When I first started work as an engineer for Monsanto back in 1969, I was told about something called the “dual ladder.” This meant that an engineer could have two career paths—one as a pure engineer and the other in management. Many companies offer the same opportunity paths today.
The engineering career ladder has respected positions such as Distinguished Technologist or Fellow. If that is your chosen path, then go for it. There is nothing wrong with wanting to remain an individual contributor. The ladder to a management career seems tougher to climb. For automation engineers in particular, this path seems daunting. In my view, however, automation engineers are the best possible candidates for management. If you are interested in pursuing a management career, here is some advice.
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First of all, automation engineering is a great place to start. Automation touches everything from the process to mechanical to electrical. You also get exposed to how your company works, how teams accomplish things, and how companies strive for competitive advantage. Engineers make good leaders and I wish there were more in business and politics.
Engineering skills alone, however, are not enough. You need to round out your skills and knowledge, and the only person who can truly take charge of your career is you. Right now, I can hear some of you saying that you just can’t stop what you are doing and go get an MBA. It is my view that you don’t need an MBA to be a success—but you do need to do some homework.
Understand financial metrics
The first part of rounding out is learning about financial metrics and what they mean. Engineers deal with numbers every day, yet their eyes seem to glaze over when it comes to things like profit and loss statements (P&L) and balance sheets. Honestly, understanding financial metrics is not that hard. Seek out a friend in the finance department and ask that person to explain things to you.
A P&L is simply a kind of waterfall. It begins with revenue and then we start subtracting various costs in the business. When you reach the bottom of the waterfall, you have net profit. Return on investment (ROI) is another important facet. Find out how your company measures this. It is the key to getting a project approved. Attend a seminar on finance. Get a book or go online. If you can master LaPlace transforms, you can understand finance!
Next, work on your presentation skills. Some people are blessed with a talent for this, but everyone can improve. It is particularly important to be able to make a point and support your point. If you’ve seen the movie “The King’s Speech” you will know that practice can turn even the worst speaker into a good speaker.
Next, learn about leadership and management. Here again, there are many seminars and online tools. Also, look around your company. The best leaders are usually well-known to everyone. Go to one of them and ask them to talk to you about how they do it. Watch leaders in action. See how they handle situations. As Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”
Finally, make your desires known. Volunteer for special projects. Tell your management what your career interests are. Be willing to accept a transfer to another part of the country or to another country. It is possible to advance without physically moving, but a willingness to move opens up significantly more opportunities.
Most companies provide a lot of training opportunities, so take advantage of them. However, don’t expect your company to take charge of your career. If you want to advance on either ladder, find out what you’re missing and go get it.
John Berra, firstname.lastname@example.org recently retired as Chairman of Emerson Process Management.