Comment: Engineers are made for the C-Suite

3 min read

Any young people with C-suite aspirations will do well to consider a career in engineering, says Dr Andy Palmer CMG, CEO and Vice-Chair of Switch Mobility and founder of the Palmer Foundation

Throughout my career, I’ve encountered what I now know to be an identity crisis. Since starting my corporate journey with Nissan in 1991, and subsequently serving as CEO of Aston Martin and now electric bus and van company Switch Mobility, I’ve never quite been sure of exactly what I am. Executive or engineer? A hybrid of the two?

I began my career as an automotive engineer and despite trading in my Zeus Tables for a suit and tie, I would often find myself coming at challenges from a different perspective to my C-Suite colleagues, who perhaps had a more traditional corporate training. Oftentimes, I’d approach a problem by breaking it down into its separate components to identify the cause of the wider issue and working back from there; just as I would go about diagnosing an issue with a gearbox or drivetrain. The talented C-Suite officers I’ve had the pleasure of working with throughout my career would occasionally take a more aggregated approach and look for the ‘textbook’ solutions that are often taught in the MBA lecture theatres.

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Of course, there’s no right or wrong way when it comes to decision-making, though the Harvard Business Review have repeatedly found more engineering degrees compared to MBAs when it would publish its annual list of the top-performing CEOs. Looking at some of today’s most successful companies, it can certainly be argued that trend is still alive and well. Some of the world’s best-known executives have a background in engineering. Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX. Jeff Bezos, founder and ex-CEO of Amazon. Tim Cook of Apple. Mary Barra leading General Motors. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. All have a technical background. What’s behind this pattern?

I’ve alluded to engineers’ unique approach to problem-solving. Being detailed orientated and identifying small components that can be causing a bigger problem is without doubt an asset for any business leader. Yet so is the ‘systems thinking’ we are taught as engineers. Whether a gearbox, piece of software or entire business, considering every facet of a complex entity and being able to compartmentalise each of its components, as is the mindset of an engineer, provides obvious advantages.

Then we must consider the nature of some of the most successful companies in the world today. Tech companies dominate the upper echelons of any global index and as such, technical leadership is required. Whilst in the past CEOs would often switch jobs and transcend entire industries, that breed of executive is becoming increasingly rarer. Instead, shareholders expect a deep understanding of the complexities of the company’s product and industry and regularly an engineering background helps foster that concentrated focus.

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(Image: AdobeStock)

There’s also the valuable trait of being able to determine cost versus performance. The combination of skills that make up an engineers’ arsenal, problem-solving, risk management, maths, physics, and analysis, means engineers are applying business principles to their work from day one of training. It’s this inherent understanding of how to achieve on a budget that enables engineers to be so comfortable in the corporate hotseat.

Persistence is another attribute that spans the engineer/executive mindset. As Thomas Edison famously said: “I haven’t failed. I’ve only found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And in all businesses, even the most successful ones, you’re more likely to encounter failure than success on a daily basis. But the trick is what you learn from those failures. If a new product doesn’t set the market alight, why not? If manufacturing costs too much, how can you make it cheaper? Engineers are used to probing their work after coming up against a bump in the road, and it’s a vital skill to possess in the world of commerce.

Regularly, I can sniff out other engineers in the room. Engineers have a personality type that often distinguishes them. Whether it’s the sense of responsibility garnered from parenthood of a project they’ve worked on, or perseverance acquired from making the impossible possible, engineers possess natural personality traits that add up to strong leadership material.

I can say with certainty that my background as an engineer has made me a better C-Suite executive and for any youngsters who have a technical brain and want to establish a career in business, I’d encourage them to consider engineering. It’s a well-trodden path to the very top.

Dr Andy Palmer CMG. CEO and vice-chair of Switch Mobility and founder of the Palmer Foundation