By Rick Barrett
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Satya Nadella, the new chief executive of Microsoft, has an engineering background. So does Mary Barra, who became CEO of General Motors 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 UW-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. “The most difficult class I had was a philosophy of religion course. That really made me think differently,” he said.
As interim chancellor, Lovell turned to the university’s theater arts program to brush up on 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 Viets, 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, Viets 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 adults.