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What Is “CEO Material?”

According to a recent Dallas Morning News story, a vast majority of Americans believe engineers are among the least likely professionals to succeed at the top of the corporate ladder. This, despite the fact that a third of all S&P 500 company CEOs had majored in engineering as undergraduates, according to a Spencer Stuart study. There is a reason why engineers make good CEOs…but don’t tell the folks in finance or sales.

According to a new survey from Milwaukee-based ASQ, formerly known as the “American Society for Quality,” only 9 percent of respondents said engineers would make the best chief executives, behind people from other fields, including operations, finance, marketing, academia and sales.

“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,” said Cheryl Birdsong-Dyerv, a professional process engineer for telecommunications firm Sprint Corp. ASQ has more than 14,000 members who are engineers, out of a total membership of 80,000. In a separate survey, ASQ found that not surprisingly 69 percent of the member engineers it polled said their skills provided a solid foundation for a successful CEO.

The reason why engineers make good CEO material is that the engineering discipline demands strong analytic skills. Engineers can be good leaders partly because they have a strong analytical background, said Michael Lovell, chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“One of the things we learn in engineering is to be a systems-level thinker so that we see a very big picture in how adjusting one area affects and impacts downstream other areas,” Lovell said. “That’s really important when you’re running a large, complex organization.”

There is perhaps one sensible reason why people in general don’t automatically link the profession with top management. When studying engineering, leadership tends to be overlooked. Pursuing an engineering degree is no easy task. The curriculum is extremely vigorous and often doesn’t include business courses that elicit an overall business mentality.

For example, all CEOs must have excellent communication skills, and maybe a strong dose of empathy. Such attributes are probably not at the top of the engineering curriculum. But somehow engineers pick up these skills along the way. Witness Alan Mulally, an aviation engineer who ran Boeing’s commercial aviation business before coming to Ford. He is among the most personable and empathetic leaders one can find at the top of business today. So is Honeywell’s David Cote and GE’s Jeff Immelt. Satya Nadella, the new chief executive of Microsoft Corp., has an engineering background. So does Mary Barra, who became CEO of General Motors Co. less than a month ago. What these leaders have in common is the ability to see the world inclusively but they also have the ability to act quickly and decisively when necessary. During the 2013 CEO2CEO Leadership Summit, Cote shared a bit of useful leadership advice. “It doesn’t matter if you enter a discussion without an answer as long as you end it with a conclusive answer.” Good CEOs and good engineers drive the team to a logical consensus.

Engineers possess several other qualities that define a good leader. They are detail-oriented and analytical. While they are meticulous, they still take risks, but calculated ones. They identify the root cause of a problem and provide an economical solution. They tend to have a very realistic outlook on situations and don’t add the fluff. They keep it simple. Finally, engineers are tech-savvy and understand how it all works. This provides them with a competitive advantage over other industry professionals. They lead by example and this ultimately helps them succeed.

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