I had a great conversation with a dedicated company president recently. Rather than get bogged down in the current market slump, he was focused on what his customers would need down the road five or ten years. A big concern was finding someone to be the technical leader of his operation.
We just went through the National Football League draft and heard all the talking heads go on and on about the potential of various prospects. For all the money invested in scouting college players, the vast majority of those selected will not become “successful” professional players. Conversely, a few of the undrafted free agents will go on to long and lucrative careers.
A similar situation exists in other sports although some, like baseball, have a farm system to give players time to improve their skills. In the business world we do not have the budget to maintain a farm team and have employees training rather than working.
So what can a company president do when it is clear that a unique individual is needed at some point in the future? Do you look for a “free agent” with the needed skills and experience, or do you find someone with potential and develop them into that technical leader?
My answer? It depends. Typical “consultant chatter,” some might say, but especially true in this instance. First off, there are not many fully prepared “technical leaders” waiting around for an opportunity. Our industry has not trained many engineers in recent years and most of the experienced designers are either happy where they are or they are nearing retirement. Secondly, our university curriculum does not allow much time for students to learn about gears. We do not have many opportunities in an academic setting for young people to learn more than the fundamentals of gears.
What’s more, each company represents a unique environment and needs a technical leader who understands the capabilities of that environment and sees what must be done to stay competitive in a changing marketplace. To put it another way, an engineer can be an expert at buggy whip manufacture while still appreciating the market’s move to motor vehicles.
In my opinion the most important qualities in the success of a technical leader are the curiosity and energy they bring to the job. You can learn new techniques from papers reprinted in Gear Technology, or from studying competitors’ products. But you cannot change a complacent performer into a leader.