Beginning the road to the top...with a STEM background

front-book-300x300[1]In recent years, among technology startups it became quite well known that the top person many times had an engineering or technology background. In fact, Fox Business reported on a recent survey by Silicon Valley Bank:

While it is true, startups need people to work in all aspects of the business, the survey shows that startups around the country are looking for candidates with strong science, technology, engineering and math [STEM] skills. Of the survey respondents, 17% say they were looking for management, marketing, sales, operations and other non-technical skills compared to 40% who want job seekers with more technical experience.

In fact, the top priority still seems to be engineers, software and product developers and science oriented workers.

The technology startup isn’t for everyone.  In addition, many times the individual who possesses the genius to lead the successful startup runs into problems and is pushed out once the company gets to a certain size and complexity. Even Steve Jobs didn’t make it the first time. For these and other reasons, many graduates with technical degrees should still consider beginning their careers, if possible, working for one of the more established companies. In these companies they will gain the basic disciplines which are not always present in the entrepreneurial startup. It also looks like we may be in for a rebirth of manufacturing which will require the recruiting of technical talent.

A lot of my experience was working for or consulting to manufacturing driven and financial services companies. In manufacturing  companies the key operations people usually came up to through science and engineering.   On the other hand, in the financial services world, technology and mathematics were great spawning grounds for many of the best middle managers. The reasons made a lot of sense. In manufacturing the keys to success are efficiency, productivity, cost management and quality. This not only requires strong management skills but also bottom line focus, attention to detail and technical expertise.

The one time I was asked to run a major operation, I made sure to bring a strong operations individual with an engineering background along as my partner. When I left to go back to my Human Resources world, he remained as the Division VP of Manufacturing and his contribution, especially in turning around some quality control issues, were enormous.   Since new products and product development in manufacturing driven companies are keys for success, managers with a scientific background also have great value. On the financial services side, technology in regard to the company’s profitable growth and also in regard what these companies offer their clients, has become essential.. The question then is, what do these talented managers need if anything, if they wish to continue their rise to the top?

One of the roles our firm played in assessing talent was to evaluate who possessed the skills and inclinations to continue up the ladder. In addition, we outlined strengths and issues a strong manager might need to develop in order to achieve future success. Many of the major companies looked at four quadrants—1. Strategic and Innovative Skills; 2. Results Orientation; 3. Emotional Intelligence and 4. Leadership.  A very effective middle manager usually scored very high in the areas of Results Orientation (bottom line focus, cost management, meeting deadlines) and was usually seen as analytical, tenacious, decisive. Whether they would become an effective leader was usually based on their developing some new skills. In addition, some of the strengths that made these individuals strong managers could also become liabilities in a leadership role. Since the leader usually had people of different disciplines, such as sales, marketing and human resources under their umbrella, they no longer were always the expert and could not over control or just trust their own judgment. They had to resort to interpersonal skills, like motivating, questioning and challenging others to think outside the box, and their operating skills might be more strategic than bottom line in nature. While cost management and analytical skills were still important, they now had to depend on others to carry the load, and they had to allow more time for thought and developing relationships.

So the story is, that beginning the road to the top with a STEM background remains today and will probably always be extremely valuable.  However, while these technical skills will remain valuable throughout one’s career, you will probably have to develop interpersonal talents if you are going to make it successfully to the top.   Changing an operating style that has been successful always entails some risk. Some managers, not seeing the immediate benefit, may resist, but they will probably be making a mistake. Unless these managers evolve into leaders, they will either be derailed or stymied in their desire to keep moving up.

Amelia Island resident Howard Pines (WebsiteBlogColumns) has more than 30 years experience as CEO, chairman and founder of BeamPines, a premier firm in the Executive Coaching business. He also co-founded the BeamPines/Middlesex University Master's Program in Executive Coaching. Prior to that he served as Senior VP of Human Resources for a Fortune 100 corporation. He is author of "The Case for Wasting Time and Other Management Heresies."