New Orleans, Louisiana
June 26, 2016
June 26, 2016
August 28, 2016
Engineering Leadership Development Division
Developing a Professional and Personal Network as a Method for Deepening Lessons in Engineering Leadership
The results of a Michigan State 2009 survey of major industrial employers found a benchmark of 12 soft skills deemed essential for success in today’s organization. Among them: communicating effectively, acquiring knowledge and navigating across boundaries. Furthermore, the survey identified an emerging standard, considered critical for employee success, to continuously improve and stay current, includes the ability to build and sustain professional relationships.
Supporting papers and research show that this is not new. “How Bell Labs Creates Star Performers” (Kelley, Caplan, HBR, 1993) identifies professional networking as a key element in a model for professional expertise. IBM’s adoption of the T-Shaped individual (Spohrer, Zadeh, 2010), as embraced by the firm IDEO and others, emphasizes not just developing mastery of a discipline, but also both trans-disciplinary knowledge and boundary-crossing competency in maneuvering both the technical and organizational systems in which the individual operates. Chief amongst the techniques, identified as crucial for creating connections that improve understanding of such systems, is the nurturing and growing of a professional network.
With the emergence of social media that enables one to stay up-to-date and informed on their field, meet-up forums set up to encourage frequent, informal gatherings and online tools, such as LinkedIn/twitter, et al., the ability to reach out, connect with and maintain a professional network continues to improve. Awareness of this ecosystem, actively engaging in reaching out and establishing links, and mastery of the tools available has also been identified as a skill necessary for effective leadership (“How Leaders Create and Use Networks”, Ibarra, Hunter, HBR, 2007).
One key for success in developing a network is, first, developing the courage to contact someone new, not something that is comfortable for many engineers. Research using tools such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (O’Brian, Bernold, Akroyd, 1998) validate that the stereotype of an average engineer tending towards introversion is somewhat accurate. An introvert’s discomfort in reaching out and meeting people can inhibit the development of networking skills.
This paper details a series of labs, exercises and assignments designed to introduce the theory and practice of networking in <a graduate engineering leadership program> as a blueprint of a best practice in a nationally recognized curriculum. It describes how the program builds awareness of the benefits of networking, the practice of networking, how/when/why/when to network and rehearses the students on how to initiate a contact, present themselves and identify ways of creating mutually beneficial conversations.
Students, the majority of which are working engineers, are then given a series of specific assignments to go into their company and industry on targeted networking tasks, such as signing up for newsletters, attending a conference and collecting business cards, and holding a series of 1-on-1 meetings with a representative from marketing, system architecture, supply chain and customer facing activities such as service or sales and, if possible, to meet a real customer. The final task is a contest amongst students to see who can set up a meeting with the highest-ranking person in their organization and interview them on leadership.
Graduates have identified this exercise as one of the most significant out-of-box and eye-opening experiences of the program. The expanding of knowledge within their respective industries and disciplines through networking significantly improves both technical and market awareness of the company’s place in their industry. The internal connections within the company improve their understanding of operations, decision-making and corporate priorities.
Finally, over 50% of the students are able to connect with a senior executive at the VP level or higher, including several CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies. These meetings, where someone “important” takes the time to chat, have been enlightening in making leadership more human to the students. Furthermore, to have such a leader, typically perceived as busy and unapproachable, take time to meet with them is dramatic validation of how the leader values networking themselves.
Klosterman, S. W. (2016, June), Developing a Professional and Personal Network as a Method for Deepening Lessons in Engineering Leadership Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26728
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