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Why Are So Many CEOs Engineers by Trade?

Man leading meeting in a class setting
Consider the following characteristics; are these traits that make a successful CEO or a great engineer?
  • Natural born leader
  • Strong communicator
  • Sharp, strategic thinker
  • Excellent decision making
  • Adept problem solving skills
From Forbes and HBR to Insead, we find numerous reports and analysis of an intriguing aspect of modern business: a significant number of the most successful CEOs are engineers by training. We probe possible reasons for this, including how problem solving across a diverse range of technical challenges might develop leaders who possess a special skill-set that makes them more likely to thrive in executive leadership positions.

Engineer by training, CEO by trade

Peruse Harvard Business Review’s list of 100 Top-Performing CEOs and you’ll see Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos at the top. Bezos attended Princeton University, where he earned a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. And Bezos is in very good company. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella is an engineer, as is General Motors’ Mary Barra. Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of The World Economic Forum, has an engineering PhD under his belt. Carlos Ghosn of Nissan and Dennis Muilenburg of Boeing also share an engineering background – and the list goes on.

Smart starts

In the analysis accompanying the Insead survey, the author suggests another factor that might contribute to the engineer-to-CEO career path: the simple choice of undergrad degree. Engineering has long been the most common undergraduate degree among Fortune 500 CEOs by a substantial margin.

The author suggests that, “since engineers enjoy one of the lowest unemployment rates, engineering has always been perceived as a safe starting major for anyone, providing graduates with a set of skills that cannot be faked and which open doors for professional advancement.” Aerotek is the leading provider of engineering talent to companies in the US, placing more engineers in positions than any other staffing firm, and our experience tells us this insight is spot on.

Young engineers graduating with a sought after degree are likely to join a team that is performing mission critical work for the larger organization. The engineers’ jobs are likely to be at the core of the business’s value chain. Beginning one’s professional career in such a key role could provide a head start for an eventual rise to a senior leadership position for a curious, ambitious professional.

A natural progression

Stereotypes aside — engineers, in general, possess strong skills in problem solving, mathematics, risk management and analysis. Engineering is all about making things work — understanding the unique details of a problem, while also understanding how it comes together in the big picture. So whether it's a machine, a structure or an organization — engineers are trained to consistently produce successful outcomes. They must consider cost versus performance, and these are principles that are fundamental when you think about successful executive leadership.

Engineers solve problems for a living. The high rate of engineers making it to the corner office suggests that finding solutions for technical problems is great training for resolving business problems, too. With our leading position in the industry, Aerotek offers engineers a multitude of paths to whatever career you’re planning for. We work with each individual to determine your desired professional trajectory and to identify positions that will help you to achieve your professional goals.

Set up your free career account and connect with us on our job board for your next engineering position.