In the late 1980s David Sainsbury (now Lord Sainsbury of Turville) became concerned that in comparison with the UK, overseas businesses had more senior executives with professional engineering and science qualifications in the boardroom. Over the years, and particularly in light of the economic folly of recent years, he has become increasingly convinced that in order to increase the UK’s international competitiveness there should be more directors in UK boardrooms who understand how things are innovated, manufactured and sold. He is not alone in his views.
Indeed, Akio Morita, Chairman of Sony Corporation, while delivering the inaugural Innovation Lecture to the Department of Trade and Industry in 1992, famously expressed his confusion at why British companies persist in appointing accountants to run their companies. He remarked pointedly, “For an accountant the central concern is the analysis of statistics and figures, of past performance. How can an accountant reach out and grab the future if he is always looking at last quarter’s results?” In other words, if you’re driving down the road, wouldn’t you look through the windscreen at the road ahead rather than staring into the rear-view mirror? Don’t get me wrong, some of my best friends are accountants and I’m certainly not on a financial-professional-bashing crusade, but there are some convincing arguments for ensuring that the skills often found in engineers and scientists are better represented in the boardroom.
Before we get into that, I should admit to being a product of Lord Sainsbury’s vision. I am one of the 270 British engineers who have been awarded a scholarship by the Sainsbury Management Fellowship (SMF) scheme to complete an internationally recognized MBA course. Lord Sainsbury has certainly put his money where his mouth is, paying out seven million pounds in bursaries since the scheme began. His protégés have been educated at the cream of international business schools in Europe and the USA. In 1999, I subjected my wife and young family to INSEAD’s intensive so-called “divorce course” (I’m still trying to make it up to them). The result has been a diverse cadre of British Professional Engineers with the relevant skills for contributing to UK plc. Have these professionals, returning from their intensive re-branding experience, educated in the dulcet tones of strategic marketing, profit and loss accounts and discounted cash flows, been embraced with open arms by British corporates? Well, the answer appears to be “not really”.
The SMF has just published an interesting document summarizing the findings of a survey they have carried out with 100 HR directors. The findings make sobering reading for engineers. The backgrounds HR directors value most in the boardroom are accountancy (still number one after all these years!), sales, marketing, HR and legal, with professional engineering still firmly “off the back”. However, 80 % of the same HR directors agreed that professional engineers with MBA’s are most definitely qualified for board positions. So, qualified but not valued; it brings a tear to the eye. The report then sets out in a pretty comprehensive matrix all those sterling qualities one can expect to find in a professional engineer. A few of the skills struck a chord with me.
The first skill is one that even the most hard-nosed HR director must surely concede. Engineers understand how stuff works and are generally interested in staying abreast of the latest technology. They are typically early adopters of technology and as a result are useful at being able to predict potential alternative future outcomes. Our world is changing at an unprecedented rate, much of it driven by new technology, globalization and environmentalism. Most professional engineers I know have a strong opinion on these issues which can help UK boards future-proof their businesses and exploit new opportunities for growth.
The second skill that is often strong in engineers is that of being able to quantify risk. From an early stage in their careers engineers are taught to make an estimate. It starts at a young age with judging how thick the legs on a Lego bridge have to be and develops into an interest in financial models that work out a balanced investment portfolio to provide for a comfortable retirement. It strikes me that a few of the things that have gone off the rails in our economy in recent years could have benefitted from a few judicious estimates on likely outcomes.
The third skill-set that engineers bring to the boardroom is an insight into effective project management. This is the bread and butter of a career in engineering, combining the short and long term viewpoints in order to bring a complex project successfully over the finishing line. While engineers can be creative, it’s their ability to see something through to a working reality that brings profitable results faster.
So, what is it that I’m advocating? Positive discrimination in favour of engineers and scientists at board level? Hopefully not even engineers are naive enough to join that particular queue. We live in an increasingly competitive world where people need to put their best foot forward and be prepared to be judged on their merits. If Professional Engineers want to be appointed to the board of a company, they had better be prepared to deploy their freshly-honed sales skills because it certainly won’t be presented on a plate. What I am asking on behalf of Lord Sainsbury and the SMF is that when the interview shortlists are drawn up, HR directors take a leaf out of the book of their overseas counterparts and think twice before relegating applications from engineers and scientists to the bottom of the pile.