Over my 35+ year career as an Electrical Engineer at a major U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) contractor, I had the privilege of holding several positions of increasing responsibility. My roles ranged from being a design engineer to an electrical team task lead and eventually to a manager where, among other responsibilities, I participated in performance review discussions covering a broad cross-section of electrical engineering department personnel. I also served in the capacity of a resident Subject Matter Expert (SME) which afforded me the opportunity to interface with many talented electrical designers.
Given these roles, I was also able to work with not just electrical engineers but engineers from several varied disciplines. With this exposure to a large swath of my colleagues, over time I noticed there was a set of behaviors, habits, and practices common among high achievers and leaders. As I progressed further in my career, I learned from these individuals and began refining my own habits and practices. But, in general the engineers who practiced this set of behaviors distinguished themselves from their peers which in turn facilitated more rapid rates of achievement and advancement.
I have been asked which one of these behaviors was the most important. That is difficult to say since they are, for the most part, very much interrelated. Leaders and high achievers were generally adept at all of them not excelling in just a few. It is the total package that made them stand out. I would have to say without a doubt though the need to be able to communicate effectively to others is foundational and its importance really cannot be overstated. And this not only involves the ability to speak well, but it also means the ability to write clearly, concisely, and with specificity. The ability to get your point across succinctly is imperative as you work with a wide range of individuals who may not speak ‘engineering’ language, and holds true whether speaking to large groups, making presentations, or in one-to-one settings.
Most do interpret the ability to speak well as being isolated to meetings and presentations. While that is certainly true, the ability to clearly convey your message in informal settings is also very important. Therefore, you need to be agile with your speaking abilities which means you will need to command a wide range of linguistic styles all equally as effective at conveying your message.
Electrical Engineers have a unique language. While obviously understandable to their peers, the verbiage can be very cryptic and confusing to others. Without fail, the electrical engineer will eventually be placed in a position to translate this language to convey very technical, complex, and esoteric principles to a general audience. The ability to do this is a skill, oftentimes an acquired skill. However, the successful ability to do this has the very significant benefit of demonstrating to every listener, including peers, that you have a thorough understanding and command of the topic being discussed. You aren’t just repeating fancy words that you hope will impress your audience. More importantly, doing so enables you to gain the trust and confidence of everyone and leaves them with the impression they are in good hands. It is a true display of professionalism.
On one end of the spectrum, there will be times you may have to engage in a working level one-on-one conversation with a project team member that does not have your same level of education and/or fluency with the electrical language. Again, the ability to clearly convey your message in a manner they will understand is crucial. It is also important to note that in addition to just being on the same page, the rapport established with the individual will likely bolster their motivation and morale. They will appreciate you taking the time to explain things to them, while also not coming across as arrogant or condescending. Incidentally, this is also a notable example of how the various behaviors and practices are interrelated since this could also be considered an element of team building.
Speaking to upper level management or a customer in a formal presentation would be the other end of the spectrum. You should invest time in expanding your vocabulary and learning new words. This will allow you to convey your message in a more concise, descriptive way. When words like nascent, mitigate and nexus entered my vocabulary I felt like I had some more effective tools at my disposal. The way you use language and vocabulary also contributes to a more professional delivery. For example, rather than say “This thing has a lot of problems that we’ll have to figure out or else we’re in trouble!” you would want to say, “We will need to distill the number issues down in order to mitigate the level of risk.” Again, this is especially important when speaking to management and/or a customer in that it helps build their confidence in you, as well as leaving a very favorable view of you in their minds, which is obviously a positive thing going forward.
A frequently overlooked aspect of effective communication is the ability to write well. Engineers aren’t expected to be literary experts, but they do have to compose documents including design requirements, test reports, component performance specifications, and proposals. Like articulation, writing well usually means you have a good command of the language. It also means you can construct clear and concise sentences, paragraphs, and entire documents. You also need to practice good grammar and spelling. Keep in mind that over time your document could be read by many people who will have no insight into what your mindset was at the time you wrote the document, and you probably won’t be there to answer any questions. In other words, the document must stand alone and speak for itself.
I won’t address the nuts and bolts of speaking proficiency or constructing effective presentations in this article. If you anticipate having to speak and present to an audience with some frequency, I would encourage you to take a class or two to improve those skills. That said, there is no substitute for practice and experience. Everyone’s speaking style is different. What works for one may not for another. Unfortunately, developing those little internal tips and reminders that help you better get through a presentation only comes through repetition. I know it took me a while to figure out that to offset nervousness when I spoke at formal presentations, I needed to make a conscience effort to ensure my brain was one step ahead of my mouth!
As I stated earlier, effective communication, while an essential trait for an engineer, is but one practice and habit that allows them to be successful. The ability to convey your message in a clear and concise manner, both verbally and written, is at the core of being a successful leader. While sometimes it takes a little time and practice to be good at it, in the end, doing so pays enormous dividends both to you and your team.
Stay tuned for future columns, where I will explore other skills that are shared by successful leaders.
William S. (Bill) Bunch is a recently retired electrical engineer, having spent the bulk of his professional career working for a global aerospace and defense company in the design, test, integration, fabrication and delivery of systems used by the U.S. military. Bill enjoys sharing his knowledge and experience particularly to early career and aspiring engineers. He is currently a volunteer mentor in the Horizon Scholar Program which strives to increase college access and professional opportunities to low income students in grades 9-12.