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Students, alumni and members of the Tufts Gordon Institute’s community gathered on January 16 for a lively panel discussion titled, “Bridging the Engineering Leadership Gap: Pathways to Leadership” in the ASEAN Auditorium. Director of Tufts Gordon Institute Engineering Management Program Mary Viola welcomed more than 100 attendees to the seminar. She opened her remarks by invoking a shared passion across the global technology community; “We are all united in helping engineers and technologists become leaders to affect positive change in the world.”

Panelists included Partha Ghosh, Professor of the Practice; Rob Hannemann, Director of Tufts Gordon Institute; Thomas James, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Barbara Moreau, Senior Manager at Raytheon and Kyle MacDonald, former SVP and General Manager at Polaroid Corporation.

To begin, Viola posed the question, “what is the biggest challenge facing the engineering profession today?” Hannemann spoke first by expressing the importance of fostering engineering leaders. He then went on to make what he termed a difficult statement; “The engineering profession has failed to meet its responsibilities for the last 30 years.” Hannemann backed this statement by ticking off a number of examples including the loss of major core industries in the U.S., as well as a failed energy policy.

MacDonald added, “engineers are the solutions to so many problems.” To exemplify this point, she referenced the story of a 14 year-old Malawi boy, William Kamkwamba, whom with no education built a windmill and in turn, brought electricity, water and irrigation pumps to his village.

“IF YOU’RE LOSING A SENSE OF WONDER ABOUT WHAT YOU DO EVERY DAY, GO LOOK AT TED.COM AND WATCH THE VIDEO OF KAMKWAMBA AND REGAIN THAT WONDER. WE CAN’T FORGET HOW IMPORTANT OUR CONTRIBUTIONS ARE WHEN THEY’RE BUNDLED INTO A CONTEXT OF LARGE ORGANIZATIONS.”

Ghosh and Moreau both concurred with their fellow panelists, while adding that one of the challenges is clearly education. Ghosh discussed the need for reinventing how engineering is taught – referencing the work of Tufts Gordon Institute as a starting point. Moreau further emphasized the importance of working with the nation’s youth, highlighting her own work with the Girl Scouts to encourage interest in the technology and engineering fields.

“I think the career is a burnout,” James offered, providing a direct approach to the question posed. “It takes about a decade to become good at it and right around year ten is when you start thinking about getting out of it.”

Viola went on to ask the panelists about a defining moment as a result of a personal challenge. MacDonald recounted her days managing a chemical plant at a large technology company. Through an audit she discovered that the plant had produced potentially toxic levels of a particular compound. She had to tell the executive team, call lawyers and notify the EPA. MacDonald noted that luckily it was an ethical company that stood for doing the right thing. MacDonald went on to tell another non-engineering related story about a time she was 16, working in a restaurant and had to take over on a Saturday night. “There are so many moments when you just act.”

Viola took this opportunity to transition the dialogue to the idea of influencing without authority, noting that it is one of mechanisms by which one acquires a position of leadership.

Hannemann recounted his days working at a major computer hardware company at a time when profits were thin. They couldn’t gain an edge on their competitors. Hannemann was asked to assess the company’s design and manufacturing, and immediately diagnosed a design problem. And yet, instead of going directly to management, he assembled a group of individuals from the various plants to study the problem and come up with a solution. He was able to get everyone on board to follow design standards, reduce the number of parts and ultimately lower costs. “Leadership isn’t an individual sport like golf. Leadership is a team activity. You have to get people to understand the interest of the company.”

Concluding the event, Viola pointed out that sometimes when arguing a point, data simply doesn’t work and you have to use an emotional tactic. Agreeing, MacDonald added, “You don’t motivate people with charts. You reach out and grab them and motivate them with stories.”

Opening up the discussion to the audience, the panelists were asked to comment on how or where the opportunity arises to gain a leadership position. James noted that the trick was not to ask for more money but to ask for more responsibility. “Leadership is clearly for the taking.”

Lasting nearly two hours, the seminar left audience members energized on the topic of how to create more leaders in the technical and engineering fields. Tufts Gordon Institute will sponsor its next engineering leadership event in the spring of 2010.

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