From Field to C-Suite


    Invest in educational tools to groom technically minded engineering talent for executive positions.

    The best engineers typically pursue their profession because of their skill in solving complex civil or structural design and planning problems and their passion for seeing the tangible results of their work transform cities and bring structures to life. But engineering firms need leaders with strong business acumen as well. Those firms that can develop talent from within, that can groom employees to bridge the gap between the field and the “C-Suite,” will reap long-term benefits. These individuals may already possess technical skill, an understanding of firm culture, and many of the personal characteristics of leadership. What they need is an investment in educational tools that will equip them for new and expanded roles.

    If the career path involves moving from field work to project management to leading a department or an entire company, it requires far more than technical skill. These are technically savvy people whose fundamental strengths lay in their analytical thinking and their ability to develop solutions to complex engineering challenges. But how well equipped are they to run a business or a piece of one, or even to manage a group of people?

    They may know how to construct a retaining wall on an unstable slope, but can they prepare a budget? They may be able to predict how and when a suspension bridge will collapse or how to rebuild the infrastructure of a city that was decimated by an earthquake, but do they understand how that project will impact their firms’ bottom line? Can they present complex ideas to people without engineering backgrounds — be they clients, project collaborators, government officials, or the internal communications team?

    Do projects balance innovation with cost effectiveness? Do they meet clients’ timelines and scopes? Are they proposing solutions that are compliant with legal, environmental, and safety requirements? Are they thinking about the impact a particular project will have on the firm’s reputation and its ability to compete for prestigious projects in the future?

    Business and management training lays down this crucial executive leadership foundation. And firms looking to provide these tools to their most promising people often consider various forms of executive education. But how do they determine what type of program best fits their needs?

    Regardless of the type, a good executive education program will take a consulting approach to helping potential clients answer this question. At the outset, the education partner will delve into the specific problems faced by a company and its employees, assess the capabilities of the people involved, conduct a root cause analysis, and make recommendations based on that information.

    For instance, does the company need to focus in-depth on a few topics or provide a basic understanding of a broad range of business topics for a larger group of employees? Perhaps the best approach would be a customized executive education program, utilizing a university’s world-class subject matter experts from each required discipline and developing a program that provides training around specific gaps that have been identified.

    Or, if the company has already identified a handful of people it considers potential future leaders, it might find the investment in a full executive MBA program to be more worthwhile. Effective programs of this sort would accommodate their students’ existing professional lives while also maintaining a high level of academic rigor. They are also geared toward drawing people out of their comfort zones and bridging knowledge and skill gaps using practical, hands-on scenarios.

    It is also important to remember that these students are not typical. They are all future executives who will want to be able to apply what they are learning. They will want to be in a classroom with other students they consider their peers and be taught by faculty they respect, who themselves have real-world experience and can apply their knowledge to tangible workplace situations. Practical knowledge is one of the keys to successfully engaging students who are also professionals.

    Sustaining organizational strength through generations of leadership is the goal of every mature company. Looking inward to identify future leaders and investing in preparing them for executive positions gives companies their best shot at achieving that goal. Proceeding correctly with that educational investment can mean the difference between success and stagnation for individuals as well as the entire enterprise.

    William T. Valenta, Jr. is associate vice provost for Professional Programs at the University of Pittsburgh ( and assistant dean of MBA and Executive Programs at the university’s Katz Graduate School of Business. As assistant dean at Katz, he has made major contributions in launching new graduate programs and enhancing the MBA and MS offerings of the business school.