By Dinesh Paliwal, HARMAN President and Chief Executive Officer

Michigan Photo
Dinesh Paliwal addresses University of Michigan students during Entrepreneurship Speaker Series

Engineers are often defined by their output.

Civil engineers build bridges. Electrical engineers, power grids. Software engineers, apps. From the engineers who created the Great Pyramids to the engineers who are designing and developing tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles, these visionaries and their tangible creations are inextricably linked.

But what about the intangibles? What is it that allows engineers to solve problems, formulate plans, execute on a vision, and manage the team to help them do it all? Yes, engineers are trained in their specific field—they learn the ins and outs of fluid dynamics, or microprocessors, or aeronautics—but whether they know it or not, they are also trained to be leaders

Tim Cook of Apple, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Marry Barra of General Motors, and Carlos Brito of Anheuser-Busch InBev all got their undergraduate degree in engineering. In fact, according to Harvard Business Review, almost a quarter of the world’s best-performing CEOs have studied engineering. As an engineer first, and a CEO second, this comes as no surprise to me. I know firsthand that the characteristics of a great engineer—problem-solving skills, a deep understanding of technology, and a results-driven mindset—are the exact same things that any executive, in any industry, must have in order to succeed.

Problem solving is essential to engineering. Engineers are constantly on the lookout for a better way to do things. It’s why my colleagues at HARMAN are constantly pushing the possible in the pursuit of a safer, more efficient future for automobiles. Engineers, no matter their specialty, are always working the angles to make sure that everything runs smoothly and securely.

This same mindset—a critical eye and a desire for constant improvement—is integral to effectively leading an organization. When I became CEO of HARMAN, one of the first decisions I made was to make our leadership team more diverse. Conventional wisdom would say that my STEM background would be of little use in this task. But in fact, it was my engineering training that allowed me to quickly identify the problem, determine a solution, and put a plan into action. The result: HARMAN’s leadership ranks are far more diverse, our culture more inclusive, and our company more innovative.

Part of what fuels engineers’ need to problem solve is that they’re endlessly curious about technology, and the same is true of today’s successful leaders. In today’s world, in which technology is driving corporate competitiveness—where retailers operate enormous cloud platforms, and pizza delivery companies spend millions on creating the perfect app—leaders need to be tech-driven. They need to understand the opportunities and challenges that technology presents, and they need to understand the critical role it plays in their organization. It’s by being as immersed in technology as their teams on the ground that leaders can earn their respect, make the best strategic decisions and drive innovation.

Constantly inquiring, inventing and refining, executing with precision and efficiently problem-solving, and delivering and elevating for customers —these are all key attributes of engineers who tend to excel when challenges are great, the pressure is high and the potential and implications are significant.  These are also desirable traits in corporate leaders.

As we mark National Engineers Week, there’s never been a more important time celebrate and develop the engineers we work with every day, to emulate their curiosity, discipline and ingenuity and inspire the next generation to pursue a career in STEM. The return on such investments will no doubt create a multiplier effect from the R&D lab to the test tack to the Board Room and beyond.