by Alan P. Rossiter, Ph.D.
Reprinted from AICHE JOURNAL, February 1995
(Illustrations by Armand Veneziano)
|Striving for excellence involves developing not only technically, but also in the areas of communications, interpersonal relationships, ethics, and more.|
Like all of us, I am still learning. This article chronicles part of that learning process the quest for the holy grail of professional excellence. I hope that what I share here will encourage others in the same important quest. My observations are based on nearly 15 years of experience in process engineering, first with a large manufacturing company (ICI), and more recently in consulting (Linnhoff March). They are personal perspectives, written from the consultant's viewpoint.
What is professional excellence? Is it simply a matter of obtaining recognition for your work? Climbing the corporate ladder? Owning your own company? I think not. These things are noble goals, of course, and may be a legitimate part of professional excellence for some people.
But I believe we have to look for a broader definition. That definition should include a number of areas, including the eight aspects discussed below that I feel are important. The list is not exhaustive, but I hope it will at least provide food for thought and a basis for discussion within the chemical engineering community.
|Produce high-quality technical work|
This is probably the most obvious and least controversial aspect of professional excellence, so I will devote very little space to it. Few would argue against the need to deliver accurate, technically correct work, and to do so consistently, as a foundation for professional excellence.
This calls for constant attention to detail in the work we do, and the refining of our technical skills by interaction with professional colleagues and, at times, by specific training.
|Communicate your work clearly|
Sadly, much work that contains a great deal of technical value gets ignored, because the people who did the work failed to communicate properly. While we are engrossed in a fascinating project, it is very easy to forget that the rest of the world is largely ignorant of what we are doing. We tend to assume that our management, and the world in general, will be as knowledgeable as we are. We therefore tend to communicate at an "expert" level.
Have you ever sat through a presentation where you did not understand a thing the speaker was saying? Or am I the only person who has had that experience? (Maybe you have even sat through one of my presentations and felt that way, too. I hope not.)
When I was a young engineer at ICI, it was a standing joke that anything written for managers should be in words of one syllable. Nearly 15 years later I respect the wisdom behind the joke. It is not that managers are inherently stupid (at least, not all of them). Managers often have to make judgements in areas outside their own expertise, and they need clear, concise guidance to help them make those judgements. Those called upon to report to them need to keep this in mind when presenting their reports.
Of course, there are instances where "expert" reports and papers are appropriate but these are generally in "expert forums," where the reader shares the appropriate background. For nonexpert audiences (by far the majority), this approach is wholly inappropriate.
The key point is that professional excellence includes a commitment to communication that informs selected audiences, rather than simply presenting the things that fascinate us individually.
This principle can be extended, too. It is not just when we report our work that we need to ensure that we understand the needs of our audience. This is true at every stage of our work. We should constantly be asking: "What does my company (or client) really want from this work?" On more than one occasion, I have participated in projects where the final deliverables bore little resemblance to the original proposal, because it became clear that the original concept was inappropriate. (Of course, we should not make changes in scope arbitrarily or unilaterally. All affected parties must agree to the changes.)
|Keep to a schedule|
Doing good technical work and communicating it well are both important, but they are not enough. Large capital commitments and major revenue streams are often dependent on our work, and the old adage about time being money could hardly be more appropriate. Our ability to deliver on time is often critical.
Yet, too often it seems that schedules are allowed to slip and commitments are not met. In the cases that I have observed, I believe there have been two main causes:
Professional excellence must include realism in our claims, and a commitment to fulfill promised schedules and deliverables. This applies both to the paid work that we undertake, and also to other professional activities, such as publications, which also carry schedules and deadlines.
Of course, we must keep this in balance, like everything else. This was brought home to me a couple of years ago when I was hospitalized unexpectedly. I had promised a report to a client that week and had only a few minor corrections to make to the draft, so from my hospital bed I gave instructions to my secretary to tidy up the report and issue it. When I got back to work a week later, I found that my boss had decided he wanted another chance to review the work before releasing it, and it had not been issued. We had missed the sacred deadline, and I was furious.
It took several weeks for me to begin to see the event in perspective. True, the report did not go out on the due date. However, the client already had the results of our work, and receiving the report "on time" would not help them implement our recommendations any sooner. The deadline was artificial. More importantly, the client know the circumstances, and was more concerned about my health then the delay of the report. We must keep all things in their right perspective!
|Recognize your professional limits|
None of us can be "expert" in every aspect of engineering, or even within the more limited realm of our own engineering discipline. For example, I work as a consultant in industrial energy conservation and waste minimization, but would not offer my services for the detailed mechanical design of a heat exchanger. In my professional experience, there has never been a good opportunity to develop that expertise.
There is a perception that candid admissions are bad for business. My belief is the exact opposite. I have often found it necessary to tell clients that I personally could not advise them on certain subjects, or that my company did not possess certain forms of expertise. We lose credibility if we overstate our abilities and experience. Moreover, we lose an important opportunity to build constructive relationships and "team spirit." I have often been in meetings where an acknowledged "expert" has conceded ignorance in a certain field, and there was a perceptible easing of tension as soon as the admission was made. People are more likely to trust and cooperate with someone who is open about his or her limitations.
Of course, we can all expand the limits of our professional competence through study, which may include formal course work, on-the-job training, or research. One of the joys of my own consulting work is the opportunity it offers to explore and develop new areas of process engineering. But as we do this, it is important to ensure that clients are aware of the novel and tentative nature of the work.
|Invest in furthering the profession|
Engineering, like all professional disciplines, requires both a good academic grounding and a solid basis in practical experience. Each one of us has come as far as we have through a combination of our own determination to acquire these essentials and the help and encouragement that others have given us along the way.
The continuation and progress of the profession depend in large measure on our willingness to provide the same help and encouragement to those who follow us. The profession also depends on our ability as a group to make a positive contribution to society and upon society's perceptions of what we do.
By participating in activities that help in these directions, we are furthering the profession as a whole. This is also an important part of professional excellence.
There are many ways in which we can invest in furthering the profession. Some of these come through the activities of professional societies (such as presenting papers, chairing sessions, serving on committees or as an officer of the organization, and so on), while others are inherent in the jobs we do.
Over the years I have had many different opportunities to share in this way, starting with invitations to deliver occasional "industrial lectures" to undergraduates at several universities shortly after I left college myself. Around the same time, I was invited to participate in a program in which practicing engineers visited high schools to introduce students to the work we do. More recently, I have taught professional development courses. But by far the most satisfying experiences are the opportunities for one-on-one professional interaction with junior engineers, providing on-the-job instruction, and in some cases mentoring.
Of course, not all of these opportunities are appropriate for everyone. Some people, including many excellent engineers, are not adept at lecturing or providing formal instruction, but may be more comfortable in committee work, for example. Yet all of us can and should be willing to share the experience that we have gained to help those who come after us.
There is great satisfaction in seeing projects come to fruition as we work on them. But for me, nothing compares with the satisfaction of seeing people develop positively, and knowing that I have been instrumental in some way to help them. Those who neglect this aspect of professional excellence miss a most rewarding experience.
|Affirm your co-workers|
None of us can live or work in isolation. Our ability to perform in any area of life depends largely on the cooperation of those around us. Thus, professional excellence must include the ability to evoke a cooperative spirit in those around us, especially the least prominent.
In my experience, this is best done by affirmation that is, by helping others to feel good about themselves and the contribution they are making. Words of appreciation and encouragement have a very positive impact. Tasteful humor is also useful.
The goal is, one way or another, to convey a sense of value and appreciation to others. If, instead, we adopt attitudes that convey the impression that we know it all and that the people around us have little to offer, we isolate ourselves, hinder the development of team spirit, and ultimately minimize our effectiveness.
This principle is wide-ranging. The most obvious area of application is in our dealings with our immediate juniors. But bosses need affirmation, too. Also, what about the taxi driver who takes you to an important meeting, or the waiter who serves you while you are away from home on business? All of these people contribute to our professional performance, and we help them to help us through affirmation.
But for me there is another, even more important, reason for affirming them: They are all people made in God's image, and as such they warrant our consideration regardless of their impact on us professionally or personally.
|Enjoy your work, and help others enjoy it|
A memory that stands out from my early years in industry was an encounter with a senior engineer who had just been promoted. I casually asked how he was enjoying his new responsibilities. He grunted and said, "I'm not," and walked off. How sad.
The work we do carries a lot of responsibility. It can be very demanding. Parts of it are, frankly, tedious. If we are to survive emotionally, it is essential that we maintain a good balance, and don't take ourselves too seriously not all the time, anyway. A sense of the absurd and a spirit of fun should be an integral part of our daily work.
I experienced a striking example of this while I was in Japan recently. I was conducting a seminar, and on the last day I helped the Japanese secretary tidy up the equipment we had been using for computer demonstrations. We loaded some boxes on a cart, and then she told me to get on too. I did. She then pushed the cart down the corridor, in full view of the entire office staff. We must have looked like a couple of kids playing. Formality was gone, and everyone who saw us fell about laughing. It was wonderful!
Fun is all about spontaneity and the dropping of unnecessary inhibitions. Of course, this must not lead to crude or distasteful behavior, but an office or a lecture hall, or even a control room, without laughter and enjoyment is a dead place. We do ourselves and those around us a great disservice if we stifle it.
Recently, a young engineer from a client's organization came into the office where a colleague and I were working and announced: "I've never met anyone who enjoys their work as much as you two." I took that as a profound compliment.
|Protect your personal life|
Life is not all about work. What we do, and the commitments we take on, are very individual, but we all have and need some kind of life outside of our work. For myself, I have a wonderful family and a number of civic responsibilities (most notably as a teacher and lay leader in a church), as well as cultural and sporting interests.
Work can easily encroach on these other areas, and it is essential that we maintain a reasonable balance between the conflicting priorities that arise. For me, this is one of the toughest parts of professional excellence, and I am still near the bottom of the learning curve.
To put that comment in context, I should mention that I'm writing this on the South African highveld, 600 miles from the place of my birth in Hirare, Zimbabwe, but 11,000 air miles from my family and my present home in Houston, Texas. I have been here on a project for five weeks, and have another two weeks to go. The toughest moment of the trip came during my first week, when I called home to wish my little boy a happy third birthday. During the conversation I asked about the party he was having that afternoon. "Will you be coming, Daddy?" he asked innocently. They could hear my heart breaking half way down the corridor. "No Daniel. Not this time."
I try to use the following three principles for protecting my personal life while pursuing an interesting and stimulating career:
It is important to apply these principles in the workplace, just as it is in the home. This was highlighted for me a few months ago, when I went on a short overseas assignment. As soon as I arrived, I was asked to extend my stay. However, I had made a number of personal and professional commitments based on my returning immediately after the assignment, and I declined to stay on. There followed a period of tension between myself and the top management of my company.
The real problem, of course, was communication, and I believe we were all at fault. For my part, I didn't check the requirements of the assignment carefully enough before agreeing to do it. I had done similar things many times before, and I assumed that this one would be organized like the previous ones. Management, on the other hand, assumed that I would anticipate a need to stay beyond the "official" end of the assignment. It is very dangerous to replace proper communication with assumptions!
Developing professional excellence is a lengthy and challenging process, both for individuals and for organizations. There are bound to be errors and misunderstandings along the way, and our goal must be to learn from them, leave them behind, and move forward in our quest
The views expressed in this article are entirely those of the author. No organization has approved this article, and it is not intended as an official statement of any kind.
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