An engineering background is a great foundation for leadership, but what else do you need? Luminaries from the Queensland University of Technology offer advice.
There’s a huge distance between graduating from Chongqing University with an engineering degree and being a leader of hundreds at Rio Tinto’s Boyne Smelters in Queensland, but it’s one Xiaoling Liu travelled.
It’s not only the cultural challenges that make it impressive, it’s the language barrier, the navigation of a volatile resources sector, and the fact that she was a woman leading in a male-dominated industry. To earn the respect of colleagues, to lead them while making a “commitment to serving them and not controlling them” as she puts it, she had to learn a few lessons.
Now the Chancellor of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Liu is keen to talk to engineers about those lessons. She believes engineering isn’t just a viable path to leadership roles, it’s a strong one.
That’s true even if you ultimately leave the engineering sector, QUT mechanical engineering graduate and Federal Minister for Home Affairs Karen Andrews is proof of that.
“Engineering teaches you to plan methodically, consider contingencies, and prepare for multiple eventualities – all vital skills for any leader,” she says.
Both Liu and Andrews are evidence that gender needn’t be a barrier to pursuing a career in engineering or leadership, it’s the skills you learn that count.
Professor Nic Smith, Provost at QUT, agrees. With an illustrious background in biomedical engineering that has seen him in multiple leadership roles around the world, he understands the modern value of an engineering degree.
“It’s in a wonderful sweet spot between having a professional accreditation and also giving you an incredible framework for the way you work, which is also applicable to so many other areas of life,” he says.
With his and Liu’s guidance, leadership is embedded in the university’s engineering curriculum. Along with Andrews, they offer the following advice for engineers and graduates who want to be leaders.
1. Hone the skills engineering teaches you
When Liu started at Boyne Smelters, things were not looking up.
“It was a difficult situation, with a lot of injuries, the quantity of our output not being sufficient, the quality being poor – you name it,” she says.
Liu believes the engineering skill that best served her in tackling these issues is one required of every engineer.
“I had systematic problem-solving skills. When I see a problem, I ask, what am I observing? What is the root cause? What does the data say? And do I need to experiment before I jump into a solution? I called my approach a 360 degree walk around the problem.”
Andrews worked in plant maintenance in Queensland after graduating and also had a management role in the oil industry in Victoria before entering politics. She sees the theoretical underpinnings of engineering as crucial to her current role.
“Engineering teaches you the importance of having a theoretical underpinning to what we do and why, and how to balance costs, benefits, safety and quality,” she says.
Smith believes the conceptualisation skills of engineering as crucial in the modern world.
“We’re living in a time where data is actually very accessible, but often creating understanding from it is harder. The noise can obscure the signal. So that ability to be able to see the wood for the trees and rationalise complexity is really important.”
2. Know the value of not knowing
At St. Thomas Hospital in Westminster, Smith was given the opportunity to set up a department that would draw upon all the knowledge and technology he had been developing as part of his professorship at Oxford University.
“I worked at that interface between mathematics, which helped describe blood flow, computation, which helped predict it, and medicine and medical imaging, which allowed that knowledge to be translated to patient cases,” he says.
Surrounded by talented cardiologists and clinicians engaged in a fundamentally different practice, and having to learn from them even as he tried to help them, Smith relied on a most precious resource: ignorance.
“I like to say that ignorance is incredibly valuable because once you lose it, you never get it back,” he says.
Rather than trying to act the part of a genius leader, this attitude meant he took to learning from his colleagues with gusto and thus also helped him unwind how the expertise he did have would be most helpful. Their collaborations were that much stronger for it.
Ignorance can be most useful at the exact moment it’s most tempting to disguise it. Years ago, Smith was involved in the planning for the construction of a $300 million building and was attending a large stakeholder meeting late in the process.
“The chief architect was presenting and he said, ‘You’ve all read the memo, so I’ll take that as read and move on to the decision process.’ I felt on the backfoot because I hadn’t read the memo – I was looking through my emails trying to find it. He got 10 minutes into the presentation of this big decision we were making and I had to say, ‘I’m really sorry I haven’t read the memo, and I can’t participate until I do.’ It turned out nobody had read the memo. He’d never sent it.
“Sometimes when you ask what you think is a dumb question, it turns out to be much more astute than you anticipated.”
3. Be humble
If you’re willing to acknowledge when you don’t know something, why not go a step further? Rather than treating leadership as a badge of merit or a playground for power, take a values-based approach.
“Sometimes people have the feeling that they are in an authority position so people just have to listen to them and do exactly what they say. That’s not leadership,” says Liu. “Leadership is a commitment to serve; to serve people and the organisation. It’s also a commitment to ongoing personal development in order to stay relevant to the evolving business context and societal expectations.”
When Liu was working at Boyne Smelters, she found that being humble conveyed something more powerful than authority – fellowship. Her discovery came from the most mundane of activities.
“I went into work on the weekend and, at lunch, I realised I hadn’t brought my purse. So I went out and four operators were sitting there eating and I said, ‘Can you lend me five bucks?’ A week later someone told me the story had gone viral in the workplace. People were saying, ‘She’s just got no pretences.’
“That’s why when I talk to people from my senior leadership role, I say, we are equal. We’re both employees in the company. My role has more authority and makes decisions that may impact your role, but as employees, we’re equal.”
Humility is a key part of Andrews’ leadership too. She says it’s important to listen to the needs of others, and represent and advocate for the views of those in your community.
“Leadership shouldn’t be selfish, it should be selfless. It’s about being open to feedback, working constructively with colleagues, ensuring all voices are heard representing those who might find it difficult to speak up themselves.”
Of course, being humble doesn’t mean standing still.
“If you’re not facilitating change, you’re keeping the status quo,” says Smith. “That’s a management role – and it’s a legitimate thing to do. But if you’re a leader, you are facilitating change.”
4. Address the common skills gaps for engineers
While the cliche of the emotionally stilted and numbers-driven engineer is not representative of the profession, it’s often true that engineering training doesn’t prepare you for people management.
“Engineering gives you logical problem-solving skills, but when you’re talking about the human psychology side of leadership, it’s emotional intelligence,” says Liu.
Andrews agrees and thinks that there’s a particular need to develop that aspect of the role now.
“In an age of increasing automation, the ‘soft skills’ that machines can’t master are more important than ever,” she says.
“Imagination, inspiration, emotional intelligence, and the ability to establish a genuine and authentic connection with colleagues and teammates – these are of course already very valuable skills, but their importance will only grow in years to come.”
Smith says that the job of a leader is to avoid the tunnel vision of your own way of thinking and contextualise even when others can’t.
“Engineering and technology alone are not going to fix or address the challenges or exploit the opportunities that we have. You have to connect with other disciplines and understand the historical, psychological, sociological and economic systems we live in.”
This contextualising approach to the challenges facing our world is one that he and Liu foster at their university, he says.
“One of the great things about QUT is that there is a relative lack of hierarchy and a sense that ideas can be challenged no matter who you are.”
If you’re interested in leadership and the modern problems facing infrastructure, register for the Engineers Australia and QUT webinar ‘Thought Leader Series: Skills shortages threatening the infrastructure boom’. It starts midday on the 18th of August.