What employers want

Learn to balance both your technical and interpersonal skills.

By John Suzukida, PE, Lanex Consulting, Minneapolis October 15, 2015

The headline of this piece is based on an article by Paul Wiseman of the Associated Press. His key point was that "it’s the soft skills that count, firms want grads who can think fast, work in teams." After my years of interviewing, hiring, managing, and working with engineers—and being one myself—I can tell you that Wiseman is right on point. He goes on to quote an employer: "I have never fired an engineer for bad engineering, but I have fired an engineer for lack of teamwork … people have to work together. They have to collaborate."

The overall objective of these Career Smart columns is to provide practical ideas for technical people to implement in their careers. One company uses the metaphor of a bicycle for an engineer’s education and development—the rear wheel represents your technical skills that provide propulsion and the front wheel represents the collective interpersonal skills that steer. Both are needed for success, but there’s usually not enough time in formal technical education to devote much time to the front wheel.

Engineers are blessed with the ability to solve problems, look at things objectively, and be logical, and, therefore, be rational enough to follow and understand. Those very strengths, when combined with the focus needed to work things through effectively, can often metaphorically cause the rear wheel to outdrive the front wheel—or worse, turn the bicycle into an unbalanced unicycle.

A couple of things to keep in mind to be a good employee:

  • Be part of the solution, not part of the problem; your value as an engineer is limited by your ability to get things done in teams. Don’t unwittingly become a harder person to manage such that managing you becomes the team’s challenge.
  • Cultivate a trusted peer or mentor who can tell you how balanced your front and rear wheels are in everyday encounters. Ideal mentors see you in daily interactions, and they, themselves, have strong front-wheel skills—not necessarily another engineer.
  • Leverage your intelligence toward development of your front-wheel skills. I’ve seen very bright engineers who were less developed in this area approach this as a problem to solve and they’ve done quite well at it.
  • Observe others who seem to balance this well without sacrificing their technical back-wheel effectiveness. Figure out how they do it, what they’re doing, and take them to lunch to informally talk about what you’ve observed and what you’d like to learn from them.
  • Similarly, observe those who don’t seem to have this balance, figure why that is, and how you think they can avoid negative consequences. Avoid the temptation to enlighten them with your observations and findings. This is better material to discuss with your aforementioned mentor or trusted peer!

After writing more than 20 columns on these professional development topics for engineers, participating in a couple of Consulting-Specifying Engineer’s Career Smart Conferences, and hosting a recent Consulting-Specifying Engineer webcast on "How to thrive in the nontraditional engineering work world," I’m taking a break. I hope that a few of the ideas, concepts, suggestions, and examples in these columns have resonated with you.

It’s my passion to help people make the most of their lives and to learn from those who do that well. The other Career Smart columnists are among those from whom you can continue to learn and generate thought-provoking and thought-changing ideas.

One request of you: Give them your feedback as to what’s helpful and what’s not so they can focus on the former and eliminate the latter—which I’ve learned is an ever-present challenge for a column writer.

John Suzukida was Trane’s senior VP of global marketing and strategy prior to founding Lanex Consulting in 2002, which focuses on strategic planning and product-to-solutions business model transitions. He has a BSME and distinguished alumnus award from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Read more career advice at www.csemag.com/careersmart.