Business Management

What Keeps Engineers from Advancing in their Careers?

Chris is an engineer at a leading scientific instrument company, and his career is stuck. He hasn’t been promoted in years. He’s an Engineer III (out of six levels), but thinks he should be at least a IV. He has more than 10 years’ experience, and he knows he’s made several significant technical contributions to the company’s products.

Chris is a solid engineer. Everyone thinks so. He’s technically proficient and a good problem solver, but his performance review ratings are “average,” and while he expects to hear positive feedback about his accomplishments, he rarely does. He doesn’t understand why management is holding him back. In his private thoughts, he blames them for stalling his career.

Instead, Chris should be trying harder to understand what’s really in his way. What’s missing? What keeps him from advancing?

Here’s how management sees Chris: He shows up for work every day and follows directions, but he doesn’t go beyond that. He never tries to help the business reach the next level.

Some engineers think going “beyond” means making ingenious technical contributions, but few of us operate at genius level. There’s something else an engineering business needs day-to-day that doesn’t require exceptional, genius-level contributions: business acumen. That is, being attuned to customers’ needs and stakeholders’ perspectives, aligning technical progress with business strategy, and understanding financial operations.

Business acumen calls on many different skills, but here’s how I see it: Beyond the soft skills (communication, teamwork, and leadership), business acumen is about striving to help the business succeed based on understanding what the business really needs. Not just design expertise, a parts inventory, or an understanding of technical architecture and project requirements—the usual concerns of most engineers—but a realization that engineers are businesspeople, much the same as an entrepreneur or an executive is a businessperson.

Does having business expertise mean having the same level of understanding as the CEO? No. To demonstrate and use business acumen, you have to be able to do these four things:

Know your customers. Understand who they are and why doing business with your organization is important to them. Understand why they prefer to work with your organization rather than your competitors. Also, understand that they have choices: Maybe not today but in the near future, a more attractive alternative could be available to them. See things from the customers’ perspective, and then build strong relationships with at least three or four of these important individuals.

Know your stakeholders. This can be much more difficult than knowing your customers, who are a subset of your stakeholders. The broad definition of a stakeholder is anyone who is affected by your work in any way, or who affects your work in any way. Think about that, and you’ll start to realize the impact you are having on the world. It’s probably much bigger than you realized if you haven’t thought about stakeholders this way. You can’t have relationships with that many people, so at least build rapport with three or four of your most important stakeholders who aren’t customers.

Master basic financial information. Know how much it costs to employ you. Your cost of labor is your salary plus the cost (to the company) of your benefits and the overhead costs such as your workspace and equipment. You can’t easily gauge your value to your business without knowing how much you cost. Also, know the cost of delays to your projects. This is usually many thousands of dollars per day.

Understand processes. Continuously improving business processes is a never-ending challenge because we’re always finding opportunities for improvement. Understanding processes means (1) following processes and then (2) looking for high-value opportunities to suggest actual improvements—tactical, measurable changes to implement, not just ideas. Understanding stakeholders (including customers), financials and processes is the foundation for being able to contribute to setting direction and for addressing business concerns.

There is no shortage of technical ideas in engineering organizations. But there is a shortage of ideas that integrate technical advancements with business priorities. The more an engineer can expand his or her expertise to include a knowledge of business operations, the more valuable that engineer will be to the company.


Gary Hinkle is past chair of the IEEE Oregon Section and president of Auxilium Inc., a leadership training organization.


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