February 2008

A leadership dilemma

By Peter G. Martin

Maximizing success in an engineering-driven industry, such as industrial automation, ties inextricably to balancing innovative business leadership and industry knowledge.

Because of this, selecting the most effective chief executive to run an automation business remains a challenge. Boards of directors of automation companies can generally take one of two approaches-choosing a chief executive who is more of a manager or a choosing a chief executive who is more of a leader. There is a huge difference. 

Managers tend to supervise the existing operation to success while leaders tend to drive necessary change in the operation. Both approaches may be the most appropriate at different times in a company's evolution. Each requires a different type and level of support.

Know what you want

Companies with a strong technical and intellectual portfolio operating under a successful, well structured business model may be most successful with a manager-chief executive, while companies requiring change in either its product and service portfolio or its business model, a leader-chief executive may be the appropriate choice. 

Manager-chief executives often come from the industry and therefore have a high degree of industry knowledge. These executives can combine the knowledge gained from working in the industry with training at a business school to become effective managers. Employees under manager-chief executives must work to drive operations excellence into the existing business processes. In these environments, job definitions and business processes are usually well-defined with a proven track record. 

Leader-chief executives, on the other hand, have the ability to define and drive innovative change into an organization. This innovative leadership often comes from working for companies outside of the automation industry, and bringing their knowledge of business models and technical and intellectual portfolios learned at those companies. Leader-chief executives will typically have business and innovation knowledge upon accepting their new assignments, but will lack technical knowledge. This technical knowledge has traditionally been viewed as critical to the chief executives' success in high technology companies. Today, the automation industry is in dire need of business innovation making leader-chief executives.  

Hit technical treetops

So how do we help enable leader-chief executives and their teams drive to success? Perhaps the most important starting point is determining what information they will require to be successful. Executives typically do not need to understand the technical aspects that we engineers love so much. Our job is to handle the details. Rather, these executives need to understand what the technology does so they can apply their knowledge of innovative business approaches to drive customer and business success. This may sound easy enough, but trying to stop an engineer from going into the details is almost as difficult as getting a dentist to admit that you do not have any cavities.

It is often helpful to identify the issues that get in the way of a working understanding of what we do. There are two key barriers to overcome: Our vernacular and technical details. As a community, we have developed a very specific and unique set of words and acronyms, our vernacular, that we use as common speech.  

Executives typically do need to know the details, so we should focus on providing functional descriptions of what things are rather than technical descriptions. It may be difficult for us to keep discussions at the functional level because of our desire to cover the details, but describing distributed control systems, programmable logic control systems, safety instrumented systems, valves, actuators, and instruments at a functional level can meet executives' needs in a concise time frame.

The automation industry needs manager-chief executives and leader-chief executives, but the trend may be toward the leader-chief executives to get the necessary levels of innovation. 

Automation and engineering professionals must take the lead in helping drive innovation. Our companies and our industry are depending on us.


Peter G. Martin, Ph.D., is vice president of performance management at Invensys Process Systems. His e-mail is peter.g.martin@ips.invensys.com.