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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.

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  • Mark Levitt

    Hi Chad.
    Nice post. Being an engineer has made our engineer-CEO Jim Heppelmann highly successful in leading our company in large part because as an engineer he understands the product design and development needs of our customers. Our customers appreciate that our top executive is an engineer who understands the challenges that they face in improving product-related business processes and who envisions and executes our product roadmap for market-leading product design and development software and services. We employees appreciate that our top executive knows which products we should develop and bring to market to help our customers be successful.
    Mark Levitt, PTC

    • Thanks for the comment Mark! I’d like to hear more examples like this as proof points.

    • Thanks for the comment Mark! I’d like to hear more examples like this as proof points.

  • Mark Levitt

    Hi Chad.
    Nice post. Being an engineer has made our engineer-CEO Jim Heppelmann highly successful in leading our company in large part because as an engineer he understands the product design and development needs of our customers. Our customers appreciate that our top executive is an engineer who understands the challenges that they face in improving product-related business processes and who envisions and executes our product roadmap for market-leading product design and development software and services. We employees appreciate that our top executive knows which products we should develop and bring to market to help our customers be successful.
    Mark Levitt, PTC

  • Mark Levitt

    Hi Chad.
    Nice post. Being an engineer has made our engineer-CEO Jim Heppelmann highly successful in leading our company in large part because as an engineer he understands the product design and development needs of our customers. Our customers appreciate that our top executive is an engineer who understands the challenges that they face in improving product-related business processes and who envisions and executes our product roadmap for market-leading product design and development software and services. We employees appreciate that our top executive knows which products we should develop and bring to market to help our customers be successful.
    Mark Levitt, PTC

    • Thanks for the comment Mark! I’d like to hear more examples like this as proof points.

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  • As some follow up, here’s a list of notable engineers-turned-CEOs someone provided from LinkedIn. If you know more, just reply with the name, company and background if you know it!

    George Buckley – CEO, 3M Corporation, electrical engineer
    Rex Tillerson – CEO, ExxonMobil, civil enginee
    James Truchard – CEO, National Instruments, electrical engineer
    Jack Welch – former CEO, General Electric Company, chemical engineer
    Alan Boeckmann – CEO of the Fluor Corporation, electrical engineer
    James Morgan – former CEO, Applied Materials, mechanical engineer
    Paul E. Jacobs – CEO, Qualcomm, electonic engineer
    Carlo Bozotti – CEO, STmicroelectronics, electrical engineer

  • As some follow up, here’s a list of notable engineers-turned-CEOs someone provided from LinkedIn. If you know more, just reply with the name, company and background if you know it!

    George Buckley – CEO, 3M Corporation, electrical engineer
    Rex Tillerson – CEO, ExxonMobil, civil enginee
    James Truchard – CEO, National Instruments, electrical engineer
    Jack Welch – former CEO, General Electric Company, chemical engineer
    Alan Boeckmann – CEO of the Fluor Corporation, electrical engineer
    James Morgan – former CEO, Applied Materials, mechanical engineer
    Paul E. Jacobs – CEO, Qualcomm, electonic engineer
    Carlo Bozotti – CEO, STmicroelectronics, electrical engineer

  • Vuuch

    It is not as simple as where the person educational background. Mark points out that PTC is successful due to Jim being an engineer. But Dick was an english major…

    Your two points about why an engineer would be a great CEO also point to why they will not. An engineer tends to love to drill into the details versus letting others and as the CEO while it is good to understand these items it is also important to let go, which is not a typical engineering trait. There is a joke about “when is a product done…” if you ask the engineers the answer is never and if you ask manament it was done last week. The basis of the joke has to do with engineers beign focused on perfect versus salable.

    • Good points Chris. Being able to back out and take on a more general management role is something most CEOs have to do when they first take on the role. I think different functional roles would each have their own challenges in that regard.

  • Vuuch

    It is not as simple as where the person educational background. Mark points out that PTC is successful due to Jim being an engineer. But Dick was an english major…

    Your two points about why an engineer would be a great CEO also point to why they will not. An engineer tends to love to drill into the details versus letting others and as the CEO while it is good to understand these items it is also important to let go, which is not a typical engineering trait. There is a joke about “when is a product done…” if you ask the engineers the answer is never and if you ask manament it was done last week. The basis of the joke has to do with engineers beign focused on perfect versus salable.

    • Good points Chris. Being able to back out and take on a more general management role is something most CEOs have to do when they first take on the role. I think different functional roles would each have their own challenges in that regard.

  • Another really good comment from LinkedIn…

    Here are some facts for you. A 2005 study by Spencer Stuart found that 20% of S&P 500 CEOs have an engineering degree. According to Eweek.org, (http://www.eweek.org/site/news/features/bordroom.shtml) the US has had 3 presidents who had an engineering background: Jimmy Carter, Herbert Hoover, and George Washington. One of the most well-known and highly successful executives that many executives try to emulate — Jack Welsh — has an engineering degree.

    • Marvin

      Having an engineering degree is a whole lot different than transitioning from an engineer to a CEO.

  • Another really good comment from LinkedIn…

    Here are some facts for you. A 2005 study by Spencer Stuart found that 20% of S&P 500 CEOs have an engineering degree. According to Eweek.org, (http://www.eweek.org/site/news/features/bordroom.shtml) the US has had 3 presidents who had an engineering background: Jimmy Carter, Herbert Hoover, and George Washington. One of the most well-known and highly successful executives that many executives try to emulate — Jack Welsh — has an engineering degree.

    • Marvin

      Having an engineering degree is a whole lot different than transitioning from an engineer to a CEO.

    • Two of the three presidents were the worst presidents this country ever had to endure.  Can you name them?

  • Here’s another comment added against this post in the LinkedIn Machine Design professional group. With the author’s permission, I reposted it for all. You can see the other 13 comments by following this link if you are part of the group: http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&discussionID=38875979&gid=78772&commentID=28931411&trk=view_disc

    Personality. Passion. Tunnel Vision. Are all issues that every executive whether they come from Engineering, Finance, Operations, etc. have to face. Bean counters can get as tunnel vision and passionate about being only one way to do business. There’s nothing wrong with being passionate just so long as it is utilized properly.

    I don’t believe Alan Mulally is an exception. He is just one in a very long line of engineers who have started and ran highly successful companies or have taken the helm of a struggling firm and turned it around.

    How did we get to where we are at in the 21st century, if it weren’t for the engineers who lead the companies that created today’s technology? Henry Ford was an engineer and made the production of the automobile successful. How many of his kids grand kids and nephews that have run the company during very lean times were engineers? I don’t know, but according to sources William Clay Ford Jr., the most recent Ford to run the company, only had a general BA degree and an MBA. He’s the one who ran the company into the ground than asked for a bale out.

    In my opinion the CEO, the company head whatever title you put on him/her, has to be the visionary, the cheerleader, the problem solver in chief. They have to know what their strengths and weaknesses are and put together the team of executives that complement them. Then they have to be able to let these people do the jobs they were hired to do.

    The classic example of this is Henry Ford II. He was put in the role of company leader after his dad, Edsel Ford, died, and went out and hired a team of executives to help him run the company, and for the most part the company was highly successful during his tenure. But due to his personality and management style he also made some bad choices, like building the Edsel and firing Lee Iaccoca, which cost the company dearly.

    Engineers, just like any other professional, come in all shapes, sizes and personalities. Some are book worms. Some are the class clowns. Some are leaders. Some are followers. Some are in between. So generalizing what an engineer can/can’t do or be isn’t good for the advancement of the profession. Especially when we can’t get kids interested in science and engineering because they and their parents don’t see the glamor of the profession.

    In my opinion, we should be celebrating these successes and shining a light on those engineers who are leading the way.

  • Here’s another comment added against this post in the LinkedIn Machine Design professional group. With the author’s permission, I reposted it for all. You can see the other 13 comments by following this link if you are part of the group: http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&discussionID=38875979&gid=78772&commentID=28931411&trk=view_disc

    +++++++++++++++++

    Personality. Passion. Tunnel Vision. Are all issues that every executive whether they come from Engineering, Finance, Operations, etc. have to face. Bean counters can get as tunnel vision and passionate about being only one way to do business. There’s nothing wrong with being passionate just so long as it is utilized properly.

    I don’t believe Alan Mulally is an exception. He is just one in a very long line of engineers who have started and ran highly successful companies or have taken the helm of a struggling firm and turned it around.

    How did we get to where we are at in the 21st century, if it weren’t for the engineers who lead the companies that created today’s technology? Henry Ford was an engineer and made the production of the automobile successful. How many of his kids grand kids and nephews that have run the company during very lean times were engineers? I don’t know, but according to sources William Clay Ford Jr., the most recent Ford to run the company, only had a general BA degree and an MBA. He’s the one who ran the company into the ground than asked for a bale out.

    In my opinion the CEO, the company head whatever title you put on him/her, has to be the visionary, the cheerleader, the problem solver in chief. They have to know what their strengths and weaknesses are and put together the team of executives that complement them. Then they have to be able to let these people do the jobs they were hired to do.

    The classic example of this is Henry Ford II. He was put in the role of company leader after his dad, Edsel Ford, died, and went out and hired a team of executives to help him run the company, and for the most part the company was highly successful during his tenure. But due to his personality and management style he also made some bad choices, like building the Edsel and firing Lee Iaccoca, which cost the company dearly.

    Engineers, just like any other professional, come in all shapes, sizes and personalities. Some are book worms. Some are the class clowns. Some are leaders. Some are followers. Some are in between. So generalizing what an engineer can/can’t do or be isn’t good for the advancement of the profession. Especially when we can’t get kids interested in science and engineering because they and their parents don’t see the glamor of the profession.

    In my opinion, we should be celebrating these successes and shining a light on those engineers who are leading the way.

  • Here’s another really good comment from the discussion at the iMechE professional group that I thought would be valuable to post here. The original author provided approval. You can follow the rest of the conversation by following this link if you are a part of that group: http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&discussionID=38876042&gid=112033&commentID=29003914&trk=view_disc

    +++++++++++++++++++

    A qualified engineer/programme manager within a multi national corporation can have more P&L, resource responsibility, share impact and earn more salary than someone with title of CEO of company with lower net worth.

    CEX’s are by title adopted Americanisms that to be frank do not differentiate candidate, while proliferation of such management structures have added to overhead I would like to see a good argument that evidences such structures make sustained positive impact to net worth or bottom line. In complex large multinational corporations CEO, CEX, COO, VP, Director, structure could be appropriate, speaking of UK Co not so far back managing director/director structures were and still are the norm for many competent multi site companies with T/O in the tens to hundreds millions GBP.

    Tradition shows the head of Bosch GmbH and board of management are first engineers or Dr-Ing

    There are more Engineers than S&M managers heading Chinese companies.

    CEO by nature has to be extrovert.

    On a tangent: The CEO of West Midlands Health Authority I understand started as a paramedic.

  • Here’s another really good comment from the discussion at the iMechE professional group that I thought would be valuable to post here. The original author provided approval. You can follow the rest of the conversation by following this link if you are a part of that group: http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&discussionID=38876042&gid=112033&commentID=29003914&trk=view_disc

    +++++++++++++++++++

    A qualified engineer/programme manager within a multi national corporation can have more P&L, resource responsibility, share impact and earn more salary than someone with title of CEO of company with lower net worth.

    CEX’s are by title adopted Americanisms that to be frank do not differentiate candidate, while proliferation of such management structures have added to overhead I would like to see a good argument that evidences such structures make sustained positive impact to net worth or bottom line. In complex large multinational corporations CEO, CEX, COO, VP, Director, structure could be appropriate, speaking of UK Co not so far back managing director/director structures were and still are the norm for many competent multi site companies with T/O in the tens to hundreds millions GBP.

    Tradition shows the head of Bosch GmbH and board of management are first engineers or Dr-Ing

    There are more Engineers than S&M managers heading Chinese companies.

    CEO by nature has to be extrovert.

    On a tangent: The CEO of West Midlands Health Authority I understand started as a paramedic.

  • Andrew Derry

    I have just finished my masters dissertaion on a very similar subject, the bottom line is that by the time you get to become a CEO you are no longer an engineer, accountant, or anything else you are a business leader. You may have a background in a particular field which may give advantages or disadvantages along the path to the top but ultimately it is about the individual not the subject. As part of my research i reviewed the backgrounds of the FTSE 100 CEO’s and they are varied there are a few more predominant backgrounds but it still demonsrates that you can make it from wherever you start.

    • Great comment Andrew. Good insight.

      Did you find that regardless of background, ultimately those CEOs had to kind of disassociate themselves from their former role? It would be interesting to understand it from that perspective.

  • Andrew Derry

    I have just finished my masters dissertaion on a very similar subject, the bottom line is that by the time you get to become a CEO you are no longer an engineer, accountant, or anything else you are a business leader. You may have a background in a particular field which may give advantages or disadvantages along the path to the top but ultimately it is about the individual not the subject. As part of my research i reviewed the backgrounds of the FTSE 100 CEO’s and they are varied there are a few more predominant backgrounds but it still demonsrates that you can make it from wherever you start.

    • Great comment Andrew. Good insight.

      Did you find that regardless of background, ultimately those CEOs had to kind of disassociate themselves from their former role? It would be interesting to understand it from that perspective.

  • Lots of conversation at several professional groups on LinkedIn. Here’s links to them so you can join in the discussion where you are already a member.

    ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) – 9 comments – http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&gid=36972&discussionID=38875974&sik=&trk=mywl_artile&goback=.mwg_*2_1

    Machine Design – 14 comments – http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&gid=78772&discussionID=38875979&sik=&trk=mywl_artile&goback=.mwg_*2_1

    Design World – 9 comments – http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&gid=73860&discussionID=38876052&sik=&trk=mywl_artile&goback=.mwg_*2_1

    IMechE (Institute for Mechanical Engineers) – 11 comments – http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&gid=112033&discussionID=38876042&sik=&trk=mywl_artile&goback=.mwg_*2_1

  • Lots of conversation at several professional groups on LinkedIn. Here’s links to them so you can join in the discussion where you are already a member.

    ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers) – 9 comments – http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&gid=36972&discussionID=38875974&sik=&trk=mywl_artile&goback=.mwg_*2_1

    Machine Design – 14 comments – http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&gid=78772&discussionID=38875979&sik=&trk=mywl_artile&goback=.mwg_*2_1

    Design World – 9 comments – http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&gid=73860&discussionID=38876052&sik=&trk=mywl_artile&goback=.mwg_*2_1

    IMechE (Institute for Mechanical Engineers) – 11 comments – http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&gid=112033&discussionID=38876042&sik=&trk=mywl_artile&goback=.mwg_*2_1

  • Marvin

    Most engineers lack people skills and are unable to innovate. Engineers spend so much time protecting their turf that they lose site of the forest through the trees. It is very rare that an engineer can be able to transition from a perfectionist level of thinking to a business driven profit oriented business model.

  • Marvin

    Most engineers lack people skills and are unable to innovate. Engineers spend so much time protecting their turf that they lose site of the forest through the trees. It is very rare that an engineer can be able to transition from a perfectionist level of thinking to a business driven profit oriented business model.

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