Turning Engineers into Leaders: An Interview with MIT’s Dr. David Niño

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MIT Professional Education, which provides continuing education courses and lifelong learning opportunities for science, engineering, and technology professionals at all levels from around the world, is a MassTLC member and a sponsor of our Technology & Innovation community.

Among the many courses offered through MIT Professional Education are a series on leadership for engineers, software developers, and other technical professionals. David Niño, Senior Lecturer, Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program, has developed these programs with a particular focus on helping people move from outstanding individual contributors to successful leaders, a transition that is often difficult to make.

We had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Niño recently about why the transition to leadership can be challenging for technical professionals, why they need leadership training, and why it’s helpful for them to go through it with their technical peers. Our conversation follows.

DECIDING TO FOCUS ON LEADERSHIP FOR ENGINEERS

How did you end up teaching at MIT Professional Education?

I work for the MIT School of Engineering and in this leadership program in the school, the Bernard M. Gordon-MIT Engineering Leadership Program (GEL), and that’s my main focus: my full-time job, if you will. But I also teach classes through MIT Professional Education, and it is an aspect of my professional life I really enjoy. I’m always looking for opportunities to engage with MIT Professional Education.

MIT Professional Education essentially gives all of us educators at MIT who want to share knowledge with the larger world an opportunity to reach people already working in industry, and share the lessons and skills they need to solve complex, real-world problems. That’s what I do.

What’s nice is MIT Professional Education is that it offers Professional Certificate Programs for those looking to developed advanced knowledge in a particular field. You can earn a professional certificate in innovation & technology or biotechnology and life sciences, for example. My leadership class is included as part of both of those certificate programs now. The week in my class is focused on the human side of leadership, like how to build networks, how you motivate people, how you align your relationships, how you build a vision, and how to get people to buy into your vision.

I think it’s important that professional education programs offer technical deep dives, which MIT is really good at, but then park leadership classes like mine in that credential. Because even if you have a great idea, a great technical idea, and you think it could just really do wonderful things – you still have  to go convince people what you’ve got to get your team on board. And then once you have people on board, you’ve got to motivate and engage them. And you know, they’re not all going to agree with each other, so you have to negotiate with them. All of those nuts and bolts kinds of leadership skills, we teach.

So, I think it’s a great way to round out a professional, technical education—a class like this where you’re learning with your other colleagues who are grappling with the same issues. They have the same background as you, wherever you are all over the world. They also think like you do. They’re all engineers.  We’ve learned how to connect our curriculum with technical-minded people.

Why do you focus on teaching leadership to engineers?

I have a PhD in Management, so I come out of the business school. That’s my core academic grounding. I’ve done some research on leadership, and have been teaching leadership around the globe for over 20 years now.

When I moved into the engineering school at Rice University, that was my first opportunity to develop leadership curriculum for engineers. We had a graduate of Rice recognize that engineers have a unique opportunity, especially these days, to step up to leadership. This is a really important point: most engineering training doesn’t provide the kinds of skills that really enable engineers to do the things that leaders do or perform some of the core tasks that leadership really enables.

That’s when I moved out of the business school and into the engineering school as a joint appointment at Rice and started to develop leadership education for engineers as part of their engineering degree.

At MIT, I teach mainly for graduate students. That’s my primary role. I  came to the Institute five years ago, started to build this program, and then actually, very immediately, started teaching MIT Professional Education classes. The classes are very well received. They are populated almost entirely by engineers, people in R&D, and people in technical consulting.

What’s wonderful about what MIT Professional Education allows is for engineers and technical professionals to learn with one another. If you take a regular leadership class —lots of universities offer very good leadership courses—you’re going to be in a room with people from banking, from consulting, from a lot of different industries. What’s unique about MIT and the kind of leadership education we provide is that people are learning with others that share the same background.

MAKING ENGINEERS INTO LEADERS

Tech companies seem to have trouble developing engineers and programmers to be leaders, to be managers. Do you see a lot of companies struggling with that?

Yes, and you’re making a very important distinction. First of all, you’re recognizing an important problem. But you’re also recognizing an important distinction between managing and leading. I find it useful to distinguish the two. They’re related, and we need managerial functions to give us control systems like budgets, and to know how we’re doing at any one point in time, and to allocate budgets. We have to understand how people are organized; the structures. A lot of those tasks are important to management, that’s one set of skills.

And then the other is leading. Leading is about enabling change, enabling adaptation. Focusing on the human side: I think that is decidedly a leadership function. To your point, the research suggests that it’s not unique to engineers that they struggle with that transition away from being an individual contributor. In other words, you’re very good at doing your task, whether you’re a lawyer, a doctor. There are other professions where people struggle to move from being very good at your professional tasks to being responsible for other people.

For a lot of professionals, it’s not part of their expertise to learn how to lead well or even manage well. Management is not a profession and so it’s something that sort of cascades across other things. Engineering is different in that it is a profession. Now, what’s unique about engineers is engineers are problem solvers. They love to solve process related problems, if you’re talking about computer science and chemical engineering. They love to solve technical problems. They’re doers. They’re very pragmatic. They tend to be very pragmatic thinkers. And so when you are transitioning from being a really good engineer, whatever kind of engineering you do, it makes it difficult to solve people problems.

It’s not just about what you’re trying to do, but being responsible for engaging with multiple stakeholders, in negotiating with multiple stakeholder, learning how to motivate people. You’re responsible for a team, and there’s nothing in an engineer’s background that teaches them how to get people to work together and really just love their work and love coming to work and love working together. That’s one of the real tricks of great leadership.

So it’s natural for engineers to say, “This is not what I’m trained to do.” Engineering is a profession that loves expertise, that cherishes expertise. It’s easy to see how somebody who’s a really good engineer, who’s being tapped on the shoulder to step into a leadership role or even a managerial role is like, “You know what? That’s not my thing. That’s not what I’ve been good at for 10 years and been rewarded for.” There is this resistance. And an important point, we know from the research on early career leaders or early career managers, they tend to underperform across the board.

It’s when you’re really good at performing your individual task and you transition to now being responsible for a small group, that’s tough. This resonates well with a lot of very, very smart students—for all your educational life, you’ve learned that to get something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself, right? And if you’re a straight A student and you’ve always been a straight A student, our educational systems reward that. We reward outstanding individual achievement. That’s what grades are. In fact, if you collaborate with other people in some tasks, you can get in trouble for plagiarizing or cheating. Our educational systems don’t really reward group achievements.

So you think about all those years of education that reward individual achievement, and tack on another 10 years of individual achievement in your work life where you get recognized for great individual work: all of those systems don’t reinforce teamwork and doing the stuff that leaders do. And so it’s hard. It’s hard for everybody that makes that jump. This is exactly why what we do at MIT Professional Education and what we’re doing even within MIT is so important and useful.

We’re enabling engineers and people in technology to come to MIT and learn together to develop some of these specific skills. A lot of the leadership budgets in companies are for senior executives. You can take leadership programs at elite schools that cost $60,000, $70,000 or more, and they’re for senior executives. There’s probably not a company in the world that’s going to give $60,000 to a 30-year-old to go take a leadership class. Although maybe they’ll get an MBA fee, but the big budgets for leadership education tend not to be for the young employees. The big budgets are for the big bosses.

It seems that the companies themselves have not figured out how to train their workers in leadership, so they need to go outside to experts. But there’s no budget for the people who are coming up. Is that an industry-wide problem?

Yeah. And so, in some ways, it’s good that there are budgets for the more senior folks, because if your senior managers are really good at leading, then they’re good role models. And if they’re really good and well trained, they know how to pick the right people, which is a big problem in leadership development circles. How do you recognize you can’t promote your best engineer to be a team leader. I mean, if somebody is very, very good, technically, they’re not necessarily going to be the best team lead.

I was in a conversation yesterday with a very senior engineering executive and he said, one of the biggest challenges is when you’re a technically trained, deep expert in some topic, and you have to lead a team that’s outside of that area. That runs counter to a profession that values deep technical expertise. “I should not be doing something that I’m not an expert in.”

However, if you have, I think really good senior leaders in your company, you role model it. It makes it easier if your firm really does it well and then other people can model that. That’s a unique value proposition that the MIT Professional Education program provides—we actually provide training. And it’s really good. I say that just looking at the quantitative results. Students say value the course, and their experiences in it.

PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE

We talk a lot about jobs of the future and the need for people to constantly be upskilling. You’re constantly going to have to add skills, be retraining, maybe learning totally new things outside your area of expertise. Does that resonate with you? What are your predictions, especially around the area of leadership?

I think the short answer to your question is that artificial intelligence and all of its related technologies, like machine learning and deep learning, are all going to continue to impact our lives in ways that we can’t predict right now. I do think that artificial intelligence is going to enable human learning in ways that it never has before, and I think that technology professionals would be wise to really try to understand some of the implications of this. I think that the rise of artificial intelligence is also going to equally give rise to an appreciation for the human side of how technology is going to shape our lives and ethics.

I think we recognize this at MIT. As technology professionals skill up in artificial intelligence, and again, its related processes, they would be well served to skill up on the human impact side, the ethics, social technical systems, which is understanding how technology emerges within the context of social systems and the consequences of these. Those are two topics, I think that are widely recognized.

Another one, which is important, is, how do you lead in a virtual context? I do think that understanding virtual leadership, digital leadership, e-leadership is going to be an important skill of the future. When you’re staring at a bunch of people on your computer screen, how do you lead them? How do you motivate them? How do you organize their work, especially if they want to stay home after the pandemic? And I think that people will be wise to scale up on these topics.

But it’s a good balance— going deeper on the technical side, and especially AI-related, but also going just as deep on really trying to understand what the human consequences of these new technologies are as they’re emerging.

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