Chapter 8 Eliminating Adverse Habits – How Successful Engineers Become Great Business Leaders


Eliminating Adverse Habits

How can leaders with an engineering background become aware and get rid of adverse habits that mask unique strengths and impair the execution of actions toward their goals?

Why Eliminating Adverse Habits Matters

The Roman comic dramatist Terence once said it’s important to have moderation in all things. We know that water is important for our body, but drinking more than 6 L within an hour will kill you. It’s possible to have too much of a good thing (chocolate may be the exception though). If leaders with engineering backgrounds aren’t careful, they run the risk of applying their strengths to the extreme limit under the wrong circumstances. As a result, their strengths may actually be masked and eliminated, which may have a detrimental effect on achieving big goals. I call these unhelpful applications of strengths Kryptonite habits, after the famous fictional substance Kryptonite, which was able to completely nullify Superman’s superpowers.

A characteristic of Kryptonite habits is that their application is unconscious, a System One activity. Their effects are contextual and typically mask your strengths as a business leader. For example, the reality principle will work magic when it comes to making proper business decisions. It can be annoying and counterproductive when it interferes with a gripping tale of an imaginative movie: You know that laser cannons don’t make sound in space, yet you must suspend your disbelief to still enjoy the thunderous sound effects of a Star Wars space battle. Therefore, it’s important to use your strengths as a focused rapier, not as a crude bludgeon.

Your focus on getting rid of Kryptonite habits differs from focusing on improving weaknesses. Kryptonite habits mask strengths. Therefore, the difference is that getting rid of Kryptonite habits will actually increase your strengths, while a focus on improving weaknesses tries to build new strengths on barren ground. A race car will go faster with better tires. Inferior tires will mask the car’s performance. A race car is not a family hauler though, so even if you would equip it with a tow bar to compensate its weaknesses, it will still be a lousy vehicle for family trips.

Thus, it’s important to become aware and get rid of several notorious Kryptonite habits, which typically plague even the most successful leaders with engineering background. All of these habits are based on pushing your strengths of reality-based thinking, process design, and accelerated learning too far, or applying these strengths under the wrong circumstances.

In this chapter, I have compiled a list of 10 typical unhelpful behaviors of leaders with engineering background, which may mask strengths. All these behaviors are framed with metaphors, because this approach makes your own awareness of the typical moments when you show these behaviors much easier. Furthermore, it provides a powerful framework to address these behaviors in others.

How to Avoid Butterflies in the Wrong Stomach

A big mistake is to fall in love with your processes or product, instead of falling in love with the best results for your customers. Although you may have invested time and money in a particular process, in the end it’s only the results that count. If a process doesn’t work, stop tinkering, apply strategic quitting, and pull the plug. Letting go to achieve better results is hard. It’s also necessary. Often letting go of a big initiative feels like losing, especially when you’ve invested time and energy in getting people enthusiastic about the results.

A prominent example of falling in love with processes instead of results is the drive to outsource IT and finance to cheaper places in the world. Though the business case is often attractive, even a no-brainer, many companies have found that the benefits are much more limited and the added headaches are exponentially worse than initially anticipated. It’s therefore no surprise that General Motors made waves when it recently announced it would insource a majority of its IT operations to delivery centers in the United States.

The best remedy to counter the having butterflies in the wrong stomach effect is to define go/no go criteria before proceeding to a next milestone or course of action. For example, in project management, it is a best practice to use predetermined criteria in order to pass to the next project stage. This habit forces you to think of important criteria to abandon a project before you commit too many resources.

Executive Question

What needs to happen to abandon your most important initiative? How do you check this progress on a regular basis?

How to Avoid Foie Gras Persuasion

Foie gras is a French delicacy made by force-feeding geese to exponentially grow their livers. Though foie gras tastes excellent, it makes the geese deeply unhappy. Have you ever been guilty of force-feeding your ideas to others? Your ideas and insights may be logical and reality-based yet remain unconvincing. The reason is that perception is reality, and perception is driven by filters that determine how you see the world. If you want to bring others to your point of view, stop lecturing and start asking questions.

To avoid falling into the foie gras persuasion trap, insist on discussing two questions when persuading others to help you achieve your goal:

  • Under what circumstances would this goal be important to you as well?
  • What else would suddenly be possible if you would succeed with this goal?

Once, I proposed a significant, unplanned investment to reduce a huge business risk in our manufacturing operation. This was of course difficult. Then I asked these two question and the CEO realized that the investment would make him sleep much better at night. All of a sudden, the What’s-in-it-for-me (Wiifm) became obvious for him. We didn’t need more logical arguments, and the project was quickly approved.

How to Avoid Being Lost in Logic

Logic makes people think, while emotion makes them act. Often more reality-based logic is not the answer to persuade others. Instead, different ingredients, such as appealing to emotions, are necessary. If three good arguments won’t do, 10 additional mediocre arguments won’t help either. We can take a page from the playbook of lawyers. Court scenes on television are typically dramatized, but often contain a grain of truth. We never see a case led by insurmountable logic. We always see the logical arguments used to support the main emotional arguments.

Therefore, adopt the habit of never giving more than three logical arguments, which should be your best. Any added weaker arguments would be the focus of rebuttal and would seriously weaken your case.

How to Avoid Perfection before Production

A main reason people procrastinate to make a decision and bring an imperfect result to the world is the fear of missing out on something important. In other words, they believe that spending a little more energy, thought, or effort might massively increase their chances of success. I was brought in by a company with a horrible safety record. My assignment was to improve its performance. A short audit revealed significant deviations in core safety processes throughout the entire organization. When I argued that we should focus on this quickly, the initial reaction was pushback. To make changes in a sustainable way, shouldn’t we look at a new organizational model first? I realized that this company had a culture where looking for perfection was actually an excuse to do nothing and preserve the status quo. When a patient is in critical condition and brought into the emergency room, the first objective of a doctor is to stabilize the patient. Only then can a more rigorous approach help improve the patient’s condition.

Typical signs that an organization uses the excuse of perfection to avoid doing actual work and expose itself to risk of failure are:

  • Frequent meetings without action lists and lack of accountability for taking actions.
  • The language of the procrastinator:
    • Let’s review additional alternatives.
    • Let’s decide not to decide.
    • We need more information.
    • Let’s organize a meeting to review where we are.
    • Shouldn’t we focus on something else as well?
    • Let’s conduct a benchmark.
  • An obsession with asking why. The idea is that organizations with powerful why’s are able to execute big goals more smoothly. However, the quest for why can often paralyze an organization. When in front of an incoming train, asking why is the wrong course of action. As a leader, it’s important to find a balance between asking why and moving into action mode, the how and the what.

For engineers, nothing is more beautiful than designing a smooth, harmonious, and almost magical process before bringing it to the real world. Leave that quest to your hobbies. In the business world, your focus on speed and functionality trumps beauty every time.

How to Avoid Gilding the Lily

Many die with their music still inside. Thus, creative expression is often done in isolation. You wait till you’re sure your efforts rise immediately to the top of the food chain. However, realize that actual improvement is based on feedback from the outside world. You cannot learn and look good at the same time. If you take driving lessons, it is unrealistic to morph into an outstanding driver the very moment you sit behind the wheel for the first time. For engineers, solving problems by 80 percent is often good enough for a business to move ahead and thrive. When I was a young process engineer, I was tasked to build a spreadsheet to help optimize a chemical plant. The spreadsheet was done quickly, but I was so enthusiastic that I decided to extend my work and build a state-of-the-art user interface. After weeks of work, my interface was launched. Yet, it soon became clear that it was irrelevant for the operators. What mattered was the data. The operators built their own shortcut to reach the data, while ignoring the interface I had created.

Executive Question

Where do you gild the lily and allow your organization to continue tinkering with what actually works well?

The final few benefits are always irrelevant to others. If something is good enough, simply move on.

How to Avoid Landing without Skill

Edward Howard Armstrong was a brilliant engineer who single handedly invented FM radio technology. To most of us, however, his massive contribution to science and engineering is unknown. He combined absolute brilliance with a rough and difficult personality, which made him simply unable to win powerful people over to help him to implement his ideas. Though his inventions continue to live on, the name Edward Howard Armstrong remains a small footnote in the history books of science.

Comparing his life with people like Henry Ford, Nicola Tesla, and Thomas Edison, it is clear that, while having a similar scientific brilliance, all of these great men had the ability to persuade powerful people to support their causes.

Brilliance thrives in a nurturing environment, which, however, is not always obvious. Think of the last time you triumphantly made a devastating and uncomfortable yet excellent point in your staff meeting and to your dismay, people became upset, cranky, and unresponsive. Often, this result is not because your point is wrong, but the way you addressed the issue was blunt and unhelpful. Landing a plane in one piece is good. Avoiding a cabin full of frightened passengers suffering from nausea is better.

I was hired by a CEO to help one of his direct reports who made the numbers but somehow was not liked by his peers. While observing his behavior, it became apparent he possessed a keen talent to quickly understand an issue. Yet, addressing the issue in a subtle way was much more difficult for him. His style was confrontational, hammering on clarity, and backing others in a corner. This habit made him completely ineffective as a persuader. People don’t like to lose face. Therefore, it’s important to always provide a gracious way out. His focus on boxing people in made him unpopular.

As a business leader, it’s helpful to understand military strategy. Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese general, already understood that an army with no means of escape will fight to the death. In the end, it’s about proper judgment. How can you apply massive pressure to get things done and at the same time provide a tactical way out to help your employees save face? Your skill at accelerated learning may help you to be ahead of the issues. Yet, this requires a thoughtful approach to get others on board as well.

I was able to help the executive by focusing on these questions:

  • Which goal do you ultimately want to achieve?
  • Was your behavior effective in moving toward that goal?
  • What would you do differently next time?

Executive Question

In your next interaction, when should you skip the sledge hammer and apply tact and empathy to bring your message across?

How to Avoid Excessive Ahabism

The downfall of Captain Ahab, the protagonist of Moby Dick, became his obsession with catching the white whale. There is a fine line between admirable persistence and block-headed tenacity. If you’re the only one left on the barricades, it’s time to leave and focus your energy on something else.

We all recognize moments when we were so obsessed with achieving a goal, that somehow along the way we forgot the reason why. This is the definition of a fanatic. Leaders sometimes fall into the excessive Ahabism trap. Because the goal is based on reality and they have neat process in place to achieve the goal, they may miss signals that conditions have changed. These are typical signs that you may be chasing a white whale:

  • The company is so focused on market share that margins rapidly erode and financial results deteriorate. The old joke is that a company may have negative margins, but they make it up with additional volume.
  • Assumptions for key strategic projects are no longer reviewed on a regular basis. Even new people are quickly drawn into action and are no longer curious as to why certain things are done.
  • The organization becomes blind to alternatives. More resources are poured into failing projects, while these resources may have been better used elsewhere. This is called the sunk cost fallacy and is one of the main reasons it’s so difficult to abandon failing projects.

Executive Question

How do you know you have crossed the line between admirable persistence and block-headed tenacity?

How to Avoid Winners Addiction

When you’re a debating champion, you run the risk of seeing every human interaction as a debate. If you do, you will become lonely very quickly. The same is true for engineers. If you wield the scepter of logic anywhere, anytime, anyplace to batter your coworkers into submission, you may be right, but won’t be successful. Pick your battles carefully and play along with the rest. It’s more important to be effective than to be right.

The battles that matter most help you and the organization move toward the most important goals. You may not know everything, but if you can honestly admit you’re sometimes wrong, you will become a stronger leader. This is often difficult for leaders trained as engineers. After all, you’re educated to believe there is often only one way to solve a scientific problem: The complex calculation governing the trajectory of a space rocket is either right or wrong. There is no in between. This type of science is digital—either 1 or 0.

The problem arises when we confuse business judgment with hard, digital science. Judgment involves where to invest, who to hire, which products to develop, etcetera. In this case, there are multiple ways to achieve the desired results. When studying science as an engineer, you had to prove you knew the right answer in order to succeed. Proving is no longer necessary when you move to business leadership. The rules have changed. Now you need to develop and choose between a plethora of good decisions.

I once worked closely with a brilliant scientist to develop a mathematical model of a complex chemical reactor. He was a nice guy, whose main satisfaction was to be right in the modeling field. That was a good thing. However, he extended this behavior—the insistence to be right all the time—to matters of strategy, project execution, and people judgment. He became opinionated, argumentative, and estranged from the team. This lone wolf behavior resulted in the decision to cut him loose from the project.

Executive Question

Where are you trying to win, when this area is actually irrelevant for your success as a business leader?

How to Avoid Becoming a Solution Monopolist

There are many alternatives to achieve a goal. Instead of dismissing options from others, sometimes it’s better to focus on how to make the alternatives from others work better. It’s better to be known as a highway builder than a toll road monopolist.

This important reason is why diverse teams tend to get better results than nondiverse teams. Keep in mind that diversity in this case means having different perspectives. For example, one of the least diverse teams can be found in niche studies in academia. Think of exobiology faculties, which attract those who share an essential similar perspective: They believe in life outside our planet, and different opinions in this area are frowned upon.

Diversity in itself, however, isn’t enough. There must be a common, inclusive ground of core values for all team members to adhere to. You may be unique because you consider respectful communication a luxury. This doesn’t make you a diverse team player. It makes you a destructive influence.

How to Avoid Mensa Madness

Membership in the Mensa organization is based on meeting a certain intelligence standard. Mensa members therefore believe they are smart people. Like Mensa members, business leaders with an engineering background generally believe they are smart people too. However, sometimes they exhibit an uncontrollable urge to proudly let the world know they are smart, right, and know much more than you. This attitude often shifts the interaction with colleagues and clients from how much they can help to how much they know, which is what I call Mensa madness.

Recently, I decided to buy a new TV. I knew exactly what I wanted. However, the sales professional couldn’t help himself, and continued to explain every single minute detail of this particular model. He was in love with his knowledge. I, on the other hand, quickly became exhausted. I politely mentioned that I would think about it, walked out of the store and bought the TV online. If you recognize the destructive habit of Mensa madness in yourself, simply stop it. A powerful lesson of high performance is it’s better to be effective than look smart.

Executive Question

Where do you try to look smart instead of being effective as a business leader?

Table 8.1 gives an overview of the 10 Kryptonite habits of leaders with an engineering background and how they influence organizational effectiveness.

Table 8.1 The impact of Kryptonite habits on organizational effectiveness

Kryptonite habit Impact on organizational effectiveness
Butterflies in the wrong stomach Misalignment on goals
Foie gras persuasion Loss of emotional connection to goals
Lost in logic Decrease of quality of judgment
Perfection before production Decrease of execution power
Gilding the lily Missed opportunities
Landing without skill Decrease of trust
Excessive Ahabism Misaligned resources
Winners addiction Loss of cooperation
Solution monopolist Loss of innovation power
Mensa madness Loss of customer intimacy

Summary and What’s Next

This chapter has shown that the ability to achieve big goals starts not only with a focus on strengths, but, at the same time, with the elimination of adverse and often unconscious habits that nullify strengths. This knowledge will help you not only get started, but keep going when things become difficult. It’s much easier to recognize Kryptonite habits in others than in yourself. The Romans had a clever process to deal with the problem of Kryptonite habits. They often had huge parades to celebrate massive victories over their enemies. The conquering general rode in a chariot. A slave stood behind him, whispering in his ear a warning: All glory is fleeting.

Now that you have seen the pitfall of using too much of your unique strengths, or using your unique strengths in the wrong environment, let’s turn to the final chapter dealing with goal execution: How to build connections that will help you rapidly grow your business.

External Perspective

Interview of Erik Oostwegel, CEO and Chairman of the Management Board at Royal HaskoningDHV

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

I’m leading an organization with employees who are smart and highly educated. The most fascinating part of leadership is to persuade them on the basis of good arguments. Whenever possible, big decisions are based on an interactive discussion in our company. For me, this requires carefully thinking through a position and the willingness to be challenged as a leader.

Sometimes, quick decisions are necessary. You won’t have the time to carefully consult all relevant people in the organization. This reality is a difficult part of leadership, because it may lead to suboptimal decisions.

What Are Some of the Most Important Skills and Behaviors for Business Leaders with Engineering Backgrounds to Improve their Effectiveness?

As engineers, we are used to having a good grasp of the subject matter we are dealing with. Yet, because of the extensive scope of our business, we may not know all the content details anymore. In spite of this, as a leader, you still need to feel comfortable to have a content discussion. One approach is to shift this type of conversation from content to process, for instance by focusing on the project management part of the discussion.

An essential skill for leaders is to make their people comfortable. This requires three things. First, it’s important to respect the expertise and talents of people. Second, the ability to absorb information quickly is critical for a leader. Finally, you need to be humble and vulnerable and admit when you know very little and trust the expertise of the other person.

What Is Your Approach to Learning and Improving as a Business Leader Yourself?

As a leader, it’s very important to have Funktionslust: the pleasure in doing what you do best. In our business, enjoying what you do requires curiosity and an entrepreneurial spirit. It’s always a pleasure to discover new things and be open to new ideas. I think that curiosity is part of the character of a good leader. I sometimes become more deeply involved in the content of projects simply because I’m curious to know things.

A disturbing trend I notice with some leaders is that they believe in the infallibility of their own judgment. As a result, they lose the courage to admit they are wrong. They are convinced they have nothing more to learn, dismiss opposing arguments, and are no longer curious to hear different perspectives. This mindset leads to hardening of attitudes and unnecessary conflicts.