1 June 2006
Armed with Business Acumen
By Ellen Fussell Policastro
Today's engineer needs more than technical savvy—it takes financial, marketing, and business know-how to make it through the trenches
Jarmo Salminen doesn't have an MBA, but as senior manager of IT and process automation at Georgia-Pacific in Atlanta, Ga., he's fought through the jungle of technical knowledge and established his career in management.
"Job security is a myth," he said. "Therefore an engineer, and every other professional out there, has to keep his skills marketable and résumé up to date."
Throughout his career, Salminen noticed a transition in engineering, whereby they need to know more about business in general and all the economics of the operations. "Business pays for us, so we have to make sure all the decisions and recommendations we make add value to the bottom line," he said.
GE Transportation's human resources leader Tomesah Harrison agrees. Being an engineer today takes more than technical skills and aptitude, she said. Coming from a medical device industry, Harrison said the big push was around innovation and creativity. The qualities managers value are transforming ideas and bringing teams together. "Do you facilitate change processes well?" At her last job, "there was almost this expectation you would collaborate well with others and build teams," she said. There was also the push for communication and presentation skills, and it hasn't changed that much in aviation.
At GE, the focus is on growth. "It permeates everything we talk about from senior leadership to shop-floor discussions," Harrison said. "How do you ensure you're prepared for growth? There's even a growth playbook. It determines if you're an inclusive leader, asking questions such as, is inclusion a way of life? Do you know how to engage people? Are you decisive? Can you include people in your ideas? Can you put everyday tactical moves into a strategic plan? Do people find you credible around your technical aptitude? After you bring all those core competencies together, you've got what it takes to drive growth in the company."
Harrison said her last position focused on innovation; here it's growth. But either way, it all boils down to good interpersonal skills. As you become more global, your ability to work well with people who aren't necessarily in the next cube becomes more critical," she said.
The same is true with Salminen, who needs to bring creativity to the table on an ongoing basis. "Every day there's something new coming down the pike," he said. "I'm dealing with capital projects, and therefore I need to understand business dynamics and ROI issues, such as how we can make this project financially viable or what our alternatives are," he said. One alternative to always consider is whether to close a particular manufacturing site altogether.
Salminen is constantly learning about business issues and technology advancements that might help implement something that previously was economically impossible. "If you don't keep your knowledge up to date, business leaders are going to find someone else who does to fill your job," he said. "Keeping your job is the main incentive to keep learning and to stay abreast."
Engineers these days are not only keeping their jobs, but learning the entire business, gaining the skills to move up the ranks to CFOs and CEOs. "In the past, those positions have been taken by people with finance and business backgrounds," said Kent Baker, program improvement leader at GE Transportation in Durham, N.C. "Engineers are now directly linked to customers and vendors, which enhances their ability to drive quick decisions."
At DuPont, it's important even for new graduates entering the workforce to be well rounded, said Yolanda Chiles, DuPont's U.S. region staffing manager in the talent acquisition group in Wilmington, Del. "Although we're looking for exposure to different facets of work, engineers still need to have that focused technical acumen because at the end of the day, we're still hiring them to be engineers, to enable our processes and systems to make products," she said.
However, there are other qualities and work habits needed for someone to get a technical job done, she said. "Leadership skills are still important. And even entry-level engineers can demonstrate those skills by being involved with organizations and activities in their local communities and schools," she said. Outside work or work onsite or on campus counts as activities that would allow them to use different skill sets, such as teamwork, defining processes, writing procedures, having to deal with customers, or some managerial techniques, such as managing money," she said.
In fact, DuPont requires previous work experience from engineers. "They can't just come out of school with good grades," Chiles said. They should have demonstrated technical skills as well as having been exposed to solid work habits."
Know your audience
Moving up the ranks also requires today's engineer to be sensitive and adaptable to certain audiences. "Soft skills (people skills) are one of the most essential components," Baker said. "But it also requires them to adapt one speech and diction to complement that audience. If in the past I sat in a cube and designed a part, I might have had to interact with fellow engineers; I can talk in engineering talk. But if I have a customer coming in, I might have to change the way I present myself, both physically and verbally. The change is about reading your audience and interacting. Customers don't necessarily want you to be completely technical and talk about dynamics behind the design. They want to know what's in it for them. Say with a jet engine, they want to know about fuel efficiency and savings and financial impacts, not the gizmos, although you might want to bring those out to distinguish yourself from your competitor."
Some engineers come out of school with more business savvy than they used to, Harrison said. "But [here at GE], we have programs and classes to support that, giving employees the tools they need to be effective change leaders," she said. One of the tools is teaching them how to give a presentation that has impact. They focused a lot on organizational savvy. Do you know how to market your ideas and influence other people to buy into those things?
"When you go to engineering school, the degree is like a building block for your career," Baker said. You use that as a tool to solve problems, whether it's mechanical or financial. The critical skill is being able to break down problems into their subcomponents and then understanding the levers that can manipulate the outcome. When we go through engineering school, we're trained to think a certain way. Then you bring in your soft skills, which I think you can use with people and in the financial world. It's all about analyzing a situation and breaking it down in inputs and outputs. You know what drives people. People want to be supported and rewarded and listened to."
Flat organization helps
One way the Durham GE site helps foster creativity and soft skills is through the concept and practice of a flat organization, where the hope is "out-of-the-box thinking" will lead to a multi-skilled environment, Harrison said. Here's how it works. The bulk of the workforce reports to the plant leader. The entire plant is built around teams, best practices, communication, and accountability. "That's supported by ensuring you hire the right people; and we have a rigorous assessment process," Harrison said. "If you hire the right people, you can constantly come and fuel this cycle. You're expected to have a high initiative level and the ability to know what to do and respond appropriately at all levels. Instead of being accountable to one boss and another person on crew, you're accountable to 16 other people; and they're supporting you."
GE's Jason Swinny calls the flat organization model "very interesting" and different from union facilities. "There's a lot of structure at union facilities in terms of who tells whom what to do," he said. Here "there's no hierarchy between the plant leader and technician. We all function as one. Of course, if we can't come to a consensus, we have to use [the team leader] to make a decision. But when given the data, we tend to make the right decisions in most cases. On the salary positions, you have to be able to lead without the authority. But you gain respect from your workforce by helping them push through and get improvements that help productivity, quality, and safety."
Harrison said the flat organization model has proven its effectiveness because employees have been able to drive productivity growth that's exceeded the competition. "It's amazing to watch," she said. "It changes the nature of human resources (HR) too. You go from being in the thick of things to acting as a consultant and advisor to much of the HR processes you'd see in a traditional work environment. I think it can flourish in other manufacturing environments, especially if you can do a startup. The benefits far outweigh doing anything else."
Take one for the team
Being a good listener is one of the keys to flourishing in such a team environment, Baker said. "You have to understand the issues facing a team and be able to filter responses and build a solution based on all those inputs. Listening to people, and having them understand you're listening, fosters inclusive environments; people know their opinions are valuable, even the quiet ones who don't normally speak up."
The team environment also pushes Baker to build on these skills. "As you move through your career, you might take on more operational roles in which you're leading a group of people; you need to have management skills, and the company is relying on your technical skills," he said. Baker also has to rely on his teammates' expertise to lend their input to solve problems. "You have to deal with conflict, foster that inclusive environment, and make quick decisions," he said.
Of course, an engineer could figure out ways to be innovative without pursuing a management career, and "if that's what you want, there's nothing wrong with that. But you also have to realize that engineering as its own field will evolve as will new technology," Swinny said. "You have to give a presentation once in a while. It might not be your strong suit, but presentations are part of the job. I wouldn't say being an outgoing person came natural to me. But there are always opportunities to step out and test those skills. Getting through it might not be pleasant, but once done, you're more comfortable in getting in front of people. You can't always shy away."
You can't stay with processes and methods you learned 20 years ago and expect to be successful, Swinny said. His advice to engineering students is "get the degree, get the technical background, then make sure you go learn to apply it so you're armed, whether with a co-op or internship or side job where you can apply skills," he said. That way you'll have "meaningful experiences when you start your first job or one you really want. It makes you more marketable because you're competing against people with the same degree and experience as you." With a BS in environmental engineering, Swinny is pursuing his MBA at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill at night. "It's been a great learning experience; I interact with people from Nortel, IBM, and Toyota," he said. "What I gain in those interactions and classroom discussion and bring back is worth a lot." But it isn't just about the degree, he said. "All the book smarts are fine, but being able to apply and do something measurable that other people appreciate and communicate effectively is key."
DuPont also provides avenues for engineers to build on the skills they already have.
For instance Six Sigma is a corporate initiative, defined as "the way we do work," Chiles said. "The expectation is there will be familiarity with Six Sigma as a standard process and way of designing and improving our work." Six Sigma training is available for all levels to DuPont employees.
Chiles' advice for seasoned engineers looking for advancement is twofold: "First, I would say educate yourself on current business conditions. What are your businesses' current objectives and goals? How are they defining them? What are the long-term goals and short-term milestones to reach those goals? Second, I would say see how your work or contributions fit with accomplishing those goals. How do you need to improve your skills in order to accomplish those goals?"
Inga Faison Cavitt, a DuPont technology team leader in Mobile, Ala., strongly suggests engineering students get a co-op or internship where they can get hands-on experience and apply what they're learning. "In school, they teach us how to think. Much of what we learn in school we may not see at the plant. But we're supposed to apply what we learn in the real world," she said. "Just because you aced a test doesn't mean you'll come in here with everything you need to know about a chemical plant."
When you do come into a job straight out of school, Faison Cavitt said you should ask as many questions as possible. "Don't be intimidated that your question is dumb. It's the only way you're going to learn."
If you're already a seasoned engineer but want to build on your skills, Cavitt said you should "make your interest known to managers and supervisors. I was an engineer for seven years. I've always wanted to be a supervisor. Initially I was going to be a first-line supervisor with hourly employees. But I saw this job open, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to keep my skills up and be a manager and help guide people in their careers," she said. "Now I can help fellow engineers pursue their dreams and goals."
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