3 ways to engineer success

One of the most common counseling sessions I provide to engineers is based on a premise that I learned in the most valuable class I took in college. The class was an accident, really. I needed a filler between calculus and FORTRAN (now there’s an example of tuition well spent), and there was an opening in a public speaking class.


One of the most common counseling sessions I provide to engineers is based on a premise that I learned in the most valuable class I took in college. The class was an accident, really. I needed a filler between calculus and FORTRAN (now there’s an example of tuition well spent), and there was an opening in a public speaking class. So I signed up.

The professor, a middle-aged woman, proceeded to tell us engineering types that her class could have more impact on our careers than all the engineering classes combined—if we implemented her teachings in our daily lives. Intrigued, I listened intently.

“There are a plethora of good engineers,” she lectured, “but precious few who are good communicators. The key to being a great engineer is to be capable of effectively communicating concepts to other people.”

According to this professor, getting ahead didn’t involve punch cards. (How many of you remember those?) Indeed, this was heady stuff for a guy who hated FORTRAN and the numbing nights spent at a key punch machine. She went on: “If you remember only one thing from my class, remember this: The basic format for every speech is:

  • Tell them what you’re going to say;

  • Say what you’re saying; and

  • Tell them what you just said.

Ridiculously simple, I thought. Anyone can do that and everyone does, right? Not really.

It seems the connections in one’s head, which a good engineer makes, are often the opposite of good communication. I watched as student after student struggled with the class, claiming it to be harder than any calculus curriculum. But if communication was a key differentiator, I vowed to make it my own and do well in spite of my fear of public speaking. After a long 10 weeks, I passed, and with a good grade.

At my job, I made it a habit to follow those three rules daily. Over time, I modified them. I substituted “do” for “say.” The modified rules look like this:

  • Tell them what you’re going to do;

  • Tell them what you’re doing; and

  • Tell them what you just did.

Results: Coherent plan, feedback

The results can be amazing. To tell people what you’re going to do, you have to formulate an effective work plan. If you force yourself to put thoughts into words, the plan coalesces. If you can’t easily explain what you’re about to do, there’s a pretty good chance you can’t do it easily either. Committing your actions to words also creates a public commitment: You have to follow through because you said you would!

Once a project is underway, it’s important to keep others in the progress loop. Engineers often have a nasty habit of scurrying back to their cubes to engineer without outside interference, not including others in the process and missing the opportunity for real-time feedback. Peer review during the process can keep an engineer from a dead end, and the only way peer review happens is to communicate with one’s peers during the process. Supervisors like knowing how the project is progressing, too. (More on that later.) Finally, it’s critical for people to know when you’re done. In a business where time is money, a project completed on time (or ahead of time) is a joy to behold.

Keeping others in the loop

So how do the three rules generate success? By taking the time to include others in the process of executing your project, everyone including your immediate supervisor notices your activities and their positive impact on the organization. You’re not tooting your own horn. You’re engaging others in a productive process—at least that’s what I was told when I was offered my first managerial position. It seems my boss liked the way I got things done while keeping him in the loop, and all I’d done differently was to follow three simple rules.

Author Information

Chuck Sherman is managing director and division vice president of the Detroit office of The Benham Companies LLC. He has more than 20 years of industry-related experience and is particularly passionate about all things automotive. Contact him at Chuck.Sherman@benham.com .

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