Chapter 3 Engineering Strengths – How Successful Engineers Become Great Business Leaders


Engineering Strengths

How do you build on your unique strengths as a leader with an engineering background to achieve your goals?

Why Developing Strengths Matters

Recently, a senior operations executive shared with me his biggest frustration with his talented engineers. He lamented that every time his high-potential engineers joined a business meeting with senior leaders, they ended up with a list of action points. They acted like overpaid message boys. He wished they would stop running errands, start pushing back on nonsensical ideas and really behave like peers.

Listening to the voice of the customer is all the rage in modern business leadership, but what about the voice of the engineer? The good news is that in business, there are many examples of engineers stepping up to develop leadership skills and become accomplished business leaders. The traditional approach to improve leadership performance is to focus on teaching engineers more business acumen, for example with an MBA. This often includes developing more soft skills, like active listening, servant leadership, and inclusive teamwork. This plan explains the myriad courses to improve human interaction skills, ranging from becoming more adept at public speaking, to more esoteric forms of training, such as horse listening.

The idea that engineers are held back from becoming effective business leaders because of limited soft skills and emotional quotient (EQ), is a myth. Engineers are not damaged and don’t need fixing in the soft skill department. The reason is that if you focus on developing additional soft skills, you don’t build on traditional engineering strengths. Instead of becoming an excellent business leader, you run the risk of creating a mediocre human resources (HR) professional. To quote Mark Twain, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.”

Instead, the secret to becoming a great business leader with an engineering background is to simply focus on your unique strengths and at the same time get rid of unhelpful habits that mask these strengths. Take for example Alan Mulally. Trained as an aeronautical engineer, the former CEO of Ford has been credited for turning around the struggling Ford Motor Company between 2005 and 2014. What made him enormously effective was his no-nonsense leadership style, focused on a process called the business process review (BPR). In the weekly BPR, Mulally systematically reviewed key indicators—his spider line—of the Ford company with his senior executives. Mulally’s process-oriented approach to leadership proved to be enormously effective to refocus the company on what really mattered.

There are two mechanisms to enforce the mistaken attitude that engineering strengths should be reduced in importance and that damage control by carefully building more soft skills is the best road for engineers to become more effective leaders:

  • The Superman stereotype. Hollywood emphasizes that if you simply drop your Kent Clark glasses, a superhero will magically appear. The reality is that if you drop your glasses, it’s more likely you will stumble into a wall.
  • The peak performance fallacy. The thinking is that, since engineers are so good at mathematics, processes, and solution-based thinking, there is not much to learn here. Let’s focus on holding inclusive deep listening circles instead.

To accelerate your career, don’t necessarily focus on soft skills, but on boosting your strengths and getting rid of unhelpful habits. You will find more about getting rid of adverse habits in Chapter 8.

Why All-Round Leadership Excellence Is a Myth

Three cardinal rules are important for exceptional business leaders when they focus on building on strengths.

The first is that it is much easier to build on strengths than to compensate weaknesses. This is only natural, as we need far less energy to become twice as strong in areas where we are already strong than to try to become 10 percent stronger in areas where we are weak. For example, the exemplary violin player Yehudi Menuhin was able to reach additional peak performance by a never-ending routine of violin practice. He probably would have been a lousy nuclear engineer, even if he had used all of his training effort to become proficient in mathematics and physics. Before you dismiss this example as silly, you have to realize that this bizarre approach to people development is common practice in many organizations. Take the standard performance review. Odds are that the vast majority of time is spent discussing your weaknesses or “development opportunities” instead of your strengths. The idea that you grow by compensating your weaknesses is simply wrong. Great business leaders know that if you spend a lifetime compensating your weaknesses, you end with a large set of strong weaknesses. This practice is a recipe for mediocrity, not for extraordinary achievement.

The second rule is that the more profound your abilities, the more profound your weaknesses. The reason is very simple. It takes a lot of time to develop massively strong skills. The popular thinking is that it takes 10,000 hours to become a master. Though this number is often disputed, the point remains the same. The time spent building strengths was not spent learning other things. If knowledge and abilities are deep, they lack width. This theory explains why Einstein was lousy at relationships, Ernest Hemingway repeatedly lost large sums of money, and the late Steve Jobs had questionable judgment regarding his own health and vitality.

The third rule is that profound abilities and strengths will float to the surface when behaviors that mask strengths are eliminated. It’s not uncommon to read stories about individuals, in bad physical condition, who decide to get serious about health and end up running marathons. At the same time, they also started to exhibit great success in their chosen professions or careers. The behaviors that masked their strengths were eliminated so strengths can bloom.

Thus, successful business leaders do not possess all-round excellence, but are able to achieve extraordinary success by spiking their strengths even further. What strengths do leaders with an engineering background typically have, that can be applied to achieve big-growth goals?

How to Recognize Your Super-Talents

Everyone has talents. Some are reasonably good at organizing stuff, at mathematics, or at languages. However, everyone also has super-talents. What is interesting about super-talents is that we are so good at them, we don’t consciously recognize our own talents. In other words, the behaviors and thinking patterns associated with these super-talents come so natural to us that it’s very difficult to imagine anyone else struggling. It’s like riding a bike. Once you get it, muscle memory takes over and balance becomes natural.

How do you recognize your own super-talents? There are some glaring clues.

First of all, you turn to your super-talents when faced with obstacles and difficulties. When cyclist Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer, he applied his super-talent, his unbelievable discipline, to rigorously adopt a regime that would make him healthy again. He conquered cancer, but in the end his super-talent became a two-edged sword. He became so obsessed with winning that he turned to illegal drugs to win the Tour de France.

Second, other people come to you to get advice about your super-talent. As a professional speaker, I often receive spontaneous requests to critique the speaking of others.

Third, you love to be immersed in the subject of your super-talent. If you are good at strategic business thinking, I’ll bet your library has books like The Art of War and The Effective Executive. This interest and even obsession fuels you super-talent. The more you engage with understanding the intricate details of your obsession, the better you will perform.

As an engineer, you may not notice your own super-talents. In my work with thousands of professionals with an engineering background, I have noticed, however, that three talents are common in almost all of them: reality-based thinking, process design, and accelerated learning.

Why Reality-Based Thinking Matters

The first strength of an engineer is reality-based thinking. As profound management thinker Peter Drucker once noticed, “What’s the reality?” might be the most important question in business. Hope is not a strategy.

Reality-based thinking has several components. The first is the ability to make decisions driven by data. For example, once you realize that wind turbines are running at capacity less than 40 percent of the time, you understand that wind energy will never be a viable and cheap solution for more conventional forms of energy production, unless cheap ways of massive energy storage are developed as well. An effective business leader is able to not only sell an idea, but also to bring that idea to a successful conclusion. This skill separates engineers from other professionals, such as trend watchers, politicians, and futurists. These professionals don’t need to be concerned with how things work out in the end. The sale of their idea is the most important part of their success. This truth explains why people continue to turn to the predictions of stock market investment gurus, although history has shown the reliability of many of these predictions is typically worse than that of Tarot cards, hand reading, or astrology.

The second component of reality-based thinking is the ability to clarify assumptions. Assumptions are the underlying laws, convictions, or ideas that support a course of action. For instance, many budget predictions are based on the assumption that the economy continues to grow at its current pace. There is nothing wrong with working with assumptions. After all, life would be unlivable without the assumption that the sun will rise tomorrow. However, when key assumptions are not brought to the surface, things may go pear-shaped rapidly. We therefore need not only to press for clarity about our assumptions, but also to have a system in place to check these assumptions on a regular basis.

The third component of reality-based thinking is the ability to overcome systematic thinking biases. An example of a notorious systematic thinking bias is self-selecting bias. For example, if you would ask the greatest minds in economy if economic forecasts are relevant and reliable, you will probably get a resounding yes. It would be a mistake to take this opinion as the best there is though. After all, economists have spent lifetimes becoming masters of their professions. Naturally, any conclusion that diminishes these efforts would be met with hostility. As Upton Sinclair once noticed: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” To overcome self-selecting bias, a good question for a leader to subject experts is therefore: what needs to happen to dismiss your conclusion or prediction? If no answer can be given, you are not dealing with science, but with superstition.

This doesn’t mean that the role of the leader should be an endless quest to gather more information. In this case, action paralysis ensures that nothing will happen. The role of the leader is to always be curious to find different ways to understand reality and take action on the available data.

To sharpen your effectiveness, it’s therefore essential to be data-driven, aware of assumptions, and always alert to thinking biases. It doesn’t mean that intuition will not play a role. Making a decision by definition involves both hard data and your intuition. After all, you will never have all the information available. How can reality-based thinking help to improve decision-making?

How to Apply Reality-Based Thinking

Engineers are pragmatists, trained to keep on testing and questioning until the feedback from reality gives satisfactory results. The ability to make the right business decisions in the face of uncertainty is called executive judgment. The world grows more complex every day, and well-developed judgment skills are in short supply. The twin engines that drive good executive judgment when choosing between different options are feasibility and effectiveness. Figure 3.1 shows the impact of feasibility and effectiveness on the quality of judgment.

Figure 3.1 The impact of feasibility and effectiveness on the quality of executive judgment

If a course of action is neither effective nor feasible, you are operating in the pleasant land of magical thinking. This is where the quality of a good story trumps the unpleasant boundaries of reality. An example of magical thinking is the business case to cover a huge area in the Sahara Desert with solar cells, to make energy almost free and abundant. With the current state of technology, this thinking is neither feasible (it requires a stunning amount of resources) nor effective (how do you produce energy in the night?). Yet, despite these massive obstacles, many (political) leaders still pour abundant resources into these types of unicorn projects.

If a course of action is feasible but lacks effectiveness, you tend to focus on symbolic thinking instead of substance. The key question to determine effectiveness for a business leader is therefore “Will this course of action bring us closer to our most important goals?” If yes, make it happen. If no, apply ruthless judgment to move on. How bold can you be in your thinking? Don’t waste time on symbolic, half-hearted actions. Teaching cannibals how to eat with knife and fork is hardly progress.

If an option is effective but not feasible, you deal with utopian thinking. When Volkswagen decided to become the biggest carmaker in the world, its greatest roadblock was to make sure its diesel engines would meet ever-stricter environmental requirements at a low cost. Since this goal was technically impossible, the engineers were cajoled into installing a so-called defeat device: a program that recognizes an emission test cycle and consequently adjusts an engine to run in a non-representative testing mode to meet emission standards. When federal regulators became aware of this illegal device in 2015, the resulting fines for the company were massive and the carmaker’s ambition to become number one hit a serious roadblock. The question to test feasibility is, “Has it been done before?” If not, risks are high, and you may reconsider whether the huge effort to become a pioneer is better used elsewhere.

Only when decisions are based on effectiveness and feasibility, is judgment grounded in reality-based thinking. Reality-based judgment is an intuitive skill for almost every engineer. After all, engineers are used to dealing with reality all the time. Since they are focused on building things in the real world, lack of proper judgment may literally bring the house down. Excellent business leaders are able to translate intuitive judgment skills to the fine art of decision making in business areas as well. The two elements of judgment—effectiveness and feasibility—codify how the best decisions are being made. Once you know how to apply reality-based thinking to improve judgment successfully, you have the ability to enhance this skill even further and become a better leader in the process.

Why Process Design Matters

The second strength of an engineer is process design. A process is a sequence of steps to get a desired outcome. Processes are vital to a well-run organization because:

  • The only way to get repeatable results is through a process. This is the reason checklists are used widely in the medical field and aviation.
  • They help to get not only results, but especially favorable results for the organization.
  • There is method to the madness for almost any business activity. Applying a proven process usually skips a long and painful learning curve.
  • They save a lot of time. Why invent the wheel when the wheel blueprint is readily available?
  • They eliminate mistakes. A start-up safety checklist in a chemical plant provides a guarantee that the essential safety measures are in place before starting up.
  • They get predictable results. The last things you are looking for when designing a bridge are risks and uncertainties.
  • They are scalable. FedEx developed a spoke-and-hub-system to get overnight delivery. The company started with a few test packages, and as soon as it was successful, it simply increased the numbers.
  • They are transferrable to other areas. An autopilot function on a plane has much in common with an autopilot function on a train.

The aptitude to apply logic to build processes is the hallmark of an engineering education. This aptitude is how chemical plants, automobiles, and computer chips are built and new leadership approaches are developed. What is true for engineering is true for leadership as well. Leadership is about getting results. Why not apply process thinking to parts of a business outside the field of engineering? If you don’t have a process to achieve a certain result, you are at the mercy of someone else’s process for providing that result.

A fascinating example can be found in sales. If you want to grow your company, you need to realize that if you do not have a process for selling, you rely on someone else’s process for buying. Selling is an almost scientific process and should not depend on chance. This fact is especially important for business leaders, since sales drive growth, supplying the life blood of any business. One of the most important steps in the sales process happens after a sale is made. Especially for professional services, this moment is when referrals can be harvested. These referrals will fuel the start of a new sales cycle. Unless you have a systematic sales process, it is unlikely you will have a systematic referral process to fuel future growth.

An important task of a business leader is therefore to codify existing processes for key business functions, such as sales, strategy, and innovation. Once you understand an existing process, you will be able to improve upon this process. No structural improvement is possible without understanding the method to the madness.

This design thinking is not limited to business processes. It can be equally applied to shape behaviors and build a high-performance culture. Although you can’t predict with 100 percent certainty how people will behave, you can systematically vary your own leadership behaviors to get the desired results. This is called systematic behavior testing. You continue to test different approaches to get different results. As a child, many have had ample experience with this approach. If we wanted to get candy and crying wouldn’t help, you would turn to begging, or more sophisticated forms of persuasion.

By adopting a systematic approach to achieving a desired result, business leaders with an engineering background play to their strengths. Earlier you saw Alan Mulally applied process thinking to steer right behaviors in the Ford Motor Company.

How to Apply Process Design

A process can either be engineered or reverse engineered. If it is engineered, you typically start from scratch and build the interlinking pieces from there. This is why there are best practices around project management, giving feedback, and balanced scorecards.

If something has been reverse engineered, you start with an example of a desirable result and work backward to understand how you arrived at this result—a popular method of many modern management thinkers. Think of best sellers like Built to last, which looks at key characteristics of top performers and distills the essential part for others to become high performers as well. The problem, of course, is that with reverse engineering, you may confuse correlation with causation. The sun doesn’t rise because of the rooster crowing in the morning. This way of thinking explains why, less than 20 years after its publication, many companies identified in Built to Last have fallen from grace.

Despite these concerns, there are two major applications of reverse engineering for business leaders. First, reverse engineering is an invaluable tool for strategic goal-achieving. In other words, begin with the end in mind and then go back to identify the necessary steps to achieve the results. Second, it’s a powerful approach to innovate and find hidden gems and opportunities. For example, Viagra was originally conceived as a treatment for heart disease. That didn’t work. However, while studying its side effects, Pfizer marketeers got a very different and very successful idea for its use.

Executive Question

One of the most important questions to drive innovation is to ask as a leader: What should not work, but is working anyway? How can you apply reverse engineering to systematically obtain more of these excellent results?

Why Accelerated Learning Matters

The third engineering strength is accelerated learning. In 2015, an artificial intelligence (AI) computer program called AlphaGo defeated the human world champion of the board game Go. Go is a deceptively simple game that actually is so complex that it’s impossible for any computer to evaluate enough possible scenarios of different moves in real time to play at a high level. Rather than relying on massive processing power, AlphaGo, therefore, focused on one thing: practice. AlphaGo continued to play against itself for months, using up to 30 million preloaded moves to apply accelerated learning and develop game-winning strategies on its own.

With the pace of technological and scientific progress accelerating, it’s obvious that successful business leaders need to accelerate their learning as well. Accelerated learning is defined by the speed, frequency, and size (or depth) of the feedback. Figure 3.2 shows the relationship between different forms of feedback and accelerated learning.

Figure 3.2 The effect of different forms of feedback on accelerated learning

If feedback of an action is fast and frequent but lacks size or depth, learning is shallow. If, for instance, you try to learn a foreign language by mindlessly repeating sentences from an audiobook, you will gradually improve. Since this method does not require deep learning by building sentences yourself, improvements will be shallow.

If feedback of an action is fast and sizable but is not very frequent, you tend to learn slowly. Think of the space shuttle program, where learning was limited by the low frequency of launch events.

If feedback of an action is frequent and sizable but lacks speed, you deal with delayed learning. This challenge, for example, occurs with the massive particle collider in Switzerland (CERN), where any quantum experiment generally lasts a very short period of time but produces a massive amount of data that may take years to be interpreted.

Thus, accelerated learning only happens when feedback from actions and experiments is fast, frequent, and significant. In engineering terms, this result is called flash testing. The design and execution of small pilots for flash testing are powerful tools in the engineering toolbox.

Good examples of the smart application of accelerated learning are the actions of the carmaker Volvo. Volvo is famous for its focus on safety. Since 1969, a dedicated team investigates every Volvo crash in Sweden. Its aim is to learn as much as possible from real-world accidents. In 2000, under the guidance of CEO Leif Eriksson, the carmaker stepped up its game and opened a state-of-the-art and unique car crash facility. This facility provided even more speedy, frequent, and significant feedback to help the carmaker improve the safety of its cars further and stay on top of its game.

Flash testing is not limited to the lab. Excellent leaders apply this approach to rapidly become better as an organization as well. For example, while building a high-performance culture in a large global company, our team applied a behavioral survey to test any improvements after each company-wide engagement. The results of this fast, frequent, and impactful feedback helped us do more of what worked and quickly get rid of what didn’t work. There were no failures, only outcomes of tests.

Executive Question

How can you design and apply quick pilots with fast, sizeable, and frequent feedback, to accelerate learning for you and your organization?

How to Apply Accelerated Learning

A lawyer who becomes an engineer is very rare. An engineer who becomes a patent lawyer is, however, quite common. What would explain this uneven balance? One explanation is that engineering is maybe boring, and becoming skilled at this discipline is not really worth the time and effort. Of course, I propose a different explanation. It’s fairly easy for an engineer to become proficient in another professional skill. The reason is that a large part of an engineering education is to learn how to learn.

This approach to learning expresses itself in various forms. First, pattern recognition is a powerful tool in the area of problem solving. After all, once you identify a problem, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when faced with a different yet similar problem. If you recognize the pattern when learning different skills, it’s easy to apply and adopt this pattern to become better quickly. For example, an effective present

Practical Application

One powerful pattern for an effective presentation is to answer three questions:

  • What do you want the audience to know?
  • How do you want the audience to feel?
  • What do you want the audience to do?

Applying this simple know-feel-do pattern will massively improve the persuasion skills of any leader.

ation adheres to certain standard patterns.

Second, natural laws and rules of thumb quickly become your friend. The Romans mastered the secrets to building arches to support heavy roofs. The old Roman temples, still standing, are a testament to their craft, and these practices have been used by their successors for hundreds of years. Learning a new practice opens the door to thousands of possibilities. Just like pattern recognition, rules of thumb and natural laws are cause-and-effect relations, often put on paper.

Finally, reality-based thinking provides powerful feedback from reality and enables the engineer to keep on testing until the desired result is met. The translation from the theoretical to the practical is a humbling experience. Looking for feedback is not always natural. It can be a brutal experience, yet nature cannot be fooled.

Pattern recognition, natural laws, and feedback from reality ensure learning patterns that are fast and effective, and can be applied broadly to other business skills. This provides a leader with an engineering background with agility to effectively deal with a changing world. For example, advertising is nothing more than the application of the science of persuasion. It consists of three main ingredients:

Ingredient 1: Pattern recognition. The story of the product or service is often set up with the hero’s journey template of storytelling.

  1. Once upon a time there was . . .
  2. Every day . . .
  3. One day . . .
  4. Because of that . . .
  5. Because of that . . .
  6. Until finally . . .

Ingredient 2: Rule of thumb. People are most fond of what they cannot have. If you suggest scarcity of a product, it will therefore be more coveted.

Ingredient 3: Flash testing. The effectiveness of a product advertising campaign is often tested with an A/B split. A magazine has two print runs. One run contains advertisement A, the other contains a different advertisement B for the same product. The best advertisement is the one with the highest response rate.

Table 3.1 gives an overview of engineering strengths, how these strengths translate to leadership skills and behaviors, and the main applications of these strengths in business.

Table 3.1 The relation between engineering strengths, leadership skills and behaviors, and business application

Engineering strengths Leadership skills and behaviors Business application
Reality-based thinking • Data-driven decisions
• Clarify assumptions
• Overcome thinking biases
Executive judgment based on feasibility and effectiveness
Process design Codify key business processes by engineering or reverse engineering • Strategy execution: begin with the end in mind
• Innovation: what’s working despite of everything
Accelerated learning Agility by actively looking for feedback Expanding skills by:
• Pattern recognition
• Rules of thumb
• Feedback from reality

Where to Deploy Your Strengths

Now that you’ve discovered the three strengths of engineers—reality-based thinking, process design, and accelerated learning—the question is where to deploy these strengths to become better business leaders. For this, let’s take a closer look at a different field: long-term investing in the stock market.

Successful long-term investing in the stock market is guided by two universal rules:

  • Risk and reward are correlated. The higher the risk, the higher the potential rewards. For example, investing in questionable loans (junk-bonds) may result in huge profits, but may also expose you to massive losses.
  • In order to optimize results, it’s important to build a portfolio balanced with high-risk assets (to maximize gains) and low-risk assets (to minimize losses). Ideally, the two asset classes should have a low correlation. For example, if your portfolio consists of both stocks and bonds, the stocks part will perform well in a growing market (bull market) and the bonds part will perform well in a shrinking market (bear market). This approach is called portfolio thinking. The most important decision for portfolio thinking is therefore asset allocation: the distribution between risky assets (in this case stocks) and less risky assets (in this case bonds). The best asset allocation for an individual investor depends on many factors, such as risk tolerance and age.

The example of the two rules for successful investing in the stock market can be applied to becoming great business leader. In order to grow as a leader, you need to apply part of your strengths to more risky endeavors. To mitigate the downside of this risk, you need to apply the remaining part of your strengths to more safer endeavors.

What is a safe endeavor? Generally speaking, a safe endeavor is to perform well at your current job. For example, if you are an operations manager in a large organization, delivering products within budget and time and according to specifications, will create essential value to your organization. You manage the running business. It doesn’t mean that risk is completely mitigated, as you may still lose your job if the company hits a wall. It means, however, that if you apply the skills that are immediately applicable to your current role, you continue to create value, and you become better by gradually building experience. This is called working in your job, or in your business: you are slowly becoming better at what you are responsible for right now.

Let’s now focus on more risky endeavors. These are activities with a much higher reward and constitute working on your job, or on your business. As you’ve seen, the best activities to make massive gains have two characteristics: they are focused on business growth, and they make plentiful use of the power laws. As discussed earlier, a power law describes how small differences can yield exponential results. In business, only three activities incorporate the power laws to massively improve growth: marketing, innovation, and strategy.

Marketing includes activities to help attract the best customers to your company. Think of white papers, advertisements, social media, client knowledge sessions, etc.

Innovations improve the value you create for your clients in a profitable way by doing things differently. This value is not limited to product innovation, but extends to areas like service improvement as well. Think of improving delivery speed or extending product service.

Strategy encompasses activities to help you achieve big goals in the easiest way possible. Strategy can be as big as a merger, or as small as systematically building appropriate leadership behaviors.

Marketing, innovation, and strategy are the only business activities that make ample use of the power laws. They don’t have a ceiling if they are effectively applied. For example, if you improve logistics and increase production speed for a client, the effect may resonate through your entire business. On the other hand, if you focus on a business activity that cannot leverage the power laws, say cost cutting, you will quickly reach a ceiling. In this case, the ceiling is, of course, zero.

How to Drive Growth Goals

As a business leader, it’s important to allocate your strengths and create the right balance between working in your business and working on your business. Figure 3.3 illustrates this balance.

Figure 3.3 Working-in versus working-on your business

The allocation between working in and working on your business has major applications for your ability as a leader to achieve big goals. Imagine that 90 percent of your energy is dedicated to working in your business, which is maintaining the running business. The remaining 10 percent is dedicated to working on your business. Now imagine that, as a business leader, your focus on applying your strengths to business growth enables you to shift your energy from 90 percent working in the business, to 80 percent working in the business. Since marketing, innovation, and strategy activities increase to 20 percent, your activities focused on achieving growth goals simply double. A small shift in your leadership focus can therefore massively increase the speed to achieve ambitious growth goals. The simple act of setting growth goals and focusing your three unique engineering strengths to marketing, innovation, and strategy will therefore have a huge impact on your effectiveness as a business leader.

Thinking back to risk versus reward and asset allocation, the similarities of long-term investing success in the stock market and business leadership development become clear. If you only work in your job, the low-risk part of your portfolio is expanded. You simply become better at what you do every single day to maintain the running business part of your job. Typically, over time you will take a deep dive in a narrowly defined profession. If you work on your job and extend activities and allocate time to marketing, sales, and strategy to focus on growth, you will broaden your leadership skills and invest in the growth part of your career. Talent allocation therefore means using your strengths to find the balance between doing your current job well and preparing for your next job by driving business growth.

How can you use the allocation of your engineering strengths—reality-based thinking, process design, and accelerated learning—to extend your job and focus on marketing, sales, or strategy? Here’s an example. Once while I was leading an engineering department in a Fortune 1000 company, it became clear that the new company strategy required different leadership behaviors. I decided to use two of my strengths—process design and accelerated learning—to support the company strategy. I did so by creating workshops to help employees identify and adopt new behaviors to build a high-performance organization. I devised a simple system to build new habits and used the quick feedback mechanism of accelerated learning to make the new behaviors stick. I became a widely sought-after company speaker and trainer, and before long I got a new job: driving the overall strategy to build a high-performance organization.

Summary and What’s Next

This chapter has demonstrated that successful business leaders do not possess all-round excellence, but are able to achieve extraordinary success by spiking their strengths even further and eliminating unhelpful behaviors that mask strengths. The three strengths of engineers—reality-based thinking, process design, and accelerated learning—can be used to quickly expand your skills to areas other than engineering. Doing so requires a shift in focus from working in your business to working on your business. In practice, this shift means that, regardless of your position in an organization, applying your strengths to support marketing, innovation, and strategy are essential to achieving big growth goals and improve as a business leader.

However, while applying your strengths to support business growth, you will undoubtedly face obstacles. The next chapter will therefore discuss how to use your engineering talents to overcome adversity while walking the path to achieving your goals.

External Perspective

Interview Luca Rosetto, Senior VP Operations, DSM Nutritional Products

What Has Been the Most Fascinating Aspect of Business Leadership for You?

That would be dealing with people, which is both fascinating and at the same time, the most difficult part of business leadership. When I got my first leadership position, leading a quality control lab, it was both scary and exciting. During the first part of my career, I could count on my own knowledge and capabilities; now I had to learn how to get results through people. No formal scientific or other education will train you for this: you need to learn by doing. Success would require learning agility and curiosity. A key element is that you need to develop a good insight into yourself and your own values first. Only then will you be able to understand what makes other people tick. This self-examination enables you to build on strengths and on what drives other people.

Since they often work in manufacturing environments that employ lots of people, engineers often get the chance to lead large groups at young ages. This experience is a big advantage, since you tend to learn most when you are younger. They quickly learn to turn the classic organizational pyramid upside down. In the end, the operators are the owners of the process, and effective manufacturing leaders focus on creating a supporting environment where operators can do their best work. These leaders create the right smell of the place.

What Are Some of the Biggest Myths about Leaders with Engineering Background?

First, it’s a myth that only your formal education will somehow determine your success. Your success is determined by your agility, ability to connect and learn, curiosity, and knowing yourself. These attitudes will break through any mental stiffness. It’s true that you learn most from your own mistakes. This truth is often harsh, but it’s very powerful. You learn a lot about yourself from the reactions of others. For this reason, it’s so important to be authentic. If you hide behind an image, you will get feedback on that image instead of on your real self. For leaders, it’s therefore essential to create time to rewind. For example, I block time in my agenda to reflect. I also have the habit of being in the office between 7:15 and 7:30 a.m., when the office is still a quiet place. There are very few interruptions, which helps me reflect. I’m happiest when I look back at yesterday and realize that I would have done some things differently if I could do it over again. I feel no regret, because it means I continue to learn and grow, and makes what I do every day worthwhile and exciting.

Second, it’s a myth that your scientific background provides some kind of rigid thinking structure. On the contrary, it provides a flexible structure to quickly reach synthesis. It’s not true that your education lacks deep thinking, because it’s focused on solving the problems of today. Your scientific mind provides a curiosity to learn and a strategy to build the future. This drive for the unknown actually stimulates long-term thinking.