02 April 2015

Raising our game in a changing world

  • Delegates in group discussion
  • James Trevelyan addressing the Forum
  • Glynn McGregor GIPENZ of Technology Education New Zealand with SENZ representative Oliver Ewert.
  • Student Engineers New Zealand (SENZ) representative Ashleigh Philpott with Emerging Professionals Council members Dipal Raniga GIPENZ and Rachel Blewden GIPENZ

An advertising supremo and a world-renowned engineering academic wouldn’t ordinarily cross professional paths, especially when engineering is on the agenda. But insights from both about what engineers must do to thrive in the face of a changing world gave delegates at this year’s Engineering Professions Forum plenty to think about.

Peter Cullinane, former Chief Operating Officer of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide, outlined how engineers can take advantage of their unique place in society. The co-founder of Lewis Road Creamery (the company behind last year’s much publicised chocolate milk shortage) says people have traditionally been categorised as either a leader or follower. He proposes a third group: “independents”.

“Engineers, by and large, fit the criteria of the independent really well.” 

Independents, he says, are typically creative, hardworking, vocal when it matters and possess strong inner confidence. They dislike administrative detail and aren’t driven to manage. However, this doesn’t mean they don’t make good leaders – in fact, the opposite is true.

“Those who don’t fit the typical leader mould make the best leaders,” he says. Leaders whose primary motivation is their craft, not a desire to lead, tend to run very successful companies.

Conventional thinking on business emanates from post-war “white American economists” who extolled the ethos of “might is right”, that the traditional leadership model is the one road to success. Mr Cullinane says the world has changed and it’s time to rethink this philosophy.

He believes the future for independents is bright, but only if they develop the skills that make them unique – and communicating well will be crucial.

“Failure to communicate creates a vacuum that’s filled by poison, drivel and misinformation.”

James Trevelyan, a Professor at the University of Western Australia’s School of Mechanical and Chemical Engineering, painted the picture of a profession whose members are out of touch with the society around them. He says too much emphasis is placed on engineers’ technical, problem-solving ability when this is but a small part of engineering.

“Engineers around the world have an appalling reputation in the boardroom. This is for good reason: our failure rate is high. Most engineering failures have their origins in human behaviour.”

Engineers have “difficulty” communicating, he says. “In essence, our game is about collaboration. Engineers can’t do their job without influencing others. Communication needs to be taught at engineering school but this isn’t happening.”

The challenge is to rebuild people’s respect for engineers, and that starts with engineers themselves better appreciating the value of what they create. He believes incorporating the social sciences into an engineering degree would go a long way to properly preparing engineers for entering the workforce.