Engineering Leadership Lessons

Cardboard and Duct Tape: Lessons in Engineering, Leadership and Life

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As part of the 35th Anniversary of the Governor’s Scholars Program in Kentucky, I was invited to participate in their Alumni Day at Northern Kentucky University.  So naturally, I shared with this year’s Scholars what my experience taught me about engineering leadership and life!


Below are the slides and lessons learned that I shared. 


“Cardboard. Duct tape. Whatever floats your boat!”

Sixteen years ago, I started on a journey of engineering leadership.  It began on the campus of Eastern Kentucky University as part of Kentucky’s Governer’s Scholars Program.  We had many great assignments and trips that truly opened my eyes and mind to what being an engineer meant.  

But one of the challenges we were tasked with – building a boat out of duct tape and cardboard – taught me more than the rest.

Through that process and experience, I learned about many of the engineering concepts – properties of materials, bouyancy, displacement – that you would expect.  But what it also taught me was that much of what makes you a successful engineer and leader helps you in life as well.

People Skills are Critical

As an engineer, everyone expects that you will be technically proficient.  It is not so obvious, however, that how you interact with other people will be just as important to your ability to be successful.

So focusing your time and energy on working with others is critical.  Build strong relationships.  Take an active, engaged approach to team work.  Practice good communication skills – both verbal and written.  And network, network, network!

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Others Depend on You

We do not live our lives in a vacuum.  We depend on others and others depend on us.  As an engineer and leader this is especially true.  Every day, people use products that we design or processes we’ve streamlined.  If our work is not precise, our products will not be either.

Therefore, it is not OK for us to settle.  Your work is your reputation.  It is what you will be known for.  If you produce inadequate work time and time again, that is that people will come to expect from you.

If however, you strive for excellence – time and time again, that is what you will be known for.  And what others will come to rely on you for.


Mistakes will Happen

Mistakes will happen.  In life. In leadership. In engineering.

Despite your best efforts and despite your best intentions, things will not happen exactly as you plan them.  Expect the unexpected. Be agile. Be flexible. Be ready to shift gears when there is an urgent change.

And most importantly, when mistakes do happen – learn from them.  Don’t remain stagnant. Continue to grow, and learn and develop. Some of your best breakthroughs and opportunities will come from what at first seems like a failure.


Don’t wait for perfection.  


While we should strive for excellence in what we do, we should not expect perfection.  Perfection will never come.  Instead start.  Go for it, give it your all and strive for excellence. Use your people skills.  Be there for others and let others be there for you. Learn from your mistakes.

And next time – Fail better!

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