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Thinking about an engineering degree to kickstart an interesting and varied career? Here’s something you might not have considered: studying engineering is a clever way to prepare yourself for senior management roles down the track.
It might not seem like an obvious pathway, but there’s actually a lot of crossover between the management skills of boots-on-the-ground engineers and the executive types who look after staff, financials and KPIs at big engineering firms.
‘Engineers make great leaders because not only do they get the technology, they understand what’s ahead of us in the future, and they understand that success comes from assembling diverse and effective teams to address those issues going forward,’ says Nino Ficca, a graduate of Deakin’s Bachelor of Engineering who worked his way up through the ranks to become managing director and CEO of energy infrastructure firm AusNet Services.
Specialist technical skills – in everything from the digitisation of energy systems to commercial manufacturing systems – and a solid understanding of the technical challenges that lie ahead can give engineering graduates a competitive advantage over other management hopefuls who come from a more traditional business background.
‘As a senior manager, an understanding of current, historic and emerging technology is very important,’ says Nino. ‘If I compare the potential of someone with an engineering background and training to understand and prepare for future challenges and opportunities like artificial intelligence, automation, robotics and cybersecurity with someone who does not have the benefit of this training and background, engineers are in a great position to prepare organisations, people and even their customers for those challenges and exciting opportunities.’
Indeed, Nino says his engineering background has been a valuable asset throughout his long career. ‘Even though I was managing director and CEO of a large utility company, ultimately accountable for all business outcomes, financial and non-financial, everyone knew I was an engineer,’ he says. ‘I had that engineering mindset, which was guided by principles of analysis, problem solving, safety, innovation and design.’
'Engineers make great leaders because not only do they get the technology, they understand what's ahead of us in the future'
Whether it’s figuring out the cause of a technical problem or finding the solution to a regulatory hurdle or staffing shortage, engineers and senior managers have one very important skill in common: problem solving.
‘The significant skills and attributes that engineers have are around problem solving, analytical thinking and achieving outcomes,’ Nino says. ‘These attributes are very, very important management skills – especially when coupled with the ability to effectively lead and manage people and to work with multidisciplinary teams to solve problems or create opportunities.
‘In fact, the process for solving financial problems, legal problems or commercial problems uses a very similar methodology to what engineers use to resolve technical problems. The difference is that at times engineers tend to solve problems themselves, whereas senior managers compose teams and orchestrate people to achieve certain outcomes. When you combine both it leads to a great outcome for everyone.’
So, how long does it take to move from an early engineering career to a stint in senior management – and how should you go about it?
Nino encourages new engineering graduates to spend the first three to five years after university seeking out a diverse set of professional experiences. ‘Sitting in one place and doing the same thing for three or four years is probably not ideal,’ he says. ‘Engineers need to challenge themselves, take opportunities, develop their skills and competencies, and take a long-term view of their career.’
Next, you’ll need to decide whether to pursue a career as a specialist technical advisor or take a generalist path, where you can learn how to be a good manager. ‘An engineering degree equips people with the skills and foundational capabilities to do either or both,’ Nino says.
Fast forward another 10 to 20 years and senior management positions may beckon. Whether it takes more time or less, Nino says engineering graduates are perfectly placed to seek out the leadership opportunities of the future.
‘If I was forced to pick a profession knowing what’s ahead of us in terms of disruption, technology, digitisation, artificial intelligence and automation, engineering would be my choice,’ he says. ‘The future is exciting and full of opportunities for engineers to make a real difference.’
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