Man at top of steps

Engineering your way to the top

Today’s junior and middle engineering managers hoping to make it to chief executive level need a broad portfolio of skills. E&T spoke to two leading headhunters to find out more.

You’re young and ambitious and probably in your first management job. How can you hoist yourself into a position nearer the top, ideally onto the board - or even into the chief executive’s chair? And if you can’t make the transition to the top in your present company, how do you make the hop to another? And if you do, what’s going to be expected of you? Brilliant leadership? People skills? Technical expertise?

A firm grasp of your market sector? Financial know-how?

You begin to wonder, can you ever make it? Do you need a personal coach? How long is it all going to take?

Leading headhunters are in broad agreement about the attributes and qualities needed to make your mark today, both in private sector and public sector organisations. It helps to be a perfectionist, a bit of a self-publicist, a visionary, a workaholic or an entrepreneur.

Graham Campbell, who headed up corporate services recruitment for two well-known recruitment consultancies before setting up his own firm, highlights six key attributes:

Technical expertise This may appear obvious, he admits, but what is often less clear is the standard required. ‘If you are in charge of the technical function, or aim to be, can you confidently lead the board with advice and decision-making, possibly involving significant investment?’


This attribute is not always made clear but is a definite expectation requiring a senior executive to have a network of counterparts in equivalent or relevant organisations. If an urgent problem arises, perhaps unexpectedly, it is obviously extremely helpful if external contacts can be sounded out to speed up a solution.

Looking and sounding the part

If you are about to interface with the board, look at the appearance and demeanour of its members, observe the standard of appearance and delivery style of the directors. They will expect a similar standard and style from members of the senior management team.

Good communication skills

‘This means being easy to get hold of and responding promptly. Accessibility and quick response are part of the price of success. Being a good communicator also includes developing good presentational skills.

Sense of humour

Not everyone in senior positions possesses a good sense of humour, especially in today’s tough business climate. If you do, it’s likely to be appreciated and admired. Things tend to go wrong frequently and it helps to get order restored promptly if senior people can remain calm and not get heated. People with a resilient sense of humour are definitely better equipped to get over it - it’s part of what you get paid for.

Future vision

You will be expected to speak convincingly about future as well as current issues within your market and how your organisation can stay ahead.

Another leading headhunter I spoke to, Hamish Davidson, has been responsible for several major UK headhunting firms, latterly as chairman of Rockpools, previously as chairman of Veredus, and prior to this as partner of UK Executive Resourcing at PricewaterhouseCoopers. What would impress him in a candidate for a senior position? Two surprising qualities in particular - selling abilities and reputation.

“A heck of a lot of an individual’s employability is all about the art of selling, marketing and in effect reputation management,” he says. “Throughout your career you market yourself to prospective recruiters and employers in much the same way as organisations such as Cadbury, Kellogg’s or Ford do when they launch a new product.

“The kind of thing that would impress me in a candidate for a senior management position would be self-awareness and an awareness of how other people see him or her. Self-awareness is about the individual’s strengths and weaknesses - and humility. Arrogance doesn’t impress, nor does cynicism or sarcasm, unless used sparingly.

“Of course, you need some degree of authority and confidence. If you are going to command respect you must have a specific sense of authority, leadership and confidence. Technical expertise is important, but can be learned. You certainly need to show awareness of the sector you are working in, or aim to work in, and what you can contribute.

“The mistake many quite senior people make in interviews with head-hunters is a fear of being pigeon-holed, or conversely coming without an idea of what they really want. They expect the head-hunter to know.

“If you are after a really big job you’ve got to have an understanding of such issues as budgets, business planning and the management of change. If you are looking at external opportunities make sure your references are sound - to protect your reputation. Employers can find out a lot on the Internet. If you’ve worked for a company like Enron or Lehman Brothers it can affect your reputation too. It isn’t fair, but it happens.” Being associated with failure, another headhunter confirms, puts a dent in the CV.

Additional interests or skills can be relevant, says another headhunter, especially presentational skills. Managing people, winning their confidence is absolutely key. In more senior roles, some understanding of corporate governance also becomes important.

Do we need headhunters?

Can you get to the top without headhunters? Do the world’s head-hunters really control the lion’s share of leading replacement searches for the world’s largest corporations and for many ambitious smaller and medium-sized companies looking for top talent to help them get to the summit? Not every important company turns to headhunters to find key appointees. They are often considered expensive and they don’t always get it right. “Of course, it is always possible to get things wrong,” admits one leading headhunter. “But we rarely tell a company ‘this is the person you want.’ We provide options.”

That may be the case as far as candidates near the top are concerned - say those in the £100,000 to £150,000 salary bracket; not those at the very top who tend to be a lot more expensive and in short supply. This is why more and more high fliers from overseas are tempted to head up British firms.

So who are these powerful talent brokers or matchmakers? They include the global big-hitters with offices in many capital cities, and small breakaway teams of senior individuals who have left bigger firms to set up on their own, as well as former HR and IT executives, management consultants, company lawyers, corporate secretaries and graduates from top business schools who have rubbed shoulders with some of the world’s brightest executives.

More fellow graduates plan to start their own business and earmark colleagues to join them as partners, or as soon as the business justifies it. Some have built international reputations and know where to look overseas if the right candidate can’t be found in the UK.

The world’s top headhunters are reckoned to control access to the lion’s share of succession and replacement searches for the largest companies.

How can you make yourself known to headhunters? How can you pique the interest of the ‘big beasts’ who handle senior appointments for many of the FTSE100 companies who have changed their chairmen or chief executives or non-executive directors since the credit crunch began two years ago? Or the specialist recruiters focused on banking, finance, marketing or on engineering and other industry sectors, or smaller independent firms of headhunters?

Raising your profile

“Be exceptional and we’ll find you,” says a top headhunter.

The key differentiator is ‘profile’, based on performance, networking and publicity. Ask yourself: do the top decision-makers know you in your company and in your wider industry sector? Can you be identified with your company’s trading and financial results, especially when they are good? Has your department produced impressive results and have these been publicised? Are you moving in industry circles and getting your name in the trade press by writing occasional articles or making yourself available for media comment?

Although you may be outstanding in one discipline, you’ve got to have a serviceable insight into others. You need leadership and management skills and the knack of delegating, some knowledge of business planning and monitoring performance is crucial, and more than a smattering of finance is critical. You have probably experienced phases of change management but in a senior position managing change assumes a more vital role. It’s no longer a case of simply changing over production techniques in one department but major changes affecting the whole business - for example moving into new markets, major new product launches, or serious cost-cutting.

One of the first tasks of leadership is about motivating, inspiring, providing direction; but it’s also about achieving results. Of course there are different kinds of leadership.

Jack Welch, the former chairman of General Electric of America, who transformed the company into a goliath, was widely respected for his inspiring leadership and dominant management style. He pushed the company hard, but in the process made enemies among disgruntled employees and environmentalists. But even in this huge, global business, he took personal responsibility for three business areas - sharing knowledge, allocating resources and developing the talents and skills of people in GE.

A different type of leader, Richard Branson, is first and foremost a daring entrepreneur who built eight billion-dollar companies in eight different business sectors from scratch. He bought and built companies - and teams - on the basis of instinct rather than planning, and runs them from his home. He is a remarkable business builder, an entrepreneur who seizes opportunities and a brilliant delegator.

The late James Gulliver, an engineer by training, brought the engineer’s analytical and numerate mind to building or rebuilding several manufacturing and distribution companies, combining both exceptional entrepreneurial and management skills. To run one of his companies you had to be a good team leader, achieve carefully planned growth and profit targets and present skilfully at company management conferences, not only in respect of your own part of the group but displaying a firm grasp of the business as a whole.

Understanding the business plan

Another important attribute any aspiring senior manager is expected to understand is the firm’s annual business plan, which isn’t only critical in order to assess resourcing needs, but also to pull together all the strands of the business, against a background of growth and profit objectives. An effective business plan will also highlight strengths and weaknesses and serve as a basis for monitoring performance.

How important is monitoring performance? It’s vital to ensure targets are being met, where there may be serious slippage, and where improvement is necessary. There is no point setting performance objectives unless these are going to be monitored. The monitoring process often highlights the need for change, whether pressure to cut costs, develop new markets, streamline operations, introduce new systems or merge with or acquire other businesses.

At the top of what many companies look for in rising stars and especially in senior officials is a good understanding of finance. You might ask - “If the company employs highly paid financial directors and controllers, why does an aspiring senior manager have to be part of the finance team?”

Finance overall and especially cost control has become so important that tough financial controllers continue to be in demand as chief executives and chairmen, even by major banks which used to insist on professional bankers. As a senior manager you are not likely to be expected to produce balance sheets or profit and loss accounts or final accounts for audit, but you have to show a good understanding of accounts.

As one of the world’s leading head-hunters advises, “Focus on what is good for investors, clients and top people in your organisation and do what is right for them and your rewards will follow.”

One route to the top, when you’ve taken the advice of the head-hunters quoted earlier - especially over technical expertise, leadership and management skills, and market know-how - is to study what sort of qualities have helped some of today’s successful business leaders hoist themselves into senior positions. What jobs did they have on the way up and which finally led to the top job?  If you are an able engineer, manager or accountant, how do you avoid getting pigeon-holed or typecast and therefore not very likely to be seen as a candidate for an all-round demanding key job?

If you study the careers of top people in your organisation, or your industry, or read interviews with business leaders, they are more than likely to have talents beyond their technical expertise - leadership and management capabilities, market know-how, creative vision and more than a touch of ruthlessness.

Unfortunately there is no single career path to the top, although it helps to be visionary, creative and entrepreneurial like Steve Jobs at Apple, or Lee Iacocca, Chrysler’s gifted manager who had the strength to swallow the company’s pride and ask for government support to avoid bankruptcy.  Or does it pay to be affable and relaxed like Jeff Immelt who took over the top job from the dynamic Jack Welch at General Electric?

The answer will be personal to you and applicable to all.

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