Image credit: Bluewin

The Rationale for Why Engineers Make Top-Performing CEOs

"Engineers have a unique way of looking at the world" So, how unique are they and how exactly does such uniqueness impact when it comes to directing the company and shaping business success? Let's read on!
By Kaley Nguyen | 12 min read
on May 5, 2020
Image credit: Bluewin

It’s commonly believed that CEOs mostly come from management background, typically with a degree in a field related to business and leadership, such as business administration, management, or public administration. But, can an engineer become a CEO? The answer is “yes”, definitely “yes” – in fact, there exist several sound reasons explaining why engineers make great CEOs.

Beyond any doubt, some of the nation's greatest entrepreneurs and businessmen have hailed from engineering backgrounds. Whether you are discussing Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, or Herbert Hoover, there remains a long list of engineers who have proven - time and time again- that they do own the capability to be distinguished leaders as well as astonishingly good business managers.

Nonetheless, relatively few people in the business world get to know why, completely and precisely, engineers excel when it comes to operating the business and driving tough decisions regarding the future. Even some – who have “played around” within the engineering landscape for a while, fail to realize such a thing and thus, are yet to map out an adequate roadmap to approach the desirable managerial position. From engineer to CEO and everything in-between, let’s read on for a more comprehensive understanding!

Engineers Make Great CEOs: Good Reasons Behind

Taking a close look at the educational background of S&P 500 Chief Executive Officers, engineering stands out to be the most common undergraduate degree amongst them - approximately one-third of CEOs majored in engineering and only 11% graduated from business school.

Also, a few years ago, the Harvard Business Review built out a list of the 100 best-performing CEOs on the planet - and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos topped the list. Bezos earned a Bachelor of Science in computer science and electrical engineering from Princeton University. In addition to Amazon CEO, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella is an engineer; General Motors’ Mary T. Barra as well. Ex-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn and Dennis Muilenburg - former president and CEO of Boeing - have hailed from engineering backgrounds. Ursula Burns, the CEO and chairman of Xerox Corporation started her career as an engineering intern. And in fact, more or less 24 of the top 100 CEO’s have pursued a Bachelors or Master’s degree in engineering.

The Rationale For Why Engineers Make Top-Performing CEOs - Fig 1
Image credit: Seattle Met

"Engineers have a unique way of looking at the world" (Thomas A. Anderson, P.E, a licensed mechanical engineer from Point Park University) How unique are they and how exactly does such uniqueness shape the business success? Below is a breakdown of the engineering mindset, and why it’s proven to be so successful when it comes to directing the company!

#1. Detailed-Oriented Traits

It turns out to be a matter of fact that being an engineer demands strong mental aptitude and a willingness to pay attention to minute details that others may ignore. Attention to detail seems to live in their blood, which is understandable. Why? To put it simply, supposed that you're designing a bridge, just a small and barely perceptible mistake could possibly cause the entire structure to come crashing down, costing countless millions of dollars and potentially the loss of human life itself.

The fact that engineers are drilled from their earliest days to pay attention to the finest details that escape the notice of others without a doubt, helps propel them to success when they assume a leadership position within a business. Whereas engineers are typically described as introverts, this trait of personality by no means impedes their ability to be excellent leaders who inspire brilliance in the ranks.

More significantly, that engineering remains the most common undergraduate degree for Fortune 500 CEOs - alone - should lead us to pause whenever we’re going to “insinuate” that an outstanding leader is required to come from a robust background in business. It boils down to more than “being good problem solvers” or finding themselves capable of catching the small details that were unnoticed by others.

#2. Unique Problem-Solving Mindset

There goes without saying that engineers do possess strong skills in problem-solving, math, risk management as well as analysis. Whether it's a problem with a machine, bridge or business, engineers have the training to fix the problem. They produce successful outcomes by determining cost versus performance - these principles are more than essential for successful leadership. Actually, the higher rate of engineers that make it up the corporate ladder, the greater the skills and training that engineers practice are for business management.

What’s more, engineers often end up prominent CEOs thanks to the systematic way that they’re taught to approach the world and the problems they’ll find within it. Let’s take Microsoft’s Satya Nadella as an example. Having studied electrical engineering, the CEO of Microsoft is well-acknowledged for empowering the company to turn itself around in the face of an onslaught from Apple. Nadella initiated dramatic moves, typically bringing Microsoft Office to the iPad and releasing apps such as Outlook to the iPhone. Whilst such bold moves may have seemed unthinkable to some, Nadella saw the bigger picture and by 2018, he had pushed the company’s slumping revenue up to staggeringly $110 billion.

The Rationale For Why Engineers Make Top-Performing CEOs - Fig 2
Image credit: The New York Times Post

Also, more than anything else, it’s fostering systems thinking, wherein your mental process takes into account every single facet of a business, machine, or person before making a crucial decision surrounding that thing. Should you be incapable of breaking down a complex machine into its various parts before reassembling it in your head, unfortunately, it’s likely that you don’t “boast” an engineering mindset. 

Similar to Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, engineers Elon Musk and James Dyson both have that mindset. As already mentioned, engineers usually adopt a unique way of looking at a problem - their way of defining it is exactly what leads to them ultimately solving it. "Design is just problem solving," Dyson shared with Wired. "I'm a designer and an engineer, I get angry about things that don't work, like hand dryers, endless paper towels, what a huge waste." But, he said, "what if you could scrape water off your hands with a blade of air?" Sometimes the problem an engineer comes up against is just a hand dryer, but many other times it’s bringing back a company’s sagging revenue.

The Rationale For Why Engineers Make Top-Performing CEOs - Fig 3
Image credit: Wired

It should also be noted that an indispensable aspect of that problem solving is the relentless perseverance to actually address the problem rather than place blame somewhere else. Undeniably, engineers are constantly up against a wall, and being an engineer yourself, you could probably realize that engineers are typically stubborn individuals. Should something be not working properly, they tend to keep trying new methods until it does work. We must be too familiar with the story of Thomas Edison saying that he didn’t fail 1,000 times when inventing the light bulb – rather, that there were merely 1,000 steps to inventing it. 

After all, "if you always succeed, you're learning nothing. Failure is terribly important", said Dyson. The quality of perseverance, of course, isn’t limited to the engineering mind, but when an individual with strong perseverance and a talent for engineering assumes a leadership role in a company, they often make headway while others may have struggled.   

In fact, speaking of directing and leading a company, those who are able to genuinely embrace the strong engineering mindset are more likely to understand each and every facet of their business, finding themselves capable of leveraging their broad knowledge of a company to drive wise long-term decisions on the basis of what the company is best at. Instead of merely looking at a business as one entity, engineers regard it as a complex machine where each component has a specific function and purpose that makes up the greater engine.

#3. Technology Savviness

"Our industry does not respect tradition - it only respects innovation." Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, points out something fundamentally significant to all industries: whereas it's good to learn from the old, you should always be striving to create the new - Don't let yourself be held back by what has come before you, and forge a new path!

And whenever it comes to innovation, this goes hand in hand with technology. "For me, it matters that we drive technology as an equalizing force, as an enabler for everyone around the world" - that's the message that Google CEO, Sundar Pichai, reinforces.

The Rationale For Why Engineers Make Top-Performing CEOs - Fig 4
Image credit: Fortune

Let’s take a close look over technology’s importance from the corporate management aspect. In order to establish a great business, it’s imperative to stay fully informed where technology is going. Frankly speaking, you don’t have to be an engineer to do this, but most financial CEOs rarely have the experience. To be riding on the crest of a wave and make flying success, a company needs to have a state-of-the-art product. And who makes those? Engineers.

Furthermore, by nature, engineers embrace innovation and challenges – they enjoy doing things better, faster, and cheaper. They love testing out a new widget to find whether it can improve production or productivity. They are obsessed with optimization and efficiency – those are exactly what lays a solid foundation for exponential success!

Another noteworthy point to highlight is that engineers should know other engineers, who are also technically competent. As engineers must work in teams to be successful, these teams together perform huge tasks and oversee millions if not billions of dollars. Without the right people on the team, the entire project could ultimately end up a total failure. So, what does that mean? It does imply that besides being proficient figures themselves, engineers are outstanding at picking talent, top talent – another essential item great CEOs are responsible for. Since they make continuous attempts to build companies that can attract and sustain top talent, they work with people who “get” it!

Besides technical expertise, engineers who climb the company ranks also tend to recruit ones that have a similar way of looking at and solving problems. Typically, they look for those who have an analytical and architectural way of thinking since it allows for making wiser and more informed decisions. It should come as no surprise that some giant names such as Amazon, Tesla, and General Motors are all doing highly innovative things with engineers at the helm. There goes without saying that the leaders of these Fortune 500 companies have scouted out the top talent to work alongside them. 

From Engineer to CEO and Everything In-Between

Should you be an experienced engineer and harbor the ambition of being in the managerial position, congratulate – compared to several others, you stand a higher chance of clambering up the greasy pole of success! Yet, already being an engineer does not necessarily translate that you will definitely a CEO someday in the future. From engineer to CEO, there exist tons of things in-between, and your efforts to tackle these things will answer whether you deserve to be great CEO!

In around July of 2019, Engineering Management Institute published a civil engineering podcast with William T. Thomsen, PE, who is the President and CEO of Urban Engineers of New York, DPC. Within this podcast, he shared some fascinating experiences along his career journey as well as things that have factored into his success and progression from engineer to Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Let’s see if you could model yourself on him and fast track your professional path!

The Rationale For Why Engineers Make Top-Performing CEOs - Fig 5
Image credit: Engineering Management Institute

When asked about his career progression from engineer to CEO, Urban Engineers’s Thomsen genuinely shared, “my career started with working in the field and learning things from the ground up.” He continued. “Anytime you have a challenge in the civil engineering world, it's good to go out, feel it, touch it and visit the site if you can because it puts a frame of real reference to the problem-solving side of things.” In practice, “we learn what we know and what we don’t know by doing, so we always have to continue to study and grow in the area of our expertise.”

When it comes to operating huge engineering projects, the CEO pointed out “it takes an entire team to manage large scale projects, but you have to always be focused on the fundamentals of project management which are the control of time, cost and quality”. More importantly, “effective communication is key when you are working on projects. You have to work together, have a strong leadership team, and challenge yourself to reach the goals of the program.” “When you have a team and you can get people to all act without criticizing, condemning, or complaining, you have the beginning of a process for success.”

Plus, being a manager, rather than an executive member of the engineering team, "you have to understand what the goals of a project are, consistently reinforce obtaining those goals, and achieve success through reinforcement of the vision of the projects, goals, and successes.”

Speaking of vision, goals, and successes, Amazon Founder & CEO Jeff Bezos has shared a quite similar point of view with Mr. William T. Thomsen.  “We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details…. We don’t give up on things easily. Our third-party seller business is an example of that. It took us three tries to get the third-party seller business to work. We didn’t give up.”

“If you're not stubborn, you'll give up on experiments too soon. And if you're not flexible, you'll pound your head against the wall and you won't see a different solution to a problem you're trying to solve.” Being Flexibly Stubborn – such a piece of advice is actually easier said than done since it is somehow challenging to know exactly when you should be flexible with your vision as well as when you should remain dogmatic. By and large, serially successful entrepreneurs are typically indifferent as to the specific tactics they must employ to accomplish their fervently held strategic objectives. Should your culture reward those who seek the truth, your team will be prone to objectively identify tactical course corrections.

Back to Mr. Thomsen’s podcast, when talking about his educational background and career success, he particularly placed an emphasis on the importance of obtaining a degree in Engineering Management. To be more concise, “my Engineering Management degree provided me with a broad knowledge of the business of engineering. As you grow in your career, the tools that you have learned become very useful for you. Utilizing the engineering management skills that I have learned through my engineering management degree serve to consume most of my time in the business world.”

 “What worries you about the Civil Engineering industry right now?” Answer this concern, he honestly voiced his standpoint. “The supply of young engineers is not increasing at the level of demand. My fear is that young people’s perception within the engineering profession is that it’s a commoditized technical profession, as opposed to a true profession.” He added, “if we don’t have enough STEM education efforts and inspire children to become engineers, there will not be enough engineers in the future.”

All things considered, the journey from an engineer to a CEO is, by no means, a straightforward path. However, this proves to be never impossible for those who do have "stubborn" ambitions and "leave no stones unturned" to make these ambitions come true. Appreciating what you are taught in your Engineering Degree, embracing every single working experience within the engineering field, paying strong attention to large-scale projects as well as tackling the communication barriers are amongst the key factors to orient Mr. Thomsen’s managerial success. And you can too!

The Bottom Lines

Being detail-oriented, high-tech savvy, uniquely analytical, and trained in systematic problem-solving - engineers’ fundamental qualities make them great candidates for the top. Being an adept engineer within the business scene, you can completely become a CEO – yet, always bear in mind, there exist challenges and hurdles in-between, hereby you have to take great interest in developing the skills and seeking out the experience and responsibilities that are involved in running a business. Apply your engineering lens to the problem of getting the right experience to be CEO and you will get off to a flying start!

This article is also credited to Chris Porteous and page Engineering Management Institute.

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