Engineers must learn to play the racket

February 9, 1996

Engineering graduates are failing to match unqualified executives as top managers because they are "conceptual golfers" rather than "conceptual tennis players".

This message came from Richard Barry, former visiting fellow at Manchester University's school of engineering, addressing a seminar at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on the need to encourage more engineers into top management.

Both golfers and tennis players were competitive, but golfers pitted themselves against nature, while tennis players "really want to wipe out the other guy across the net", Mr Barry said.

The seminar, hosted by David Tedford, chief scientific adviser to the Secretary of State for Scotland, was part of a Government initiative to encourage companies to harness engineering skills.

But Mr Barry said it was a "damaging myth" that British industry was run by accountants rather than engineers. Around half of top executives were unqualified, while 30 per cent of the rest were scientists, engineers and technologists, 10 per cent were accountants, and 12 per cent had graduated in other disciplines.

"We engineers dominate the top ranks and have a better chance of reaching the top," he said. "To those involved in trying to encourage young people to enter engineering, I would wish these points to be remembered."

But companies headed by engineers were not as successful as those headed by non-graduates and accountants, he said.

Mr Barry conducted a survey of first-year engineering and history students at Manchester which revealed that the engineers were less intuitive, less open to change, less warm, more prosaic and more respectful of established ideas, while the history students were more tense, disorderly, emotionally volatile and iconoclastic.

"I believe we engineers make highly effective middle managers. We tend to be highly focused and like things difficult but unambiguous," Mr Barry said. "We have this great wealth of knowledge, but have more problems when we move to the very people-oriented, fuzzy world of top management. Top managers have to exchange depth for breadth."

Tony Keenan, professor of organisational behaviour at Heriot-Watt University, has been carrying out a long-term study of engineering graduates, and found that students who coped well with pressure during their course were more likely to become managers rather than technical specialists.

Students who said their degree course was relevant to the needs of industry were more likely to become managers, and were also more successful in career terms.

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