Thoughts on Engineering Leadership

The Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) held an Engineering Leadership Conference in 2007

One of the guest speakers, a senior naval officer at NAVSEA, spoke about the responsibility for maintaining technical competence and the requirement to speak up when external pressures put that competency at risk. A related need is for engineers to nurture, maintain, and periodically revitalize technical infrastructure for the "long haul." This blog post is a summary of his remarks.

The intrinsic traits, cultural and behavioral aspects of the work we do, of our organizations that are vital to our success as technical authority for the Navy are: integrity, formality, responsibility, independence, and engagement. Rickover refused to provide such a list lest they be mistaken as a recipe (he was funny that way and not without reason). They are the responsibility of every member of the organization. Making sound, thorough, and technical decisions is Job #1 for anyone connected with a systems command like NAVSEA, SPAWAR, or NAVAIR.

  • Integrity: being right for the right reasons and admitting to being wrong when presented with facts counter to one's position. Genuinely seek out opposing views and take the time to consider them. Don't assume that experts above your pay grade understand more than you.
  • Formality: the process of clearly documenting facts, recommendations, and actions. "Nothing so sharpens the thought process as writing down one's arguments. Weaknesses overlooked in oral discussion become painfully obvious on the written page." - Rickover. PowerPoint slides don't count. This means complete sentences and paragraphs.
  • Responsibility: more than taking the necessary action for your area based on what you know. It also means finding out what you need to know to fulfill your responsibility. It means not assuming someone else will take necessary action because it is in their area of responsibility (this is what we call "watch team backup" in the Navy). Take the time to provide the information you have to others that need it and confirm they are doing what their responsibility requires ("which one of us tells the boss, you or me?"). Don't allow yourself to be intimidated by those with more experience or rank or assume that they know better what is right. It is your responsibility to inform them of what you think the proper action is. You must be sensitive to how easy it can be for those with more experience to miss something important or see what they want to see (this is not bad faith, it is human nature).
  • Independence: the ability to evaluate and provide perspectives independent of others. If you don't understand the interpretation of the data or someone's conclusion, speak up and say so!
  • Engagement: follow up on the implementation of your work to make sure it is happening the way specified and the results are what were intended.

Note: if you are the boss or a supervisor, it is your responsibility to act in such a way as to specifically encourage these behaviors in your workers. It is unlikely you could over-communicate about these traits and must frequently call attention to them when you see them in action. This is frequently under appreciated by leaders in technical organizations as NASA's Columbia accident made very clear.

Rickover's words about the service a professional provides are particularly salient

The role of professionals in society is to lend their special knowledge, their well trained intellect, and their dispassionate habit of visualizing problems in terms of what ever task is entrusted to them. Professional independence is not a special privilege but rather an inner necessity for the true professional and a safeguard for their employers and the general public.  Without it, they negate everything that makes them professional and become, at best, routine technicians or hired hands, and,  at worst, hacks.

Group action can be a set up for subversion of technical authority, integrity, formality, and responsibility. There are numerous examples of this in the US Navy (aspects of Littoral Combat Ship, Greeneville/San Franciso (and others) collisions, governments (Coast Guard Deep Water program, Astute submarine program, Columbia, Challenger), aviation (Tenerife collision of two 747s and many others) and society. I can forward case studies on all of these examples except the Deep Water and Astute programs for those interested.

I also have the full remarks of the speaker that I can send upon request.