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At MIT, a new focus on generating ‘people’ skills

MIT juniors Wenjia Zhu (foreground) and Stephanie Schmit sat under structures built from newspapers and tape as part of a leadership training session. MIT juniors Wenjia Zhu (foreground) and Stephanie Schmit sat under structures built from newspapers and tape as part of a leadership training session. (Barry Chin/ Globe Staff)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / October 25, 2009

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CAMBRIDGE - The students practice networking and hone “elevator pitches,’’ entrepreneurial ideas summarized in under a minute. They don blindfolds for team-building activities. Failure is met with candid critiques about their leadership styles.

This isn’t business school. It’s a new engineering class at one of the premier engineering universities in the world, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

MIT created the unusual undergraduate program in response to industry pressures to produce engineers who are as skilled at communicating face-to-face as they are at writing complicated computer codes on their own. Business leaders complain that many of today’s engineering graduates, trained as abstract thinkers, have too little grounding in the actual practice of working with others to deliver innovative products amid time and budget constraints.

“There’s this pervasive attitude that we’re engineers, we build stuff. We don’t need all that silly management training,’’ said Tanya Goldhaber, a senior mechanical engineering major who was initially skeptical but says the program boosted her social confidence and widened her career aspirations.

“A lot of MIT graduates go out into the real world and fall on their faces because they don’t know how to work within a company,’’ Goldhaber said. “They expect their bosses to be impressed by their creativity, but they don’t deliver the product on time.’’

The initiative, launched last year with a $20 million gift from 1948 alumnus and technology entrepreneur Bernard M. Gordon, signifies a return to MIT’s roots. The school was founded 148 years ago to promote education for practical application; its motto, “Mens et Manus,’’ means mind and hand.

Gordon and some professors be lieve it has become necessary to refocus the engineering curriculum to counter the shift in recent decades toward scientific theory and away from the practice of engineering. Once graduates enter the working world, professors said, few are comfortable seeking leadership opportunities within companies. They often cede those positions, the joke around campus goes, to Harvard University MBAs with no technical backgrounds.

“One of the pretty clear messages that has come through is that MIT graduates work hard and are analytical and creative, but they don’t rise to influence their organizations in a larger way,’’ said Edward Crawley, director of the Gordon engineering leadership program and a 1976 MIT graduate. “Can we reinvent ourselves in the image of our foundation? Can we rediscover our roots?’’

The two-year engineering leadership program, which began as a pilot last fall, aims to admit about 30 juniors each year who are selected based on interviews and written applications. The program, which meets three times a week, also hopes to influence the wider MIT population by encouraging more engineering professors to assign team projects and to explicitly teach how students could best work together.

Given its reputation and influence, MIT is well positioned to lead colleges across the country in revamping engineering education, even though its faculty once was resistant to the idea of teaching “people’’ skills.

By training more engineering leaders, MIT will help the industry develop competitive products and, in turn, enable the United States to regain its technical edge, said Gordon, who has seeded similar initiatives at half a dozen schools across the country, including Tufts and Northeastern universities.

“The creation of wealth is caused by producing new devices. That’s done by engineers,’’ said Gordon, founder of Analogic Corp. in Peabody and NeuroLogica Corp. in Danvers, who developed the fetal heart monitor and the world’s first commercial digital computer.

Most new companies fail despite assembling a group of smart engineers because no one is comfortable shouldering the responsibilities of leadership, he said. Young engineers should be trained to understand the needs of others and be able to motivate a team of diverse personalities - characteristics that the 82-year-old Gordon says he developed as a Naval officer.

“Most engineers are very introverted,’’ he said, including himself. “Most creative, technical people are a little bit off the edge.’’

He also said that current students, part of the so-called millennial generation brought up in the era of egalitarianism, not only might have trouble designating a leader but might bristle at the idea that they should be led. To his dismay, one MIT professor questioned the need and feasibility of choosing a leader among a group of equally smart, capable students.

But students’ penchant for collective action over a structured hierarchy often brings collective inaction, other professors said.

So each week, students in the new program participate in a nontraditional “lab’’ that tests their leadership capabilities. In one recent exercise designed to improve their inquiry and advocacy skills, students arrived in class with an engineering idea they wanted to sell and shared the concept with a partner, who then attempted to pitch the idea to a panel from MIT’s Sloan School of Management.

“I don’t want to see talent and knowledge from MIT graduates going to waste because they don’t have the ability to lead a team,’’ said Vijay Umapathy, a senior majoring in electrical engineering and computer science who is among the first group of students to receive leadership training.

Students in the lab also receive frequent written feedback about their interpersonal skills. Goldhaber recalled one session in which she led a team assigned to build a bridge out of balloons, dental floss, and tape that would be strong enough to hold two bottles of water. She became frustrated when the bridge kept collapsing.

A peer reviewer later informed her that her teammates did not respond well to her because they felt she was abrasive, a criticism Goldhaber said she appreciated. She said the exercise helped her realize that losing her composure is not an effective way to influence people.

“If you’re leading a team and something goes wrong, it’s not the team’s fault,’’ she said. “It’s your fault.’’

In the real world, poor communications can lead to engineering disasters, she said, citing space shuttle crashes and bridge-and-tunnel collapses as examples.

Goldhaber put her newfound leadership skills to use last summer as an intern at British Telecom. She developed an idea for a technological device, on which she is not allowed to elaborate, that she wanted to pitch to the chief executive. One night at a dinner reception in London, she cornered him on his way out the door and gave her elevator pitch. (She later heard from managers that he liked the idea.)

“I literally thought two years ago that I’d be an engineer sitting in a cubicle cranking out equations for the rest of my life,’’ Goldhaber said. “Now I’ve discovered that I’m good at people as well as machines, and I never would have had the gumption to explore that without this program.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com.

BUILDING LEADERS
MIT's engineering leadership program aims to develop, among others, the following skills:
  • Ability to assess risk and take initiative.
  • Willingness to make decisions in the face of uncertainty.
  • Urgency and the will to deliver objectives on time in the face of constraints or obstacles.
  • Resourcefulness and flexibility.
  • Trust and loyalty in a team setting.
  • Relating to others.

    Source: MIT