From drawing board to the boardroom

The days when engineers stuck to technical matters while managers dealt with strategy are in many companies a thing of the past.

With today’s engineers working on multi-million pound projects, sound business sense needs to go hand in hand with engineering skills. To bridge the gap, the Sainsbury Management Fellows’ Society has been running a scheme for more than 20 years that entices engineers into the boardroom.

Engineers have a great deal to offer both blue-chip companies and start-ups, says James Raby of the Sainsbury Management Fellows’ Society. “If you look at the requirements of the boardroom today, they are very, very wide.”

The society, founded by Lord Sainsbury of Turville in 1987, offers engineers bursaries to study for an MBA at a leading business school. Between 10 and 14 people a year receive fellowships and more than 240 engineers have received funding.

Mr Raby says an MBA gives these engineers the right “language” so that they can cross over into the boardroom. “There is a lot of value in the engineering community which is not being used, because it has not learned to market itself,” he says.

The SMF Society works with a handful of leading schools including Harvard, Stanford, MIT Sloan, Columbia and Wharton in the US, and Insead, IMD and London Business School in Europe.

Two engineers, Perses Sethna and Tom Delay, talked to the Financial Times about their experiences of the SMF scheme.

PERSES SETHNA

Mr Sethna, the head of global propositions development, at BT Global Services in London, was sponsored by the Sainsbury Management Fellowship scheme to study for an MBA at Insead in 1991.

With an electrical engineering degree from Imperial College London, Mr Sethna had held various roles at BT in research and development, sales engineering and product sales. However, he wanted to understand the broader business functions of the UK-based group. And an MBA, he believed, would be the right tool.

He received both partial sponsorship from BT and also informal support from the head of global sales. Consequently, on his return to BT, armed with his Insead MBA, Mr Sethna says he was able to hit the ground running.

He credits his MBA for helping to raise the bar in terms of areas within BT upon which he could have an impact, but adds: “An MBA can be misleading. It was part of my development. When I came back it was me that came back developed,
it was part of that ongoing situation.”

However, almost two decades later, Mr Sethna says he can still relate back to his MBA when he encounters certain situations. “I say [to myself] oh, that is what he meant. I can understand the full richness.”

Today, Mr Sethna finds that his engineering degree, as well as his MBA, is useful in his career. Furthermore it is a blend that is not offered by many of his colleagues.

Technology is a key part of human progress, he says. “How do you problem solve and apply technology to real problems? If it is not done intelligently it is damaging.

“Having both an awareness of technology and a commercial understanding, as well as a broader political understanding, you can make a contribution and help further your own career as well.”

Although his Insead and SMF days are long gone, Mr Sethna maintains informal contacts with both institutions through the various networking elements. He has made – through choice – his career at BT and finds that the network of contacts he has established as an SMF fellow and an Insead MBA give him a broader perspective outside BT.

He appreciates the difference the SMF has made. “The SMF helps technology awareness and understanding through education –
it makes a very big
contribution.”

TOM DELAY

Mr Delay, chief executive of the Carbon Trust – a UK government- funded company that works to reduce carbon emissions – was one of the first two fellows to receive an MBA with the help of the Sainsbury Management Fellowship.

He had qualified as a mechanical engineer from Southampton University in 1981 and went to work for Shell in a variety of commercial and operational roles. But after five years Mr Delay decided he wanted a “broader view of the world” and turned to an MBA as “a great way of doing that”.

Mr Delay initially considered Harvard Business School – one of the schools the SMF works with – but rejected it in favour of Insead. The Insead programme is short, he says, and the school is cosmopolitan – both elements that appealed to him strongly.

“I felt I was quite keen to get the learning on board [quickly]. It was very personal for me, to do it for me.

“I watched the walls of jargon fall away and felt I could talk to a lawyer or accountant and not be overawed by their approach to life.”

An MBA he adds “gives you the self-confidence to know you may not know all the jargon but if you were given the time you would be able to get it. That is a very powerful tool.”

Mr Delay received his MBA in 1988 and returned to Shell in sales and marketing. At this period, he says, he relied very little on his engineering qualification and later, when he moved into consultancy with McKinsey, it was again his MBA that was most in evidence.

With his appointment as the first chief executive of the Carbon Trust in 2001, however, he says that once again “I am thinking more as an engineer, [more] than I did in the 10 years after my MBA”.

In his work with the Carbon Trust, he adds, being an engineer makes him more credible when talking to other engineers. He finds he has the correct vocabulary and understanding.

Like Mr Sethna, he maintains his links with the SMF. He was its first president and to this day encourages other young engineers to take the same route. The Carbon Trust employs at least two other SMF fellows.

An MBA, he believes, is even more relevant today. “It is so broad [a qualification] that you can use it in almost any professional capacity.”

Mr Delay describes the Carbon Trust as a dream job. It was his career “building blocks”, the combination of his MBA and his engineering qualification, that gave him the freedom to make the complete step sideways into the role, he says.

Despite the benefits of his MBA and his warm recollections of Insead, it is his earlier training that is closest to his heart. “As an engineer you are not on the periphery. You can really get the feeling you are creating economic value. You are at the heart of the business.”

And, after all, he adds, in his passport he describes himself as an “engineer”.

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