Having an engineer in the corner office would serve any organization in good stead. It’s the route I took in my own career, so I know that our training helps us to be rigorous, logical, smart strategic thinkers – an excellent foundation for business leadership.
But the road from engineering school to the C-suite isn’t always straightforward. Here are some lessons I learned on my journey, which I’m sharing in hopes of encouraging other engineering and science types to follow their own path into the business world:
1. Education matters, even more than I first realized.
I knew early in my journey that, although engineering is my passion, I wanted to combine that with a career in business. That’s why, after earning my engineering degree, I realized quickly that I would need to develop other skills if I wanted to move into a leadership role. So I returned to university in the evenings to earn an MBA.
I knew that if I wanted to take on the profit-and-loss responsibilities of an executive position, not only would I have to be confident in my ability to think strategically and keep a project on track – the kinds of skills I learned in engineering – but I also had to understand the big picture: how each decision affects an organization; the tradeoffs and opportunities; how to make sure the whole team is invested in the company’s success; and how to recognize achievements and great ideas. Those fundamentals came from my business courses.
2. Learning outside the classroom matters, too.
I started my career feeling confident that I was well-prepared to take on the world. As every young professional does, I had big dreams and aspirations. And then I found out that I had much more learning to do outside the classroom – and that learning never stops.
I was fortunate that the companies I worked for offered many opportunities, and I’d recommend pursuing the ones that yours offer. Go to lunch and learns, attend training courses, talk to your peers, travel for business, read copiously, do as much as you can to round out your skill set. Pro bono or charity work is another great option that allows you to give back while providing a unique experience and often a very different point of view.
In fact, I learned quite a lot as the assistant popcorn lady at my children’s school.
3. Independence isn’t the goal.
I’m independent, and initially I thought I was completely responsible for my career development – on my own. But I soon learned the value of mentorship. I’ve been lucky enough to have many great mentors at different organizations throughout my career. They have come from different backgrounds, with different perspectives. They helped me identify and build on my strengths while acknowledging and compensating for my weaknesses.
It’s important to remember that your mentor can be someone inside your organization, in your field, or even in another industry. The key is to find an individual who embodies the characteristics you would like to develop in yourself, who can offer relevant business or career insights and is someone you enjoy being with. It was this mentorship that led me to profit-and-loss roles relatively early in my career.
4. No matter how carefully you plan, your career may not co-operate.
I always thought I would attain a leadership role that is directly related to engineering – but that hasn’t turned out to be the case. My current job, for instance, is a policy position that involves the collaborative development of standards, working with more than 8,000 members that come from all walks of life. While not engineering-specific, it’s ideal given my background: I’m responsible for strategy and operations as well as bringing together multiple stakeholders to reach consensus, and working with stakeholders at national and international levels. I use elements of my engineering education coupled with what I’ve learned through my years in business, and my MBA.
I love profit-and-loss positions because they offer such diversity but it wasn’t something I thought was even an option for me early in my career. Taking on new roles and responsibilities, and trying new things that are outside your defined area of expertise can give you crucial leadership experience.
5. Results will always matter, but the criteria may change.
No matter the career path you choose, you will be judged, every step of the way, on your ability to drive results. But as you accept new and different opportunities that are outside your comfort zone, you will find the measurement criteria for success will evolve and vary from definitive targets such as revenue and margin growth, to softer skills in management and leadership. Don’t underestimate their value to your career.
Without question, I believe that engineers add a unique strength to any organization’s leadership team. Combined with additional learning and experiences along the way, they can be an unbeatable asset. So if business leadership is something you strive for, I would encourage you to go for it.
Step outside your comfort zone, round out your abilities, and show the world what you can do.
Bonnie Rose is president of Standards for CSA Group (@CSA_Standards), a Canadian not-for-profit organization that develops and facilitates the use of standards for products and technology. She holds a bachelor of applied science in electrical engineering from Queen’s University, an MBA from the University of Toronto, and a chartered director designation from the Directors College.