7 Good Reasons Engineer Leaders Ask Questions

Ask QuestionsThe adage goes that there’s no such thing as a stupid question.  I’ll go with that.  Sometimes, even the “stupid” question will stimulate discussion and thought that wouldn’t have happened had everyone just gone along.  Therefore, it’s important for engineer leaders to develop the courage to ask any and all questions that come to mind.  There have been situations throughout my career when I didn’t ask a question because I assumed I knew the answer or that the question I had wasn’t important.  While I like to think of myself as someone who’s always engaged, and engaging, the fact is I would sometimes leave ambiguity on the table.

This isn’t the case any longer.  Through experience – both good and bad – I’ve learned that you never leave ambiguity on the table.  When a question arises in your mind, ask it.  If the answer isn’t available from the team, then ask the next question:  “who has the answer?”   

A leader doesn’t need to have all of the answers herself, but does need to have the courage to ask the question and then find out who does have the answer.

Reasons to Question

If there were such a thing as a list of unalienable rights for leaders, the right to question would be listed.  Along with providing a vision and providing the resources/environment for a team to succeed, a leader has the right to question.

If you’re new to leadership or not comfortable with questioning, here are seven reasons to exercise your right to question:

1. Stimulates Creative Thinking and Problem Solving.  Asking questions of yourself or your team can get the creative juices flowing and help to generate different courses of action for solving problems.  The range of questions is infinite, but here are a few to get you started:

What is the problem and how do we know that?

What are the three ways we can solve it?

What if these aren’t available to us?  What’s another way?

Who can help us develop solutions?

The questions you ask in stimulating creative thinking can always be bolstered with the simplest question to ask:  why?  

Practitioners of 6-sigma use the 5-Why exercise to determine the root-cause of issues. It’s highly effective in understanding the underlying components of any issue and will help illuminate the relationship between the root-causes. And it’s extremely simple to use in any situation.

2. Improves Processes and Procedures.  In any leadership role, whether in business, the public sector or a non-profit organization, you will find processes and procedures.  This managerial action is vital to any organization’s ability to get things done, deliver value and provide a product or service.  Without processes and procedures, modern life would be hell!  

However this doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be room for improvement with these processes and procedures.  With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution came the start of the science of management.  Total Quality Management, Rapid Improvement Events, and the body of knowledge in 6-sigma and LEAN, each is focused on improving the processes and procedures of organizations.  

As an engineer leader, you don’t have to be a certified 6-sigma black belt or have hours of study in Total Quality Management principles to use questions to make the processes and procedures in your organization better.  You simply need to know that it might be done better and ask questions such as:

How could we do this better?

Does this process/procedure generate the result our customer/client/the boss needs?  If not, why?

How much time do we spend on this process?  Could we reduce it?  

Can I delegate this process?  Outsource it?

Does this procedure enable good decisions and a quality product/service, or hinder it?

3. Leads to Insight and New Ideas.   Often times the best way to accomplish something is the way you know how to do it.  If you know that process A yields desired result B, fixing something that isn’t broken will be a waste of time and energy.  In this case, using tried-and-tested methods is smart.  However, you might be faced with a situation where the tried-and-tested doesn’t work because the environment has changed, technology has advanced, or you and your team are simply out of touch with what’s needed. read more »


3 Components You Must Master for Engineering Career Success

From all of my reading and interaction with successful engineering leaders, I’ve observed three components that must be mastered for engineering career success. They aren’t technical and they aren’t taught in college. Unfortunately we have to develop them on the job and through trial-and-error. Because of this, a lot of people miss incorporating them into their career until too late, or maybe not at all.

3 Components for Engineering Career Success

In my career of working in the military,   these three components are a way of life. Without them, career progression is stagnated and opportunities limited. I had the good fortune to work for engineering leaders who were accomplished in these skills which were instilled in me, so from early on I had a foundation I was able to build on as I progressed.

The three components are:

1.  Communications. Communications is the first vital component in a successful engineering career. Without the ability to speak and write coherently and clearly, we will miss out on relationships, advancement opportunities and responsibilities. Your boss won’t pick you to give the big presentation if you can’t collect your thoughts and present professionally. Your firm won’t look to you for business development opportunities if you lack the ability to “speak for the company”.Reflective Listening

Speaking and writing are key sub-components, but the ultimate sub-component is listening. I remember my father telling me that God gave me two ears and one mouth for a reason: “to listen twice as much as I spoke”. However, I think it took me about a decade in the profession to fully appreciate the importance of listening.

Engineers, by and large, are in the profession of fulfilling someone else’s needs. To fulfill another person’s needs requires an understanding of what the needs are. This understanding comes only through listening to the person. Speaking and writing won’t get you the data and information you need. 

When the topic of communications comes up, most immediately think about speaking and writing as the only sub-components. However, listening is the sub-component that will deliver you the greatest impact in your engineering career. This is because listening allows you to understand. Through understanding we can fulfill other people’s needs, solving their problems and delivering value. When you are able to deliver value, you are in a position to create an amazingly successful engineering career no matter where you are.

The art of listening and understanding really requires a couple of things on our behalf: Patience to let the other person talk and a willingness to allow ourselves to occupy their point of view. This latter element is known as “empathy”. When you can see a situation from another person’s point of view you open up the communications to a completely new level. Your ability to understand their needs increases exponentially. 

Action Step: Check out the inset box with seven tips for improving your listening skills. Think of a conversation you’ve had recently where employing these skills might have resulted in a different outcome. How might you incorporate these skills in conversations you have scheduled this week?

2.  Relationships. We are social beings. Each of us requires other people to survive and thrive. Therefore, without relationships we go nowhere in our engineering career or life. While establishing loose connections through LinkedIn can be useful, you really need to focus on creating strong, deep relationships with people who will help you succeed in your engineering career.LinkedIn connections

You can actively go about developing these meaningful relationships by understanding your engineering career goals and aspirations and then looking for relationships that will be needed to make your goals and aspirations a reality. This may seem contrived, but it isn’t if you’re using the art of listening and approaching this with the utmost sincerity. Oh, and you’re willing to give in return.

We can’t afford to not seek-out relationships with people that can help us get to the next level in our engineering career. The risks are too high from wasted time, rework, and unnecessary failure. While learning from doing and failure can be a good thing, building a relationship with someone who can coach us towards our goal is an awesome thing. If you’re like me, I’ll choose awesome over good any day of the week.

Action Step: Look at your goals and see if you can match one or two relationships you currently have to each one. What can these people do to help you achieve that goal? If you have any gaps, a goal without a relationship match, what type of person do you need to help you achieve that goal? For example, a goal I have is to pass the Program Management Certification. I had no relationships that could help coach me with this process, so I sought them through a Program Management LinkedIn group initially. This has led to a connection with a leading practitioner who is helping coach me through the application and study process. 

Bottom-line: don’t leave your relationships to chance. While you can build deep, long-lasting relationships with people you bump into randomly at networking events or conferences, don’t rely on randomness to make your engineering career goals – or life goals for that matter – happen. Be involved.

3.  Dashboard. A successful engineering career requires a series of goals. It might start with the goal of passing the FE exam, then PE exam, and obviously a position with an engineering firm or public sector agency. Like all projects we’ll work on, each goal we target in our engineering career requires resources; time, money, people (relationships) – each component is present.

Organizations increasingly are using dashboards to track the key performance indicators (KPIs) that move the bar on their important projects, goals, or processes. The dashboard fulfills the ‘Measure’ component of the SMART acronym we’re used to hearing when talking about goals. The key benefit of the dashboard is that it provides a visual snapshot so you can see where you are in relation to where you started and where you need to be. 

Engineer Career Success

What gets measured gets done. This management adage is true. The act of measuring something places our focus on it. Then our subconscious programming takes over and we are instinctively driven to push the issue towards accomplishment. Again, this is why company’s measure key business areas like financial indicators, project timeliness, change orders, etcetera.

Building your own dashboard doesn’t require a lot of work. Simply ensure you have a timeline associated with each professional goal and you identify the key levers that will make the accomplishment of those goals a certainty. For example, my goal of achieving the program management certificate in 2015 has key levers of dedicated study time and a number of study modules completed per week. The later ensures I stay on track to sit for the exam by third quarter.

“Destiny is no matter of chance. It is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.” ~ William Jennings Bryan

Employing each of these 3 components helps to eliminate chance from our engineering career. Success can certainly come about through chance, but why take the risk? We don’t execute projects at work using chance and hope and we mustn’t use them in our professional career development and goal accomplishment either.

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20 Questions to Assess Your Interests, Values, and Leadership

QuestionsOver a career in the Air Force I’ve had the opportunity to participate in some amazing training. I’ve also had numerous, amazing leadership opportunities where I could apply what I learned, learn even more, and grow.

This past fall I took advantage of an opportunity to attend the Boy Scouts of America Wood Badge course. For those unfamiliar with the Wood Badge, it’s BSA’s premiere course for adult leaders teaching leadership, communications, team building and the tenants of BSA. Participants leave the week course with the requirement to accomplish five goals that support different aspects of the Scouting program. 

As I mentioned, I’ve been through a lot of training in the past twenty years. I’ve had a lot of experience leading, developing strategy, and setting goals – professional and personal – over the past twenty years. Wood Badge was awesome. I learned more about myself as a leader, as well as my strengths and weaknesses.

I also learned that there’s a definitive need for each of us to take stock of our interests, values, and leadership from time to time. It’s really easy to put the head down and charge through life, going from work to after school activities for kids to personal development actions to bed. Then hit the repeat button the next morning. 

Assessment Time 

As mentioned, an important focus of the Wood Badge course is a consideration of a person’s role as a leader, not only in BSA, but their workplace, communities, and in the nation.

One of the first exercises each person has to accomplish is a twenty question pre-course assessment. The assessment is intended to help you lay a foundation by developing a clearer understanding of your personal interests, values, and sense of the future.

What follows are the twenty questions. Use these questions with about an hour of your time to take a good look at where you are now in terms of interests, values and leadership skills, as well as where you would like to be. Be as honest as you can in the answers, as they can only help you going forward in your career and life.

  1. What do I feel are my greatest strengths?
  2. What strengths do others notice in me?
  3. What do I most enjoy doing?
  4. What qualities of character do I most admire in others?
  5. Who is a person who has made a positive impact on my life?
  6. Why was that person able to have such significant impact?
  7. What have been my happiest moments in life?
  8. Why were they happy?
  9. If I had unlimited time and resources, what would I choose to do?
  10. When I daydream, what do I see myself doing?
  11. What are the three or four most important things to me?
  12. When I look at my work life, what activities do I consider of greatest worth?
  13. What can I do best that would be of worth to others?
  14. What talents do I have that no one else really knows about?
  15. If there are things I feel I really should do, what are they?
  16. What are my important roles in life?
  17. In each of those roles, what are my most important lifetime goals?
  18. In five years, what role do I see for myself in my profession? In life?
  19. What would I really like to be and to do in my life?
  20. What are the most important values I use to guide and motivate my actions?

What Next?

“We never fail when we try to do our duty, we always fail when we neglect to do it.” Sir Robert Baden-Powell 

What you do with the answers to the question really what matters. You can set them aside and come back to them at another time. But I don’t recommend that. Instead, I recommend using them as the foundation on which you build professional and personal goals that will guide you over the next five years of your life.

Look at your answer to question #18. Is what you are doing now, today, going to put you where you said you want to be in five years? If “yes”, awesome! But how about putting you on the target you illuminate with your answer to question #19?

Achieving a goal, especially a challenging one, is an amazing feeling. We get a blast of serotonin, feel proud of our accomplishment and sometimes are recognized by others. However, if the goal we just achieved wasn’t the right target, we’ll be quickly back to the drawing board searching for fulfillment. I know because I’ve attacked the wrong target before. It’s not fulfilling.

My point is this: use the questions above to take stock of what you’re doing now, what you hold dear, and what your loftiest ambitions/dreams are. Then figure out if the actions you’re taking and the goals you’re working on will bring your ambitions/dreams to reality.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Albert Einstein

If not, then take the steps to get them alignment. We have one life to live…might as well live it working towards and on that which bring us the most fulfillment.

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Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net


9 Components of the Conscious Leader

This is a post about connecting all areas of your life to be a fully conscious leader. What does this mean? Bottom line up front: it means your professional and personal lives are in sync and you know who you are. 

Why is this important? Because no matter how much it may be nice to think that our professional life doesn’t affect our personal life, and vice versa, it does. What happens at the office has a profound effect on what happens in our personal life. As it turns out, both aspects of your life have a definitive impact on your ability and capacity to lead.

Compartmentalize It

Work affects life and life affects work. It’s because our life is one continuous stream of existence that one part affects the others.   “Compartmentalization” – putting different aspects of life into separate compartments – is a good theory but eventually toxic in reality. 

Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid mental discomfort and anxiety. The source of the dissonance might come from an internal conflict in values, emotions, beliefs, etcetera; or from external situations that leave us with mental pictures.

Like multi-tasking, compartmentalizing is a myth. Any attempt to put a firewall between work and life will eventually fail. If for no other reason, this fact is one to pursue the path of a conscious leader.

Becoming A Conscious Leader

I’ve written a few times about “being conscious” as a leader, likely because I wasn’t always so. Yes, I can attest that there’s truth to Richard Bach’s quote, “we teach best what we most need to learn”! 

Leadership is a series of skills and aptitudes that a person can be trained on and develop over time. Most of us have been through some type of leadership training. Most of us have read books about leadership. Most of us gain experience in leadership through our work and volunteering.

We’re good to go on gaining the skills and aptitude in leadership, but how does one go about becoming a conscious leader and why is it important?

It’s as simple as reflecting on how we lead and what we do when we’re in leadership mode. That simple, however, as with most things that are simple, it’s not easy.

The Conscious Leaders is a Servant Leader

A while ago I had the opportunity to attend a seminar course on conscious capitalism by Jeff Klein. While the capitalism component was interesting, the compelling element for me had to do with the concept of conscious leadership.

The conscious leader, according to Klein, is one that focuses on “we” and not “me”. They get that their prime directive is to serve the purpose of their organization, to support the people in that organization, and to create value for all stakeholders.

This may sound like the concept of “servant leadership”, one first shared by Robert Greenleaf in his book of the same title. That’s because they are related. To be a servant leader requires the leader to be conscious. When a leader is conscious about their actions, they are better able to make decisions and to support their organization and stakeholders than when they are operating from a less-than-conscious state. Dare I say ‘unconsciously’…on auto-pilot?

Reflecting on Conscious Leadership

A first step in becoming conscious about something is to reflect on it. Here are nine components of leadership on which to reflect:

Commitment. Leaders drive the culture in their organization. The culture of the organization drivesConscious Leader the organization’s behavior, which in turn drives the organization’s performance and ultimately the organization’s results.  

Therefore, a leader must be conscious of what they commit to because of the consequences that will result. If a leader’s focus is on meeting numbers or earning profit above all else, then the behaviors that are employed to make this happen may become unscrupulous. Commitment is good, but if for the wrong reason, doesn’t serve anyone’s best interest no matter the results.

Care. Leaders must care about themselves first before they can truly care about others. This is contrary to what I was taught early in my career – leaders eat last. I was taught that the leader puts his team first. By supporting your team, you earn their trust, they know that you care about their well-being, and they in turn deliver the goods for the organization.

What’s actually meant by ‘caring for oneself’ isn’t self-centered. Think about the pre-flight safety brief you receive on any airline. We’re told to put our oxygen mask on first before helping anyone else. The reason is that if we don’t ensure our own oxygen flow, we certainly can’t help anyone else.

Caring for ourselves means that we take care of our own physical, mental and spiritual requirements. By doing this, we are better able to encourage and support others because our basic needs are adequately fulfilled. This gives us the ability to help others fulfill their needs.

Deliver the Goods. A leader does what they say. This creates a low-stress operating environment because everyone knows that when they say they’re going to do something, they deliver. When you always keep your word, you and everyone else don’t have to guess if you’ll come through.

This is a huge win for everyone. Whether in business relationships or within your own organization, everyone around you knows that when you make a statement of an outcome, that outcome will occur.

The challenge in this is that you must have a clear 360-degree picture of expectations and you must possess a clear work plan to meet the expectations. A person gets into trouble when they over promise and under deliver.

If the sight picture you have is fuzzy, do what my Structures 101 professor, Dr. Lubkin, always told us: multiply by 1.5 or 2. When you’re in doubt: under promise and over deliver.

Connect. The conscious leader is able to truly connect with other people.   They are able to gauge the emotional state of another person and engage with them in such a way that accounts for their emotional state at that point in time.

Emotional intelligence is part of the equation here. The other part is developing an ability to create rapport with another person. Leaders cultivate this ability, if it isn’t already a skill, over time.

I am not a naturally “connective” person and have to put myself into the right mindset to be reflective of my own emotional state before I can gauge another person’s emotional state. If I’m having a more inward day, I make a point to limit the situations where I’ll have to connect with people and vice versa. 

In those situations where I have to be outward focused and connect, I reflect on my state during my morning ritual of meditation and more recently adopt a power pose for 2-3 minutes before engaging. 

Results are mixed. I do believe that the act of reflecting on my emotional state and the need to connect when I’m feeling inward focused, however, does positively shift me towards an outward focus.

Collaborate. There’s no “I” in team. We’ve heard this little statement so many times that it’s cliché. But it’s true. What’s also cliché and true is that no man is an island.

Conscious leaders seek out collaborative environments in as many situations as possible. For certain there are times – crisis response situations, deciding on where to get gas for your car – where collaboration could be detrimental or of limited value. 

But in most situations we’ll find ourselves professionally in our career, collaboration is of extreme value. This extends beyond collaboration in our project teams to collaboration with peers, a mastermind group, or a coach on achieving personal/professional goals. 

Our innate human need to connect is so that we can use those connections to collaborate. As a leader, seek opportunities for you and your team to collaborate with others externally. And facilitate the environment that seeks collaboration internally. The results you can deliver will be better for it.

Facilitate. The leader’s role as facilitator is dual-hatted. When wearing one hat the leader is a facilitator of resources, environment, and purveyor of everything an organization needs to be healthy and grow. When wearing the other hat the leader is a facilitator of organizational harmony.

I think back to my experiences as a squadron commander where it was my responsibility to facilitate the environment in which my organization existed. This included strategic positioning with my superiors, higher headquarters, and important external organizations. It also included facilitating the resources – funding, manpower, and time (through expectation management) that the organization needed to operate. This was the ‘facilitator of things’ role.

More recently I reflect on my role as a facilitator of strategy sessions, dialog between members, and resolution of difficult decision sets. This was the ‘facilitator of harmony’ role.

A leader fills both roles as they move through their role.

Focus. “We can do anything, but we can’t do everything” is a statement I use with teams I lead. I use this statement to illustrate that through commitment and collaboration, I can facilitate our ability to accomplish anything. But we can’t accomplish everything. To accomplish any thing, we must have focus. 

We know that leaders provide vision. Vision is big picture and it’s definitely a necessity in getting an organization to step-out and deliver the goods.

Equally important is providing the focus the organization needs to accomplish something. If focus isn’t provided – goals, a work plan, a specific target or mission – a team may very well move out to fulfill the vision. However, the direction they choose may be contrary to what’s actually needed at that time.

Set a vision. But also provide focus through goals or way-points your team can use to funnel their commitment and energy.

Integrate. Each of the previous eight components of the conscious leader is interesting and useful in their own right. But to get maximum effect one must integrate them. Being committed with out focus is, to use another cliché: all thrust and no vector.

Through integration, a leader brings all of these components into play. You begin to care about your team while connecting to them and others in a collaborative, focused effort to deliver.

Becoming a conscious leader can be a goal, but only in the sense of it being a “state” as opposed to a “destination”. This Zen proverb sums it up:

“Before enlightenment; chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment; chop wood, carry water.”

Becoming a conscious leader is, in a sense, being enlightened. You become aware of what you are doing, how you are doing it, and the affect it has on everyone/thing around you.

One man cannot do right in one department of life whilst he is occupied in doing wrong in any other department. Life is one indivisible whole. ~ Ghandi