I typed “What fraction of CEO’s are engineers?” into my browser. One of the first links to come up was a Forbes article titled, “Why Engineers Make Great CEO’s.” I was somewhat surprised. It isn’t what I expected.
The Forbes article starts out, “They’re [engineers] detail-oriented, analytical and trained in systematic problem-solving. Engineers’ basic qualities make them good candidates for the top.” The article goes on to say that, “a combination of sound engineering acumen with an MBA from a top business school tends to be a common path to the corner office. Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, is an engineer. So is General Motor’s Mary Barra and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos; and the list goes on. In fact, engineering is the most common undergraduate degree among Forture 500 CEOs. Even Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, has an engineering PhD under his belt.”
Getting an MBA is one path to the C-suite. Decision engineering is another. The decision engineering path is not as well known. It may be faster and less expensive. Some background is needed to understand why I think this way.
Three things are required for an organization to be successful: leadership, good strategic decision making, and operational excellence. An organization needs a vision, a path, and good execution.
Undergraduate engineering study is usually focused on operational excellence. Most engineers start their professional careers in operating roles: manufacturing, sales, product design, testing, process control, and other functions required to carry out the mission. Unless they jump right into a start up they are not required to make strategic decisions or lead strategy teams.
Strategic decision making is an executive role. Positions that involve strategic decision making pay better and provide more opportunity to make “a dent in the universe,” as Steve Jobs would say. If you can get involved in strategic decisions you are on the path to the c-suite.
Engineers can move easily into strategic decision making, especially if they know something about process and tools. The two key processes are the Decision Analysis Process and the Collaborative Design Process. The important tools include framing hierarchies, strategy tables, scenarios, decision diagrams, simulation models, decision trees, and applied probablity.
I look forward to more engineering departments offering courses in decision engineering. The engineers that take these courses will be better prepared to move up the corporate ladder and/or become successful entrepreneurs.
I studied engineering in college. I don’t have an MBA, although, I have taught in business schools. I have worked on strategic decision making at the executive level for 40 years. The only non-engineering tool I needed was a course in accounting. (I needed that to understand taxes.) I learned about the difference between a good decision and a good outcome in engineering school. I learned how to frame problems, develop alternatives, build models, and design solutions. I learned how to work with probabilities. I also learned about net present value and equivalent cash flows.
My point here is simple. If you are an engineer and you want to become an executive then you might consider learning something about decision engineering. A good place to start is Professor Ron Howard’s new textbook, Foundations of Decision Analysis.
Any other thoughts on what engineers can do to move into the C-suite?