MILWAUKEE – Satin Nadella, the brand-new chief executive of Microsoft, has an engineering background. So does Mary Barra, who became CEO of General Motors less than a month ago.
Yet a vast majority of Americans believe engineers are among the least likely professionals to succeed at the top of the corporate ladder.
According to a new survey from Milwaukee-based ASQ, formerly known as the American Society for Quality, only 9 percent of respondents said engineers would make the best chief executive officers, behind people from other fields including operations, finance, marketing, academia and sales.
“Despite the fact that some of the greatest business leaders in history, from Henry Ford to Lee Iacocca, have been engineers, many people don’t connect engineers with the boardroom,” said Cheryl Birdsong-Dyerv, an ASQ member and professional process engineer for telecommunications firm Sprint Corp.
ASQ has more than 14,000 members who are engineers, out of a total membership of 80,000.
In a separate survey, ASQ found that – not surprisingly – 69 percent of the member engineers it polled said their skills provided a solid foundation for a successful CEO.
Nearly 30 percent of the engineers polled cited honesty as the quality most important in a leader, followed by communication skills.
Microsoft CEO Nadella earned a master’s degree in computer science from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee after getting his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Mangalore University in India. Barra, the new GM chief executive, got her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from the General Motors Institute, now called Kettering University.
Engineers can be good leaders, partly because they have a strong analytical background, said Michael Lovell, chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and former dean of the university’s college of engineering and applied science.
“One of the things we learn in engineering is to be a systems-level thinker, so that we see a very big picture in how adjusting one area affects and impacts downstream other areas,” Lovell said. “That’s really important when you’re running a large, complex organization.”
As chancellor, he said, “If something gets to my level, it’s not an easy problem to solve. I need to look at all of the variables before making a decision. It’s a thought process.”
Not every analytical skill comes from an engineering background, though, as Lovell found when he took other classes in college.
“The most difficult class I had was a philosophy of religion course. That really made me think differently,” he said.
When he was interim chancellor, Lovell turned to the university’s theater arts program to brush up on his oral presentation and communication skills.
“You can have the best idea in the world, but if you can’t convey it to others, it doesn’t do any good,” he said.
Not all engineers believe they have the skills to be a successful CEO, and some have no interest in that career path, according to the survey of ASQ member engineers.
That’s OK, said Hermann Vietv, president of Milwaukee School of Engineering.
“They enjoy what they’re doing, they’re successful at it, and they’re well paid. So why should they run off and get into management?”
Still, 61 percent of the engineering survey participants were in a management or leadership role, with nearly 75 percent supervising up to nine employees and 14 percent supervising between 10 and 19 employees.
Those are strong numbers, Viet said, and it’s proof that engineers are leaders.
ASQ’s broader leadership survey was done in January by the research firm Kelton Global among 1,027 American adults.
It found that the qualities workers value the most in their company’s leaders are the same qualities they find most lacking.
Thirty percent of the respondents in the national survey said honesty was the trait they valued the most, followed by communication skills – echoing the results of the engineering survey.
Critical thinking and commitment also were noted in the broader survey as key leadership qualities.
Yet those polled said communicating and honesty were the qualities they believed to be CEOs’ biggest shortcomings.
The responses about honesty were probably reflective of American leadership overall, an indication of the “U.S. worker temperature,” said Laura Nelson-Rowev, ASQ managing director.
“That has shown up in other studies, research and polls,” she said.
As for communication skills, she added: “People want to be inspired by their leaders. Inspiration comes across if they’re a great communicator.”