tired of engineering, want to learn MBA-level social skills. how?
September 3, 2014 7:57 PM   Subscribe

So, I've been doing mechanical engineering for ~6 years now and it's becoming apparent that I could do a lot better (for myself, for others) with truly top-notch social/leadership/networking skills. What's a good way to gain these skills?

I usually read books and high-quality articles to learn things, because I've found having a lot of stored knowledge is really useful. For any given problem, it's much faster/better to look up and remember the answer, not to bother other people who may or may not know. I naively thought that the "right thing to do" was to store up information so that I could effectively "solve important problems and help people." I'd like to think I've done that reasonably well in my last few projects (R&D design/prototyping).

But, I realized I'm not saving the world. Instead, I'm just enriching less-technical people. I can't do what I want with just my current skillset, so I want to become a businessman.

Examples of how it's better to be a businessman:
- The US patent system appears to primarily "de-risk" technology for business people, not help everyone by encouraging innovation.
- I know two people of equal (high) ability, one with an MBA and the other with an engineering PhD. The one with the MBA makes over five times as much despite being selfish/dishonest.
- At one job I had, the engineer promoted to a middle management opening was the most politically-inclined and least technically-inclined engineer on the team. His contempt for technical details caused two of the skilled technical people to quit, but senior management thinks he's doing a great job.
- At another job I had, the senior management and sales staff were located off-site in a much nicer location.
- I thought entrepreneurs were small teams of highly competent nerds who used technology leverage to help a lot of people. Instead, it appears the true definition of "entrepreneurship" is "getting things done with resources you don't control" by having excellent business skills. Specifically, I know several "entrepreneurs" who are my age, acquaintances who I've met several times. The "entrepreneurs" are technically weak but great at talking with polish, so they convinced people to give them money and convinced engineers (the people I'd consider the real entrepreneurs) to work for them for much less money. Each of these "entrepreneurs" is now part of a "startup" with several million dollars of funding. I resent these people for having much higher income and social status than me, despite having inferior technical skills.
- Hardly any US congresspeople or presidents have engineering backgrounds. Does this mean it's not important to understand engineering?
- Many startups that succeed (e.g. Apple) are a partnership of a businessman and a technical expert. The businessman typically ends up richer and more famous.

So, I want to learn top-level social skills (ideally, equal to a typical technology-company CEO or top-10 MBA graduate). I've got a long way to go, but I don't mind if it takes years to get to that point.

What's a good approach to take here? Options that occur to me are:
- Take leadership roles in local charities, then organize some charity projects, then apply to top business schools
- Be nicer to everyone (make more friends by thinking of fun/nice things for others)
- Be less nice to everyone (ask for everything I want using good salesmanship)
- Do a Donald Trump impression 24/7 (be selfish but truly believe that what I want is also what's best for others)
- Give up and try to make up for social awkwardness with excellent technical skills (i.e. build a startup that doesn't require outside funding or actually talking to customers).
- Give up and accept never truly being an equal in the capital-owning class

Basically, I want to have the social/business skills needed to be an "entrepreneur": to convince people to give me money and/or work for me. How do I do this?
posted by sninctown to Work & Money (12 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Toastmasters would be a good way to develop social and leadership skills
posted by exois at 7:58 PM on September 3, 2014

I recently listened to The Teaching Company's audio course How Conversation Works and highly recommend it. It doesn't address all of the issues in your question but should go a long way towards making you more likable in your face-to-face interactions.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:33 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

My husband has an MBA from Thunderbird, and he used to work for Tony Robbins before that. He just doesn't have it in him to be aggressive. He likes working one-on-one with people and he can't manipulate them or bullshit them into buying something.

That said, he has had some success in consulting with small to medium businesses and teaching them better practices and how to grow. He knows a lot about sales and sales forces, and how to motivate people.

I've worked for a lot of companies with engineers, sales people, and people with military backgrounds. The people who succeeded were often bullshitters and were not great, but could present themselves as great. The sales people were people who went out and pounded the pavement and made cold calls and made relationships a part of their daily lives (aka Harvey McKay). The bullshitters promised the moon and left the rest of us to pick up the pieces.

You have to examine yourself and your values. Do you want to sell? What do you want to sell? Your skills? Your knowledge? And how do you want to sell that? Via another job or consulting? And why the hell are you comparing yourself to an MBA when you are a mechanical engineer? That is apples to oranges, man. Does not compute. Have you looked at jobs in trade magazines? Because you haven't really been in your industry long enough to be complaining, frankly. 6 years? My FIL was an Electrical Engineer for 40 PLUS years. Why are you even questioning this or comparing yourself to these other career paths without exploring your own?
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 8:41 PM on September 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I also have to say - check your values. Right now it sounds like you value recognition and money and, sadly, it sounds like you are leaning into "the ends justify the means" mentality. Is that the person you want to be in 30 years? Do you want to be Donald Trump?

What DO you want?

Do you want to do this? Do you want to play this game? It is ass-kissy, politicking, tide-reading etc. It's manipulative. You have to always be "on." It is exhausting.

So ask yourself who you really are. You can only fake so much.

Ok now I'll get to your question:

Business is a game. If you want to get ahead at a specific company, find out the game played at that company. Some companies it's the BS game, some it's the sales quota game, some it's the technical game, some it's the time to market game.

You find out the game by watching the CEO and higher levels and you emulate their behavior. Be a yes man. The engineer in you will want to disagree "I cann't change the laws of physics captain!!" but higher ups don't want to hear that. Don't argue.

Business never happens at meetings - it happens in between the meetings. Figure out the social tide of the organization and surf it. Look for opportunities to use new skills and don't get caught in useless churn.

Take some acting or improv classes to think on your feet.

Learn to "get yourself out of the way"; like don't take anything personally, it's just business. You have to have the right kind of ego - driven but not easily offended.

Go to therapy. Work out childish emotions that will hold you back from being able to see reality as clearly and objectively as possible. You sound entitled and this WILL hold you back.

Never say exactly what you're thinking. As engineers we are taught to value honesty and directness. In business you are NOT direct. Be tactful.

Learn to put yourself in the other persons pov. For real. Ask yourself: how does this person see me? How will they take what I am saying?

Before you speak, or when listening to someone else speak, ask yourself: "who is saying what, to whom, for what purpose, and who benefits?" That is, try to figure out the hidden message underneath what people are saying - what they are really saying. What are they trying to get right now? I find this kind of thinking & speaking does not come easily to engineers since they're so logic oriented "say what you mean" type people.

I took a class in rhetorical communication / rhetorical analysis and it taught me all this stuff. (It's not what you think - check it out. It is the single best thing I did for my communication skills.)

I would not do toastmasters, that's the indoor peewee leagues and it sounds like you want more than that.

PS. Your company experience sounds kinda nasty and I would look for a different environment, there are other cultures out there.

PPS. All this bullshitting is bullshit. Everyone at my company laughs at the bullshitters and avoids them like the plague. No one trusts them. Focus on being a decent person and let that reputation preceed you. When others find out you're playing politic games then word will spread. You're only 6 years into your career, don't ruin your reputation now. Your question sounds naive and entitled and NOT the mindset of a truly successful person. You can fake communication for only so long but what would give you lasting change is emotional maturity. Seek that out.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 9:21 PM on September 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Your question communicates a pretty first set of values that I think a lot of technical people (myself included!) have around what kind of work is valuable work. The mantra that people who get promoted out of individual contributor roles are frequently "bullshitters" or "the least technical" or "best at politics" is how engineers build up a stronger sense of self worth in the face of evidence from the employment market that other people (doing what you perceive to be as easier work!) are being better compensated.

Those values just seem so strongly at odds with what you're trying to do here that it's hard for me to see how you're going to succeed in your mission. I think your steps are basically good ones - try to put yourself in leadership roles as often as possible, be honest with yourself about skill gaps, try different kinds of work that depend more on soft skills, etc. But as long as you view those skills as means to an end (wealth and respect) I think it's going to be hard to see it through.

Perhaps try to find mentors in those kinds of roles who you DO respect and model yourself on them? There are lots of great managers in the world who are very, very good at their jobs who do not behave like Donald Trump. If you can find someone you respect who you can learn from I think you'll do a lot better than going into it with the attitude that only people who failed at harder jobs, eg engineering, fall back on other roles. Because hey, if that's the path you're putting yourself on, that's a seriously negative self-image to manage.
posted by heresiarch at 9:23 PM on September 3, 2014 [7 favorites]

Sure, check your values and why you want to do this. That being said, this is what I've seen work for other engineers - start interacting and collaborating in your own field:
- start helping people in online forums like StackOverflow or vendor forums
- participate in an open source project and eventually in the management of that project
- start a blog or podcast, or volunteer to help with a group blog or podcast
- start going to user group meetings, and then volunteer to help with the user group, then volunteer to speak, then volunteer to lead
- submit presentations to technical conferences
- start writing a book

All these things will get you interacting with other engineers, and eventually collaborating with other engineers. This teaches you valuable skills. It will also raise your profile in the larger community of engineers. This will also teach you valuable skills, and it will probably impact your career. I can't tell you the number of folks who started with a user group or blog and ended up with an entirely new career trajectory.

This will be likely to give you the people skills to be a kick-ass technologist and leader. Wouldn't you rather be a respected technologist than a entrepreneur douchebag? At that point, you can choose to be a senior technologist or go on and move into more of a business-oriented role, say product management, or go get an MBA.

Learn people skills by working with other technologists.
posted by troyer at 9:47 PM on September 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am an Engineer, and I got an MBA. So, that's one way to do it! But I was already a social extrovert when I went into the program. The "soft skills" as we called them in the program came pretty naturally to me, and still do.

The business degree translated into a good position right out of school, for about 50% more money. But then 2008 derailed my career pretty seriously. I haven't gotten a whole lot of long term gain out of it. Possibly because I wasn't committed enough to the transformation. Think long and hard about what you are signing up for. Do you really want to dedicate your life to becoming some overpaid, overworked niche-programming consultant for a big firm? I thought I was, but when the time came to start lying my ass off to make it happen, I just didn't go through with it.

The MBA helped me a lot when it was time to start my own business. I knew what I was doing and happy to do it.

But the social skills you want to develop, well, there's lots of ways to get those. Here in China, people go out to banquets and drink a lot. Doing some Karaoke helps them losen up. Back in the US, I hear that drinking and golf are a great way to network as well. But I prefer to spend my time at hacker-spaces or tech meetups, hackathons, conferences and such. And do my drinking there.

Wish I could offer you better advice.
posted by illuminatus at 4:33 AM on September 4, 2014

Oh yeah, I do theater too. I mean, definitely not for everyone, but don't overthink it and give it a shot. I took a break from it for 10 years, and then saw that my local community college was producing Julius Ceasar for their summer Shakespeare in the park program. I saw that and said "Public communal regicide? Sign me up!". It was great. I did four more shows after that. It can really help you find your voice.
posted by illuminatus at 4:37 AM on September 4, 2014

Best answer: I think you both have several very ingrained prejudicies about MBA types that come from studying engineering- you are brilliant/can handle the technical material, so of course you are smarter than that MBA type social person! Its also a very dangerous position to hold, becuase who the hell wants to work with the know it all who also makes sure you know he knows it all?! But the soft skills- they take just as much work to develop, and are in a large part based on charisma- and we have questions on metafilter every few weeks on developing that. This one in particluar had some pretty solid/realistic answers.

I work at the intersection of MBA and PHDs (within finance) and the most important thing I can tell you is that you can NOT afford to be an asshole. Even in finance the truely egregious assholes get fired- and the analysts who are assholes, well they don't get asked back for another year.

To develop social skills- if they don't come naturally, then I highly recommend starting small- start with improv and acting classes to learn to read people. Talk to everyone you meet kindly, but learn to read facial/body language well. Work on your memory- being able to remember everyone's name/business is fantastic. Learn to lead conversations without giving up a single detail about yourself. Be interested in non techical things. Pick up a sport or start working out regularly to give yourself the physical selfconfidence. Read current events throughly. Attend events on your own dime just to meet people- join professional organizations. Tutor highschool kids- they'll read right through your BS, and working with someone to truly teach them fundamental concepts will help with your patience and understanding as well as give back to the community.

All of this is a ton of work, but you'll find that the really truly sucessful businessmen/woman just consider this part of their day job. THEY DO NOT REST motherfuckers

And quite frankly, it IS important to understand engineering, and being able to do the work with rigor is a fantastic trait. It helps you build our world. However, there are many ways to build the world- policy(ie politics) is one of them and happens to be where a ton of legal power is concentrated.
posted by larthegreat at 4:43 AM on September 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

I like to do high quality work, a good job in a technical sense. But as you have observed, this is alone won't always get you what you want. People don't just care about a perfect technical solution, it is about how they are treated and about relationships.

So because I know that my default approach and strength is to focus on a high quality technical solution, I make myself start from an interpersonal approach, trusting that I will still be able to get to a good technical solution in the end.

Sometimes it feels slow and frustrating, but as I understand more about people, it actually strengthens the work I do. So I try and think: Am I developing a relationship with them, am I listening to them, am I making them feel empowered in their role?

I also found it really helpful to work for a manager who has a very extroverted and interpersonal/political approach who could demonstrate the value of a people-centred approach and coach me a bit on it.
posted by AnnaRat at 4:54 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The question I'd ask myself if I were you is this: Forget what other people are doing -- am *I* happy with my job? If not, start there, instead of trying to figure out how to get someone else's job, because you think they're more successful. People like you're describing are that way because that's just how they are. They're being authentic to themselves for the most part. If you tried to fake it, you'd be miserable.

If you like being a technically focused engineer, just be the best technically focused engineer you can, and you'll be amply rewarded for it, compared to lots of people who are working shit jobs that they hate for nothing.

If you don't like being an engineer, then find something you like to do. Don't try and copy someone you think is more successful than you because you will make more money, but you will hate everything you have to do to get it.
posted by empath at 8:08 AM on September 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the responses.

From talking to other people it also sounds possible to build theses skills through work experiences. Sales - carrying a bag, and getting criticized and rejected by customers - is the most direct way. Project management - persuading people to do what I want even when I'm not their supervisor - will also help.

The linked thread about charisma was interesting. It also sounds like I should figure out what I want, and recognize that social skills are not necessarily zero-sum.
posted by sninctown at 1:15 PM on December 13, 2014

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