How ChE Prepared Me for Business (and How It Didn’t): Final Thoughts

To be successful in business, engineering, or life, it is important to have balance. As ChEs we focus on how we understand and manipulate the natural world, at the risk of being deficient in some aspects of the human world. In the last few months I've been reminded twice to make sure I start with a compliment before pointing out areas for improvement.

We're working against our training and culture when we remember to do this. We are expected to succeed, trained to deconstruct, and are shown that mistakes aren't to be tolerated. But, when you deal with people, only the most secure individuals are not going to take any offense to only hearing opportunities for improvement.

I remember working with sales staff for the first time at Aspen Tech and the first thing I noticed was being thanked for my work. I would love to think that I don't need encouragement or kudos, but it felt great. Coming from a ChE culture, it was refreshing to receive appreciation and acknowledgement for a job well done. Informally I surveyed my colleagues at the time, all high performers, and we would have readily accepted a pay cut of nearly $10K for a few more "thank yous" sprinkled in throughout the quarter: "Thank you for a job well done", "Thank you for spending so much time away from your family", "Thank you for saving that account", etc...

A typical response by many managers to employee recognition is: "Why should I thank my employees for doing their jobs?" or from some of our stodgier ChEs: "I was never thanked, why I should thank anyone?" Well, as our moms would tell us: it's polite, but just as important, it affects productivity and the bottom line.

Motivation Drives Behavior

Managers spend most of their time managing the lowest performers because they take the most effort to discipline. This is at the neglect of the highest performers who are either extrinsically driven (financial) or intrinsically driven (mission). These intrinsically driven employees are much cheaper to motivate. One of the founders of a major wireless company sat on the board of the business school I attended. Over lunch with the dean he told us how he would sponsor company barbecues and recognition events for his employees. This wasn't out of a sense of comradery, but a very calculated move to increase productivity and loyalty. What's the cost of a barbecue and a few thank yous when your workers are less likely to leave and more likely to work harder?

There are countless studies (A, B, C), but one [1] showed that after implementing a formalized "pat on the back" program, a company confirmed first-year savings in a fiber products plant of over $1,600,000, with the largest gain coming via a productivity increase of 14.2 percent combined with a 40 percent decrease in quality complaints. It's important to note that this was an employee recognition and motivation program (intrinsic) and not a financial incentive program (extrinsic and expensive motivation).

Human behavior drives us; whether we are fascinated by science and analytics or have a more managerial bent, we can't avoid it. We certainly have enough pressures put upon us as engineers: we are weeded from the earliest stages in our career development and it takes 5-years to get an engineering degree at most accredited universities. I certainly am not proposing that we increase the course load for our undergrads, but we want to avoid being human-behavior "deficient" because this will get in the way of our efforts in furthering our careers or in driving chemical engineering as a profession. We need engineers to focus on pure science, but can't neglect behavior education as being too "soft." Our engineers who demonstrate and aptitude for both hard and soft skills should be nurtured and developed as much as our most brilliant analytic minds.

Looking Ahead

If we turn the human behavior lens on our own discipline, our faculty is rewarded for publishing and fundraising for their labs. Faculty make tenure track ostensibly because they are laser focused on being the best researcher they can be. These same high academic performers often want to groom and develop students who are just like them (likability). For many faculty, it's not until they become department heads that the importance of developing future leaders becomes critical to long term success. As department chairs, they are now responsible for relations with the alumni and the external business community at large. Alumni who are management leaders are more likely to be in a position to hire your graduates, have higher salaries that enable them to donate to your department, and have more influence in the business community that affects faculty's ability to fund raise.

Despite the difference between how we select and reward those who educate our next generation of ChEs and those who can have the most effect on department survival, the ChE discipline would benefit by putting just as much focus on developing the next generation of Jack Welchs as well as Linus Paulings. What is the business case for doing so? This series has shed light on how these other skills directly affect our careers and ability to get work accomplished and even the potential impact on the financial viability of our engineering departments. Undergrad primers to human behavior, management, and even marketing would do us some good, whether it is to work on how we market our incredible ChE credentials to the rest of the professional world or just to learn to remember our thank yous with our colleagues.

How do you feel about the marketability of chemical engineers (your perceptions versus what you've evidenced)?

Photo: Robert J.Pennington,
(C)2011 Arkan Kayihan, used with permission

[1] Boyle, D. (1992). To employees--`thank' means millions--literally. Supervision, 53(11), 3.