What they still don’t teach at MIT

Recently, a senior operations executive shared with me his biggest frustration with his talented engineers. “You know,” he said, “every time my high-potential engineers join a business meeting with senior leaders, they end up with a list of action points. They act like overpaid message boys. I want them to stop running errands, start pushing back on hair-brained ideas and finally behave like peers.”

The voice of the customer is all the rage, but what about the voice of the engineer? The good news is that in business, there are many examples of engineers stepping up to become business leaders. For example, more than 30 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs have a degree in engineering.

Outside the business environment, the picture becomes bleak and the voice of the engineer is a faint whisper at best. Case in point: Less than 1 percent of the current US congress members have an engineering degree. This sparse representation is not much different in other places in the world and may explain the recent spectacular failings of large-scale initiatives, such as the botched roll-out of the new US healthcare IT system.

A more prominent role of engineers in politics and other decision-making environments is vital for the health of any society. So, what to do?

The obvious solution is, of course, to increase the number of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates. It is also the wrong solution. More faint voices will not make a better chorus.

Another approach is to teach engineers more soft skills, like active listening, servant leadership and inclusive teamwork. None of these skills, however, build on traditional engineering strengths. Instead of becoming an excellent engineer, you run the risk of creating a mediocre HR professional. To quote Mark Twain, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.”

Instead, the secret of successful leaders with an engineering background is to simply focus on strengths. Early on, these strong leaders realized that if they spent their life compensating for their weaknesses, they would end up only with a large set of strong weaknesses.

Engineers have three common strengths that give them a unique leadership perspective:

They are experts at building processes and systems. This skill is essential for successful lawmakers and business leaders, because the only way to get future-proof and predictable results is through a process or a system. For example, if you want to grow your societal talent pool and do not have a process for learning and education, you are at the mercy of someone else’s process for teaching.

They are experts at reality-based thinking. As profound management thinker Peter Drucker once noticed, “What’s the reality?” might be the most important question in business and politics. Hope is not a strategy. Engineers are pragmatists, trained to keep on testing until the feedback from reality gives satisfactory results.

They are experts at accelerated learning techniques. You will not succeed in engineering if you have not learned how to learn. Engineering is more about learning how to pragmatically solve complex problems, and less about returning information in the same order it was given to you. The good news is that almost every skill is learnable, and engineers are adept at figuring out the method to the madness. This critical thinking skill explains why engineers often excel in other professional fields like marketing, finance and patent law, yet non-engineering professionals rarely work in the field of engineering.

But what about the typical lack of soft skills and emotional quotient (EQ), which allegedly holds engineers back from becoming effective business leaders? This is a myth. Engineers are not damaged and don’t need fixing. Leadership skills are not innate.

Our engineering education institutions have a vital role to play. Until and unless they challenge their students to take leadership roles in many diverse parts of our society, engineers will remain the odd errand boy in the adult world of politics and decision making.

There is a practical way the engineering education can teach leadership to its students: Make goal achieving the core of any engineering curriculum.

As a chemical engineer, I have received over 20 years of education. Yet, in all those years, I haven’t had a single minute of instruction on how to set and achieve big, hairy and audacious goals.

Goal achieving is a learnable skill. It enables engineers to apply their main strengths effectively, while at the same time step up and add value as societal leaders. The reason is threefold.

First of all, goal achieving is a process: once you grasp the mechanics, they can be applied almost universally. For example, building a new fighter plane and building a modern education system share commonalities. They both start with clarity, the vision of wild success. The next step is to focus on how to get there in the easiest way possible. And finally, execution: the daily minutia to turn meditation into motion.

Second, goal achieving is reality-based. Reality provides feedback, which is necessary to adapt course. A cruise missile constantly changes course based on feedback when in flight.

Third, goal achieving enables engineers to apply problem-solving skills abundantly. After all, the bigger the goal, the bigger the problems.

Society and business will benefit enormously when engineers increase their impact by stepping up as leaders. It is not about additional soft skills. Instead, training these talented people to become leaders will require our engineering schools to teach the mindsets, behaviors and skills of unstoppable goal achievers. When they do so, engineering education institutes will start building the business, political and societal leaders of the future.

Life is about goals. All else is just commentary.

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