Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Dan Arvizu, the Chancellor of New Mexico State University. Arvizu also sits on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and was the first Hispanic to lead a DOE National Laboratory.
One of the things we touched on what makes engineers and scientists good leaders. Arvizu recalled how his thesis advisor at Stanford had done kind of an informal study on graduate students coming out of the university. They looked at the success of these students relative to their scores, both verbal and math on the ACT and the SAT and GREs. They determined that the best determinate of leadership success was the verbal skills, not the math or technical skills.
To Arvizu, this meant that there was another dimension important for success beyond simple technical competence. Even during his work at Bell Labs and Sandia National Laboratories, he learned that everyone was smart, that was never really an issue in deciding who to promote.
“Then how well are you at bringing people together? How well are you at inspiring people? How well are you at getting the most out of each individual? That requires vision, it requires leadership, it requires care and feeding, it requires a variety of things that are more people skills, the soft skills,” he said. “Again, in addition to your competency, you’ve got to gain their respect first, and then after that you got to have the competencies to do the other.”
As an engineer myself, I’ve seen that my college engineering friends who have the best soft skills have moved the fastest up the corporate ladder and found the most success. And the ability to communicate well is critical. That means via the written word, speaking one-on-one, and presenting to groups.
Arvizu also pointed out that being a good leader means knowing your strengths and your teammates, as well.
“I’ve had a very, very blessed experience in having great teams around me. Many times, people that are much better than me are doing a lot of great work. It’s being the quarterback, being the orchestrator, being the person that sees the bigger picture, knowing what people’s roles are, lets them do their job, and be their big cheerleader,” he said. “Your success is my success. Everything I can do to help you succeed is what I’m going to do.”