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Why Do Engineers Make Good CEOs?

ByChris Porteous,
business.com writer
|
Nov 26, 2019
monkeybusinessimages / Getty Images
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Some of the nation's greatest entrepreneurs and businessmen have hailed from engineering backgrounds.

Whether we’re discussing Henry Ford, Thomas Edison or Herbert Hoover, engineers have proven time and time again that they have the capacity to be excellent leaders and astonishingly good business managers. Nevertheless, relatively few people in the business world understand why, exactly, engineers excel when it comes to running the business and making difficult decisions regarding the future.

Why do engineers make such efficient CEOs, anyway? Here’s a breakdown of the engineering mindset, and why it’s proven to be so successful when it comes to raising profits and lowering costs.

Being detail-oriented pays off

It’s a simple matter of fact that being an engineer demands strong mental aptitude and a willingness to pay attention to minute details that others may ignore. If you’re designing a bridge, a small, barely perceptible mistake could cause the entire structure to come crashing down, costing countless millions of dollars and potentially the loss of human life itself. 

The fact that engineers are drilled from their earliest days to pay attention to the small details that escape the notice of others without a doubt, helps propel them to success when they assume a leadership position within a company. While engineers are often described as introverts, this quality by no means impedes their ability to be effective leaders who inspire brilliance in the ranks.

According to numerous analyses, engineering is the most common undergraduate degree for Fortune 500 CEOs. This fact alone should lead us to pause whenever we’re about to insinuate that a good leader demands a robust background in business. It boils down to more than “being good problem solvers” or finding themselves capable of catching the small details that were unnoticed by others. Engineers are often excellent CEOs because of the systematic way that they’re taught to approach the world and the problems they’ll find within it.

Take Microsoft’s Satya Nadella for example. Nadella studied electrical engineering and today, as the CEO of Microsoft, he is credited for helping the company turn itself around in the face of an onslaught from Apple. Nadella initiated moves like bringing Microsoft Office to the iPad and releasing apps such as Outlook to the iPhone. These bold moves may have seemed unthinkable to some, but Nadella saw the bigger picture and by 2018, he had pushed the company’s slumping revenue up to $110 billion.

What makes an engineer a true engineer?

More than anything else, it’s fostering systems thinking, wherein your mental process takes into consideration every facet of a business, machine, or person before making a crucial decision surrounding that thing. If you’re incapable of breaking down a complex machine into its various parts before reassembling it in your head, it’s unfortunately likely that you don’t have an engineering mindset. 

Like Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, engineers Elon Musk and James Dyson both have that mindset. Engineers have a unique way of looking at a problem and their way of defining it is what leads to them ultimately solving it. "Design is just problem solving," Dyson told Wired. "I'm a designer and an engineer, I get angry about things that don't work, like hand dryers, endless paper towels, what a huge waste." Sometimes the problem is a hand dryer, and other times it’s bringing back a company’s sagging revenue.

A big part of that problem solving is the relentless perseverance to actually solve the problem rather than place blame somewhere else. If you asked most engineers, they would probably tell you that they’re stubborn individuals. If something isn’t working properly, they’ll keep trying new methods until it does work. We’ve all heard the story of Thomas Edison saying that he didn’t fail 1,000 times when inventing the light bulb, but that there were merely 1,000 steps to inventing it. 

Perseverance, of course, isn’t limited to the engineering mind, but when an individual with strong perseverance and a talent for engineering takes a leadership role in a company, they often make headway where others may have struggled.   

Those who are capable of fully embracing the strong engineering mindset are more likely to understand each and every facet of their business, finding themselves capable of leveraging their broad knowledge of a company to make wise long-term decisions on the basis of what the company is best at. They don’t merely look at a business as one entity, but as a complex machine where each component has a specific function and purpose that makes up the greater engine.

We live in a world of complex systems

Now more than ever before, our world is dominated by inscrutable, complex systems that challenge the human mind. It’s effectively impossible to be an investor in the stock market by yourself, for instance – these days, you need data-crunching tools to make sense of all the information that’s flowing around the marketplace. 

Similarly, it’s quite challenging to become a good medical professional if you're not familiar with the various healthcare technologies that enable you to learn more about patients from their extensive medical histories. Living in a world of complex systems has its pros and cons, but it’s growing increasingly obvious that engineers are capable of mastering this world and thriving in it when others struggle to keep their heads above water.

In the near future, engineering degree guides will be just as important to the future wellbeing of your company as market research is. If companies find themselves incapable of attracting the best engineering talent available on the open market, they'll slowly but surely lose ground to competitors who foster better systems thinking hierarchies within the ranks of their business. 

Finding the most talented engineering candidates for your company will never be easy, which is why businesses are strongly advised to create talent pipelines that lead directly from major universities into the halls of their company.  

Engineers who climb the company ranks also tend to recruit talent that has a similar way of looking at and solving problems. They look for those who have an analytical and architectural way of thinking because it allows for making wiser and more informed decisions. It should come as no surprise that companies such as Amazon, Tesla, and General Motors are all doing highly innovative things with engineers at the helm. The leaders of these Fortune 500 companies have undoubtedly scouted out the top talent to work alongside them. 

Being detail-oriented and analytical is excellent for CEOs, but these qualities aren’t strictly those of an engineer; many who are terrible at engineering can nevertheless be deeply analytical and catch the small mistakes that others missed. 

Being able to truly understand the system they're dealing with and willing to make a calculated risk is what will pay off more than anything, which is why engineers who have experience in the business environment will find themselves in hot demand for the foreseeable future. The unique studies and training they undergo will simply make them capable of viewing the bigger picture in a way their non-engineering competitors simply can't fathom.

Whether it's their unique understanding of modern technologies or their ability to break down complex systems for the benefit of their company's profit margins, engineers have consistently proven themselves to be excellent CEOs. As the rest of the 21st century unfolds, businesses everywhere would be well advised to put additional resources into scouting out the best engineering talent available. 

Chris Porteous
Chris Porteous
See Chris Porteous's Profile
I'm a serial entrepreneur and owner of three internet ventures, including My SEO Sucks. A contributor to ZeroHedge, Entrepreneur.com, Forbes, Inc.com, and dozens of other media outlets, I believe in SEO as a product. I developed a proprietary technology fueling the #1 rankings of My SEO Sucks clients. In guest speaking ventures across North American, I advocate for organic search traffic as the backbone of any comprehensive digital marketing strategy.
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