Features, Q&A

Leadership in Engineering: Dr. Nadine Aubry

October 16, 2013

Aubry_Nadine_2Like engineering itself, leadership is much less a function of innate qualities than of the development and application of specialized skills. In the second of our series on leadership best practices, we move from the private sector to academia, interviewing one of the most accomplished engineering researchers and administrators in the field.

Dr. Nadine Aubry is the Dean of Northeastern University’s College of Engineering, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and a fellow of the ASME, APS, AAAS, and AIAA. Her fluid dynamics research opened up new techniques for modeling complex flows and open flow turbulence and is currently focused on active, external control of microfluids at the micro- and nano-scales.

Harnessing such a range of analytical, engineering, and scientific disciplines requires an engineer with well-honed leadership skills, as much as technical ones. Over the course of her career, Dr. Aubry served in a number of leadership roles, from the head of Carnegie Mellon’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, Vice-Chair of the American Physical Society of Fluid Dynamics, Chair of the National Academies’ US National Committee for Theoretical and Applied Mechanics, to a number of review and advisory positions both in the US and internationally.

Her work as an educator and mentor is equally impressive, and ongoing. We spoke to her about what core qualities and best practices constitute effective leadership and how Northeastern University’s Gordon Leadership Program cultivates those skills in the next generation of senior engineers.

On a practical level, what is leadership? How would you define leadership, divorced from hierarchy? (Ie, as a skill set, behavior profile, etc.)

Leadership is uniting people in support of a vision and realizing the vision. The key word in that sentence is people! The best leaders have the ability to tailor their message to motivate the people in front of them – while also staying true to themselves and their vision, and persistent toward executing the vision.

One example: An engineering leader may talk about a new product design with the sales team, focusing on the design’s improved value to the customer, and then talk about that same product design with the engineering team and focus on the design’s leaner manufacturing profile. The emphasis is different, but the messages are consistent and they motivate the people who hear them adapting to each person’s viewpoint. This sounds very basic, and yet it can take significant practice to execute consistently.

What qualities constitute good or bad leaders?

Rather than good or bad leaders, we should think of people as having stronger or weaker leadership skills. At Northeastern, we have the Gordon Engineering Leadership Program, which focuses on instilling leadership skills in our students. For this, we have developed a gold chart for engineering leadership capabilities that we teach our students: Initiative; Decision Making; Responsibility and Urgency to Deliver; Resourcefulness – Get it Done; Ethical Actions and Integrity; Trust and Loyalty; Courage; Vision; Realizing the Vision; Inquiry; Interpersonal Skills; Communicating and Advocacy; Connect Across Disciplines, Skills and Cultures; Negotiating and Compromise. If you have all those, I believe you will be a great leader, but each one is very important.

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Which specific competencies are required of engineers seeking to expand into leadership roles?

Among leaders, engineering leaders are set apart by their technical and analytical abilities that aid in identifying the vision. What the vision is depends on your field. It could be a new or modified product, it could be a basic research concept, it could be an improved administrative process – there are many possibilities. Engineers are also problem solvers, so being able to adapt problem solving skills to leadership, i.e., developing and executing the vision, will go a long way.

At Northeastern, we are strongly focused on developing our engineering students to engineering leaders. Our co-operative education program places undergraduate and graduate students in laboratories, industrial firms, and government agencies as part of their course of study so that they may experience and practice these skills firsthand and at an early stage in their studies and careers. We surround our students with mentors who have decades of experience and can speak to the challenges and rewards of leadership. We also offer an engineering leadership graduate program through our Gordon Engineering Leadership Program that is a partnership between a student, her employer and Northeastern, aiming at the student’s preparation for leadership within her company. Across our entire suite of programs, there is very strong emphasis on both technical and leadership skills.

Are there any concrete best practices you recommend to growing leaders in the engineering field?

Follow the Northeastern Engineering Leadership Capability chart of our Gordon Engineering leadership program. Another best practice is to find a coach or a mentor – someone you both admire and trust, whom you can speak honestly to and who can speak honestly to you about your strengths and weaknesses. Most people choose a different person than their manager, although your manager may be right for you; the reason is so any frank discussions of your skills do not have an impact on your job evaluation. The role of the mentor is to help you develop yourself as a leader.

Do you have any advice for the development of these qualities, competencies, or best practices?

Join our Gordon Engineering Leadership Program. It will not only teach you the theory but also the practice. It is one thing to know in theory what the capabilities to be a great leader are but really you need to apply them to your particular situation. Our students bring their own challenges from their companies to class and learn and apply engineering principles to solve them.

Commit time to your mentoring – schedule a regular meeting, even if it is just to get coffee. Talk about upcoming work projects and how you can lead within them. By yourself or with your mentor, define some goals that will flex your leadership muscles, such as asking to present at the next team meeting, taking a class in business writing, or joining your local Toastmasters chapter.

Are there skills or competencies engineers bring to leadership roles which make them uniquely suited to management? Conversely, which skills or best practices are advantageous in purely technical roles, but a hindrance in leadership positions?

As I mentioned above, engineering leaders are set apart by their technical and analytical abilities, and by their problem solving skills and drive. This can be a tremendous benefit, but it must be tempered by the communication skills that are part of the human side of engineering leadership. Engineers tend to be focused on non-human aspects of business, and particularly the processes and the structure of the “business machine.” They need to learn the other dimensions.

Are there any books, classes, or experiences which you feel molded your own understanding of leadership?

I do believe the Northeastern Gordon leadership Program provides a wonderful learning experience. Otherwise, there are many books which help but in my opinion there is no substitute for the experience that comes from putting yourself out there, developing a vision, staying motivated and mission driven, and being brave enough to do it again.