theReactor

September 6th, 2011

How ChE Prepared Me for Business (and How It Didn’t): Professionalism

By Arkan Kayihan | Comments (2)
I was recently part of a peer-interview training course given to mid-level nurses. The question came up of what core attributes our internal consulting team looked for in an ideal candidate. The top three attributes were confidence (being able to think on your feet), professionalism, and a commitment to excellence. After spending some time considering the personal bias in these aspirational attributes, I realized where they originated. As a caveat, this series entry, (as well as the final entry of this blog series), will be more subjective than the others. My perspective is that of a ChE who went to specific academic programs and worked at specific companies, so it is certainly not all-inclusive, but the point can be made to how top-tier ChE education and experiences can be brought to business.

Confidence

At the time, my undergraduate institution was particularly concerned about two issues: avoiding any appearance of grade inflation versus other departments and institutions, and there were too many undergrads trying to be engineers. These two items formed the culture and expectations of our formative training: “You want to be a ChE?  Then you need to prove it to us continuously until you graduate.” Confidence You weren’t allowed to declare a ChE major until the program accepted you in your third year, and being accepted did not guarantee you a degree. The same expectations were set in grad school as well. ChE faculty were not shy about giving out failing grades for senior design, forcing students to delay graduation for a year, or giving Cs or Fs in graduate school. This boot-camp culture was meant to toughen us up as future professionals and, if you survive Quantum Mechanics & Systems of Diff Eqs on 4 hours of sleep, give you the confidence to handle anything thrown your way. There was a direct marketing lecturer in business school who made it a point to take students to task, publicly call them on their assumptions, and expect more from them than they were capable of delivering. This approach is bound to polarize student opinion, but many of my classmates were in love with the hard-ass demands made upon them and the public humiliation brought to unprepared students. This simply reminded me of the “present to the ass-in-the-room” informal training we received from undergrad ChE. Our faculty were notorious for poking holes in our work: “Did you consider this?”, “Justify your assumptions—why should I believe you?”, and  “Did you thoroughly research all your options?” There was no cushioning of blows, especially in public presentations, so you had great incentive to prepare with the thought: “How would I present my work given that there is someone in the audience who will tear apart my work in a very personal way?” I’ve been told on good authority that law students have similar standards when they are preparing for presentations. You can’t predict and plan every response, but this training has been invaluable when presenting to large audiences or senior level executives.

Professionalism

There was no formal professionalism training in my programs, but there were incredibly high expectations set on ChEs by faculty and employers. Engineering was one of the few undergrad disciplines where college interns were paid at professional rates. In exchange, we were to produce professional-level outcomes and behave as a full-time employee when interning. Handshake These expectations were reinforced by consulting, where we were expected to justify our billing rate by providing better service than what our clients were used to. The standards were similar to my friends who grew up in the Big-5 (in which I’m still including Accenture):
  • Be early for your meetings
  • Dress professionally
  • Be prepared and thorough
  • Under-promise and over-deliver
Because our work could affect lives and eco-systems (link), ChE professionals just tended to take everything even more seriously.

Commitment to Excellence

With such high stakes, it is not surprising that environment and expectations led to a commitment to excellence and the expectation of excellence from others. The tolerance for sub-par work or complaining was pretty low and so, like a genetic trait, this expectation was passed along to us. Being a traditional consultant means lots of travel at a moments notice, and you live at the whim of your client’s needs. Flare stack burning waste gas Many ambitious working professionals live out of their suitcases sacrificing time with friends, family, and loved ones. The main difference with traditional management consulting, versus much of the consulting we did as ChEs, involved working nights and weekends. If a pulp mill or oil refinery runs 24/7, you can bet that a ChE has spent his or her share of graveyards and weekends working in hazardous environments. Although complaining wasn’t tolerated, there is nothing like getting a group of ChE’s together in a room to identify what isn’t working well. Our work was picked apart, so we learned this deconstructive approach as well: “We aren’t being negative. We are trying to make things better.” Many ChE’s had the following mantra: “If I don’t say anything, it means you’re doing good work. If you weren’t, you’d hear about it.” This might have been a negative reinforcement technique that worked to drive change with engineers (as we wanted to avoid the public humiliation and resulting lecture) but, as I found, was not culturally normal behavior. My wife used to cook when we first got married, and I found myself using the “I’ll only comment when it’s broken” engineering approach when providing feedback. I’m sure you can imagine how well that went! Next time we’ll finally approach the subject of what was lacking in my ChE training and how I made up for it in my career in consulting and business. How has your experience in ChE given you professional perspective?
Photos: Confidence pose and handshake, istockphoto.com; burning stack, Robert J.Pennington, www.rhizomeimages.com; ©2011 Arkan Kayihan, used with permission
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2 Responses to “How ChE Prepared Me for Business (and How It Didn’t): Professionalism”

  1. May says:

    I do agree that most chemical engineering curriculums are very demanding. I still have memories of my first thermodynamic course where the professor said "Look around this room, after this semester, there will about 40% of this room who will graduate with you."
    I still have very vivid memories of my senior reactor engineering class where the professor will bring a yard stick to class and point to us to respond on the spot to his questions. How we can string up a very logical and concise response in a very short amount of time.

    I also love how my chemical engineering background has conditioned me to state assumptions clearly and build my justification succintly. I am grateful for everything that the professors have taught me. I truly believe that my chemical engineering schooling has made me a better person and a more effective employee.

  2. May says:

    Thank you for a good post and a good series!

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