of those hurdles is education. Whereas MBA programs hammer home leadership at every opportunity, development of leadership skills in engineering degree programs is often completely overlooked. Why? Because the engineering curriculum is already so tough and jam-packed with technical content that it’s difficult to add additional classes on core leadership principles.

And, once in a job, engineers tend not to speak very good business lingo. They’re not big self-promoters. They value real data and accomplishments over bravado and back slapping. In other words, they walk the walk, but often fail to talk the talk. This can be a big problem when it comes to promotion time.

The good news

It may not matter what the general population thinks about engineers, and the way we view what a leader is and does is changing rapidly.

The techie start-ups of today want analytical thinkers who can quickly understand systems and software. Employees who can take calculated risks and solve problems quickly and without fanfare. Is that your typical MBA? Maybe. But it’s more likely to be an engineer.

It’s worth noting also that of the 444 engineers ASQ polled, 61 percent were already in a leadership position and of the remaining, 16 percent indicated a high interest in attaining a leadership role.

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