Episode 14 — Superstars

Chris and Jeff talk about how one might go about becoming an engineering “superstar.”

  • Neither Jeff or Chris have been particularly successful at figuring out how to advance their careers in large organizations, so they may not be the best at describing how one moves upward through the corporate structure.
  • A recent episode of This American Life talked about teaching networking skills to schoolkids, suggesting that engineers could also learn the relationship skills needed to move up the organizational ladder.
  • Engineers often find themselves having to take on managerial duties mid-career if they want to see their salary increase.
  • People want comfort and familiarity in their business dealings, so they are attracted to those who make them feel good about themselves and their situation.
  • Many organizations require advancing engineers to complete Six Sigma projects.
  • Organizations are rarely meritocracies, much to the chagrin of technically-oriented engineers.
  • A recent study at Harvard showed that bosses are less stressed out than their employees, mostly because they have more control over their activities.
  • Chris found an article titled “How to be a Star Engineer.” For those with access to the archives of IEEE Spectrum, the article is on pages 51–58 of volume 36, issue 10, from October, 1999. The text of this article is currently floating around online as a PDF file.
  • The book associated with this article is How to Be a Star at Work: 9 Breakthrough Strategies You Need to Succeed, by Robert E. Kelley.
  • Strategy 1: Blazing Trails — Demonstrate initiative, by seeking out new responsibilities, undertaking extra efforts for the benefit of others, and filling the gaps between job descriptions.
  • According to the Peter Principle, employees tend to rise to their highest level of incompetence.
  • Strategy 2: Knowing Who Knows — Build a professional network that provides access to needed support at crucial times.
  • Chris has found that having curiosity and providing value are useful in building relationships.
  • Strategy 3: Proactive Self-Management — Honestly assess your strengths and weaknesses, then work to improve your value to the organization.
  • Strategy 4: Getting the Big Picture — Seek an understanding of the perspectives and values of other groups and functions within the organization.
  • Strategy 5: The Right Kind of Followership — Be a follower that makes your manager successful, rather than one who simply follows orders.
  • Strategy 6: Teamwork as Joint Ownership of a Project — Look to improve the structures that support and enhance group dynamics, in addition to being a “team player.”
  • Seth Godin has written a book called The Dip, which proposes that superstars have the ability to quickly escape dead ends, while knowing when to stick with important projects.
  • Strategy 7: Small-L Leadership — Approach leadership as a strategy for influencing others to unite on a substantial task, rather than issuing commands from above.
  • Jeff likes the book Managing Leadership by Jim Stroup, which makes the argument that leadership emanates from the organization, rather than from senior management.
  • Strategy 8: Street Smarts — Having political and social savvy is quite beneficial in moving upward through an organization.
  • Strategy 9: Show and Tell — Getting noticed, for good reasons, is important for moving up in a company. Getting noticed in a manner that promotes a common theme about your talents is even better.
  • There are good reasons to stay at a company for a decade or more. Even hard-charging, well-respected CEOs have trouble transferring their skills to new organizations.

Thanks to Elisabeth Audrey for the photo titled “Don’t Worry.” Podcast theme music provided by Paul Stevenson

2 thoughts on “Episode 14 — Superstars”

  1. While I agree that others see people who display skills that are seemingly unrelated as unfocused or “not knowing what they are doing”, I disagree with this viewpoint.

    People who have skills that run the gamut from marketing to technical to manufacturing (both mechanical and electrical) have a holistic understanding of product design. I have also seen people who work as assembly workers on the manufacturing floor have the most efficient and cost effective way of how something should be manufactured.

    It is totally the wrong attitude to pigeon hole people into “the best” at one thing or another as people who are good at one thing, tend to be good at many unrelated things.

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