‘Big E’ Thinking: Evolving Engineers into Dynamic Business Leaders

By Terence Donnelly, Commonwealth Edison

My favorite joke about engineers goes like this: How can you tell which engineer is the extrovert? Answer: He’s the one looking at everyone else’s shoes.

I appreciate the good-natured poke at our profession’s famous introversion, but the joke also subtly relates to one of my areas of passion. It’s all about line of sight. We engineers too often happily relegate ourselves to small pockets of technical responsibility waiting for our assignments–so that we fail to raise our gazes and recognize how well we could proactively apply our problem-solving expertise to greater business challenges.

Think of it: Effective solutions to some of today’s key societal issues–from global warming to creating a nationwide smart grid–demand the active leadership by engineers, but this requires a shift in our mindset. Take, for example, the implementation of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). AMI is a wireless system incorporating smart meters that enhance two-way communication between a utility and its customers. In the past, engineers would steer clear of anything that smelled of the “customer side” of the business; however, AMI also represents the utility industry’s on-ramp to the smart grid era. Thus, to best transform the grid and deliver sound customer benefits requires our engineers to work shoulder-to-shoulder with customers and regulatory-facing organizations like never before.

This is why more than a year ago we embarked on an initiative at Commonwealth Edison (ComEd) called Engineering Excellence. Through it, we are transforming our engineers from technical area experts into a new corps of businesswide leaders who contribute innovative solutions in pursuit of lower costs, improved reliability and higher customer satisfaction.

In talking about this transformation, we refer to “big E” thinking. “Small e” thinking is when engineers relegate their skills to narrowly defined technical challenges.

While driving innovations within this traditional engineering realm will always be important–it’s our bread and butter–”big E” thinking strives to more broadly tap the engineer’s problem-solving talent. We seek to redirect the engineer’s incisive intellect and unique ability to comprehend complexity and focus it on larger business goals that intersect with areas as seemingly unrelated as the supply chain, regulatory, financial and customer satisfaction.

Making the transition to “big E” thinking, though, requires more than just an executive megaphone. You must create the processes and conditions that enable your engineering ranks to transform from an assignment-based mentality (“Give us the orders, and we’ll complete the job.”) to a proactive can-do ethos.

We’re achieving this at ComEd. This includes professional development techniques from providing special business-acumen training to forcing greater cross-departmental fertilization through a new rotation program that cracks open the departmental silos. We also apply special-assessment processes to specifically identify those who are stepping out, delivering hard results so we can highlight them as models for the rest of the organization.

Making our engineers cross-departmental leaders is equally important. I regularly give our engineers seats at the table during senior leadership meetings. This shows how decisions are made at this level and tacitly requests their participation in holistic business-planning discussions.

I foresee these opportunities expanding. We face challenges in which engineers are uniquely positioned to play a pivotal role. In turn, we’ll achieve even greater respect and reward within our organizations as we evolve into comprehensive business leaders.

Terence Donnelly is ComEd’s senior vice president of transmission and distribution. ComEd is a unit of Chicago-based Exelon Corp. and provides service to approximately 3.8 million customers across northern Illinois.

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