When The Harvard Business Review analyzed the best 100 CEOs in the World in their November 2014 issue, their analysis of the listed executives revealed that 24 of the 100 had engineering degrees. That was the second most common educational background for the group, coming in second to MBAs (and 8 on this list had both engineering degrees and MBAs).
The article noted that engineers were not only at the helms of technical companies. The CEOs of brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, Intercontinental Exchange, and the insurance giant Sampo all have engineering degrees.
According to this Forbes article, “engineering has long been ranked as the most common undergraduate degree among Fortune 500 CEOs.” While many engineers are content to stay in technical roles, others pursue business leadership positions because of the better pay and perks, or because they’re looking for a new challenge that engineering alone didn’t satisfy.
Learning the Soft Skills
While it would initially seem that the more technically inclined engineers may not excel in “soft skills” (such as emotional intelligence) that you would usually expect in the boardroom, they do bring other valuable assets to their business leadership roles.
Nitin Nohria, the dean of Harvard Business School, is quoted in the HBR article:
“Engineering is about what works, and it breeds in you an ethos of building things that work—whether it’s a machine or a structure or an organization. Engineering also teaches you to try to do things efficiently and eloquently, with reliable outcomes, and with a margin of safety. It makes you think about costs versus performance. These are principles that can be deeply important when you think about organizations.”
Along those lines, says business consultant and author Paul Rulkens, engineers bring specific assets to business leadership: First of all, they’re used to building processes and systems, which businesses need to thrive. Their rational nature causes them to “keep on testing until the feedback from reality gives satisfactory results.” And they’re expert learners: they’ve taught themselves how to “pragmatically solve complex problems” – and that extends to learning how to solve business problems.
Rulkens suggests that even if engineers initially lack the “soft skills” that could help them in the boardroom, they can use their willingness to learn and apply processes to teach themselves skills such as speaking and presenting, that they may be lacking.
“Business skills are not innate and the best business leaders have simply learned the basics of any (soft) business skill to advance their career,” he says.
Sasha Gurke, co-founder of Knovel, an online library devoted to engineering topics, wrote and published in Business Insider, calling for more engineers to step into business leadership positions.
He explained why engineers are uniquely qualified to lead businesses:
“While they are meticulous, they still take risks, but calculated ones. They identify the root cause of a problem and provide an economical solution. They tend to have a very realistic outlook on situations and don’t add the fluff. They keep it simple. Finally, engineers are tech-savvy and understand how it all works. This provides them with a competitive advantage over other industry professionals. They lead by example and this ultimately helps them succeed.”
Gurke also emphasizes that leadership skills and business knowledge can be learned. Engineers are not typically given any business education as part of their rigorous training, and so they might not naturally lean toward an entrepreneurial mentality. Plus, their love of data and factual information means they’re not as likely to project their accomplishments in the way that typically helps them get promoted.
However, if engineers can learn those soft skills and apply themselves to the world of business, they can certainly succeed and lead some of the top companies in the world.