Do Engineers Make Good CEOs?

Is there any more difficult move from being an executive leader to becoming the CEO? In that last step, you suddenly have to transition from running in a single functional organization to directing all of them across the company. In my experience, I’ve seen many sales and marketing executives take over the CEO role, but what about technical folks, like engineers, stepping into the CEO role? It certainly can be frequent with startups where a technology visionary builds the company from the ground up. But what about engineers stepping into the role for established manufacturers?

Based on some recent posts, I think there are some skills and knowledge that provide engineers an advantage to taking on a CEO role. However I think there are some disadvantages also, at least in terms of common perceptions about engineers.

  • Knowledge of Operations, Leadership across the Enterprise: In the middle of December, I published a post titled Do Engineers Have the Broadest Reach within the Enterprise. In it, I pointed out that the breadth of an engineer’s responsibilities is so broad because they are responsible for the lifecycle of the product. So they have better knowledge than any other role of how things get done from an operational perspective. Furthermore, almost all other roles look to engineers to take point on leadership in resolving issues during the lifecycle of the product. I find it interesting that in these two ways, engineers and CEOs are imminently similar.
  • Product Leadership is Needed Now: While cost controls may have saved many manufacturers from going under during the recession, those initiatives won’t drive growth during the recession. But product innovation will. In fact, it’s hard to start reading about the recovery without wandering into an article, blog post or some piece of research that talks about how crucial great products are to growth over the next couple of years. In this regard, engineers can provide technology vision and product leadership better than any other role.
  • People Management Skills: If the last two points are arguments for engineers making good CEOs, then this one undermines it. By and large, the wide-spread perception is that engineers lack people skills, much less people management skills. It’s a point made in the audio interview in the last post titled Sage Advice from Executive Chris Weiss for Aspiring Engineering Managers. And there’s little doubt that if you are going to be a CEO, you have to be good at managing people. Although I would argue that the most successful and effective engineers, because of the issues in first bullet point in this list, are those with people and leadership skills. But I’ll save that for another post.

But perhaps there’s more to it than just this. In an blog post written by Any Marken over at bityard titled The Long Road from Engineer to CEO (now gone), he points out that a specific transition is the most difficult for engineers.

First of all, engineers are skilled in the planning, design and construction of a product or service. They solve challenging problems, make technological breakthroughs and develop successful solutions. They are stimulated by producing the next generation of technology and making it successful.

Entrepreneurs organize a business and assume risk for the sake of profit. The entrepreneur is out to make money, take risks and beat the competition. He or she is excited by the challenge of starting an organization and making it successful.

The engineer is product-oriented.

The entrepreneur is profit-oriented.

These goals are dramatically different. The fundamental drives and motivations are so different that, all too often, the engineer can’t make the transition to entrepreneurial businessperson. This inability to make the transition cripples many organizations as they go through their various stages of life.

His post goes on to detail about the lifecycle of a company as it grows from startup to a more established organization. It’s a pretty good and insightful read. However, I’m not sure I agree with Mr. Marken in his assessment, especially in terms of the top skilled and knowledgeable engineers.

So, time to weigh in. Do you think there are specific skills that are a benefit or detriment to engineers as CEO candidates? Do you agree with Mr. Marken’s assessment of engineers and their difficulty in making a transition to a competitive company? Sound off.

Talk soon. Take care. And thanks for reading.


Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.