By Jim Pinto
Decades ago, technology brought the era of "specialization"-knowing more and more about less and less. To advance faster, you had to focus. But in today's global environment, new developments have accelerated to where companies must generate winning strategies beyond narrow technical advantages. Broad leadership vision and teamwork have become important.
Engineering has an image problem. Surveys show the public is not aware of what engineers do, beyond being involved in construction of machines and buildings. Most people tend to think of engineering as being a job concerned with objects and gadgets rather than people. Actually, those ideas start with engineers themselves. It is their self-image.
Narrow focus = tunnel vision
Engineers tend to focus on engineering, rather than the overall, broad picture. And this limits their leadership potential. Most engineers do not want to be managers because they recognize leadership involves many things beyond the technical details they enjoy. They feel they should stick with what they know rather than branch off into the grey goop of people interface. Or even worse, marketing or sales, which engineers jokingly call "the dark side."
Did you know very few company chief executives are engineers? Even in technology companies, the top gun is typically a marketing person, followed (in order of probability) by finance, then sales, then operations (manufacturing), and last engineering. Especially in engineering companies, this is strange because, in my opinion, it is easier to teach an engineer about marketing than it is for a non-technical sales or marketing person to learn engineering. Engineers who advance to executive leadership can make a big difference.
I am an engineer, and so I feel I can discuss these things for and about engineers. Early in my engineering career, I was as frustrated at the lack of leadership around me. Most people seemed happy to be part of success, but did not take responsibility when things went wrong. Then I realized, directly or indirectly, I was part of the problem. Instead of kicking back to blame others, I started to find ways to become part of the solution. I started taking responsibility and got promoted. I discovered this truism, "I looked for a leader, and found myself!"
Success demands many disciplines
Engineering is a detail-orientated job. The design of products and systems entails a host of details that must be integrated. And so, engineers are usually narrowly focused, trusting in the old adage, "Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door."
The truth is the better mousetrap does not sell itself. Before the design is even contemplated, you must know the target customer. The "to do" list for design optimization must include the important market requirements. This involves comparing available products, reviewing competitive features, advantages, and benefits, finding out whether engineering can offer something superior, reviewing sales channels, and coverage of key geographical market areas.
Good engineering must be involved with all of these things to understand how and why the design specifications have been generated before the real engineering can commence. If you have a good understanding of the marketing requirements, plus the follow-on manufacturing, quality, sales, and distribution needs, then you are a good engineer. This is what I call "total concept engineering."
If you are an engineer and want to move ahead in your management career, you need to be constantly re-educating yourself in other disciplines. Here are some positive ideas on what you can do to re-engineer yourself.
- Make sure you re-invent yourself on a daily basis. Start digging into things that affect your job and your company, beyond just engineering. If you are proud of the products you helped develop, find out what it takes to make those products successful.
- Read the corporate business plan. Make an effort to understand other departments' goals and objectives. Dig into the things that help to make your company successful. Most good companies will welcome your broader involvement. If they do not, go up the chain till you get to the leader who will encourage you to understand more.
- Do not get stuck on narrow details. Go beyond your own projects, and see how everything contributes to the company's goals. Success involves identifying the results required and knowing the right steps, which includes recognizing the wrong steps. Ask questions to gain a clear understanding of what it takes to accomplish the overall objectives effectively.
- Become more proactive by finding productivity improvements and selling management to implement those changes. Take time to talk with marketing on product requirements and specifications; work with manufacturing to optimize production methods and costs; come up with ways to minimize hardware inventory by developing selection options; be pro-active in the specifications, to beef up the advantages. There are dozens of ways to dazzle the customers, so keep looking for them.
- Get to know your customers. These are the people (inside or outside your company) for whom you are doing the work. Go with sales people to visit customers to find out what they are buying and why. Satisfaction will bring customers back to generate success for your company.
Re-engineer yourself. You will enjoy the growth and success that this will bring.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and founder of Action Instruments. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or view his writings at www.JimPinto.com. Read the Table of Contents of his book, Pinto's Points, at www.jimpinto.com/writings/points.html.