Skip to Content

Summary: How Successful Engineers Become Great Business Leaders by Paul Rulkens


In this comprehensive, unusual work, engineer and performance expert Paul Rulkens provides expert advice, background information, pragmatic tips and solid insights specifically to engineers seeking a successful transition into the world of business leadership. He explains how engineers can use their skills to build a top performing corporate culture. Rulkens serves engineers who are moving into the business world as well as leaders who want team members with an engineering background to succeed in a business environment.


  • Nearly a third of Fortune 500 CEOs have an engineering background.
  • Use three “power laws” to leverage your engineering talents and skills in business.
  • Use the building blocks of “clarity, focus and execution” to achieve your business goals.
  • Focus on revenue growth.
  • As the ultimate pragmatists, engineers can excel in the business world.
  • If you’re spinning your wheels on a stagnant project, embrace “strategic quitting.”
  • The business world works by solving problems; engineers are strategic problem solvers.

Book Summary: How Successful Engineers Become Great Business Leaders


Nearly a third of Fortune 500 CEOs have an engineering background.

Can engineers become business leaders? Yes. In fact, nearly one in three Fortune 500 CEOs have engineering degrees. They attained corporate success through a straightforward process: Engineers become business leaders by gaining non-engineering business experience or by broadening their knowledge with additional education or training, such as obtaining an MBA. Many do both.

“Leveraging specific strengths of those with an engineering background may be the fastest and most viable pathway to leadership success.”

Unfortunately, both these career strategies can carry major downsides for engineers. Gaining the necessary experience can require decades of hard work. And, many MBA programs offer cookie-cutter curricula that work for salespeople, accountants and lawyers, but may not prove useful for engineers.

Engineers have an alternative course, however. Carefully position yourself within your corporation or industry, so you can make a smooth transition from the engineering side to the business side. This requires astute planning and adroit career positioning, but it is more efficient than spending your adult life striving to gain the necessary engineering expertise and reputation to open the doors of the executive suite.

Use three “power laws” to leverage your engineering talents and skills in business.

Engineers who want to become business leaders can embrace three essential power laws: “prime location, prime time and prime knowledge.”

  • Prime location – Joshua Bell, the famous concert violinist, offers the perfect illustration of the power law of prime location. On January 12, 2007, Bell descended into the Washington, DC, subway system dressed as an ordinary passenger. For 45 minutes, he played his violin for tips as a street performer. In that 45 minutes, Bell earned a paltry $30. A few weeks later, he played his violin for a packed, enthusiastic audience at Carnegie Hall. The crowd greeted Bell’s virtuoso performance with joy and acclaim. The power of location made all the difference. To elevate your business career, determine where your skills can have the greatest impact and gain the greatest recognition.
  • Prime time – Airplane pilots distinguish themselves on takeoff and landing and during emergencies. The rest of the time, they monitor the autopilot and things stay pretty routine. On January 15, 2009, however, US Airways Airbus A-320 pilot Chesley Sullenberger was forced to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River. He made a perfect landing, saving the lives of everyone aboard with no injuries to his passengers or crew. That landing – despite Sullenberger’s decades of experience – became the prime time moment of his career.Consider when and how your prime time moment might arrive and how you will maximize its impact by rising to the occasion.
  • Prime knowledge – Bill Gates noted that a lathe operator with superior experience can earn a wage several times larger than that of a lathe operator with limited experience. Gates then noted, in contrast, that a great software writer can earn 10,000 times what an average software writer earns. The value of prime knowledge makes the difference. Ask yourself what extra know-how would have a major multiplier effect on your business leadership career.

Use the building blocks of “clarity, focus and execution” to achieve your business goals.

Business growth should be an engineer’s top business goal. You have three excellent tools for reaching this goal: Clarity, focus and execution.

Having clarity about your goal enables you to take a practical, detailed approach and make the necessary connections and plans.

“The differences between a successful engineer and a great business leader are better skills and behaviors to solve different problems and achieve different goals.”

No business can expect to reach ambitious goals without stating them clearly, so everyone involved can understand. A story from Albert Einstein’s life illustrates this vital point. Though he was a brilliant theoretical physicist, Einstein was not a good mathematician. When he was developing his groundbreaking theory of relativity, Einstein showed great practical intelligence by filling his team with exceptional mathematicians.

Focus on revenue growth.

Focus – paying close attention to a subject – is essential in the business world. Today, corporate leaders – including engineers – tend to exercise a more short-term focus on achieving goals compared to leaders in earlier eras. Modern corporate goals are far more tightly circumscribed than similar goals were in decades past.

“Marcus Aurelius, the Roman philosopher and emperor, observed that the secret of winning lies in the organization of the non-obvious.”

So where should modern engineers morphing into business leaders focus their attention today? The answer is clear: Revenue growth, followed by strategic planning, innovative practices and organizational performance.

Business leaders define their success according to how much they increase their firm’s revenues. Other corporate goals pale in comparison. Of course, revenue growth depends on developing more customers at a price point that still enables you to turn a profit, so attracting more buyers – efficiently – is a core leadership responsibility.

As the ultimate pragmatists, engineers can excel in the business world.

Engineers are practical by nature, and their pragmatism can help their organizations execute. However, cultures that excel at execution don’t develop overnight. They require considerable planning, vision and communication. For example, engineers can use storytelling and evocative language to encourage an execution culture and become models of attuned, disciplined, aware and focused executive behavior.

“In business, there are many examples of engineers stepping up to develop leadership skills and become accomplished business leaders.”

Regularly test your developmental abilities. Monitor your company’s internal activities to be sure they are working effectively.

If you’re spinning your wheels on a stagnant project, embrace “strategic quitting.”

No matter how good a corporate leader you may be, things will not always work out as you hope. Sometimes, when things go badly, the best plan is to stop what you’re doing, abandon your failed project and move on. The name of this process is “strategic quitting.”

“All-round leadership excellence is a myth.”

Why waste your time on a failing project if you can turn your attention to another project with which you know you can quickly score?

As chairman and CEO of General Electric during the 1980s, Jack Welch became a business icon. He was an effective CEO because, among other reasons, he always knew when to cut his losses. When Welch took over at GE, the giant company was a conglomerate of numerous businesses. Welch decided that if a GE corporate entity couldn’t be first or second in its market, GE would drop it. Welch believed that if you are not the top competitor in your market, you should not waste your time trying to compete.

Welch enabled GE to focus its efforts on making its top shelf businesses even more powerful and profitable. Although it may be painful, employ strategic quitting when necessary – especially regarding employees who can’t carry their weight.

The business world works by solving problems; engineers are strategic problem solvers.

Experienced engineers are great at problem solving, which makes them perfectly placed as executives who have obstacles to overcome and challenges to surmount.

“Control is an essential part of the engineering training, yet the ambitious engineer needs to let go of control and step into the unknown to achieve business success.”

Engineers who want to succeed in business should consider these issues.

  • Identify the area of business that is the best fit for your talents and skills. Once you identify it, work hard to distinguish yourself in this sector.
  • Concentrate on your talents and skills, which you can control, to minimize the factor of luck, which neither you nor anybody else can control.
  • The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward, so focus a portion of your time on higher-risk development activities, but in a deliberate and careful way. Remember that the grander your goal, the larger the obstacles you must overcome.
  • Engineers excel at “reality-based thinking, process design and accelerated learning.” Work hard to expand these capabilities and to leverage them in the business areas that will pay off most for you and your firm.
  • To become a better business leader, improve how you behave. Use your hardheaded, clear-eyed engineering perspective to figure out what new conduct you must incorporate to be a business leader. Model these new leadership attitudes so the employees you lead will adopt them as well. Watch out for adverse behaviors that may sabotage you. Ask trusted colleagues for feedback in this area and heed their advice.
  • Referrals spur new business growth. Put your engineering strengths and know-how to work to build a referral network to help you secure new customers.
  • Engineers are clear-headed, logical thinkers who look at the world objectively and dispassionately. But no engineer is perfect, including you. Be mindful about not letting biases creep into your thinking and undermine your effectiveness.
  • Accomplish the strategic goals that are most important to you and your firm as quickly as you can with the minimum expenditure of resources and energy.

As you transition into a business leadership role, ask yourself:.

  • What chunks of time are available to you as a leader, and how can you use them most productively?
  • What extra knowledge can you apply that will have a positive impact on your career?
  • For your business operations, what shouldn’t be working, but actually is? Can you reverse engineer such processes to lock in positive results?
  • Within your company, how and where can you appropriately reward productive employees?
  • What legacy do you want to establish?
  • What is the “one growth goal” that, if achieved, would have the most beneficial effect on your company?
  • What is the single behavior you can implement that will move you closer to achieving your most important strategic goal?
  • How can you best monitor your progress as an engineer becoming a business leader? And how can check the progress of your business unit?
  • How can you provide the most value to your customers and, thereby, improve your reputation within your company?
  • What is the best way to eschew symbolism and deal only in substance?
  • How can you abandon “dogmatic thinking” and think more independently?

About the Author

Former chemical engineer Paul Rulkens is an international keynote speaker and boardroom advisor. More than a million people have watched his TED Talks. He also wrote “The Power of Preeminence: High performance principles to accelerate your business and career.”


“How Successful Engineers Become Great Business Leaders” by Paul Rulkens is an insightful and practical guide that explores the transition from being a successful engineer to becoming an effective business leader. Rulkens, an expert in leadership development, shares valuable strategies and actionable advice to help engineers navigate the unique challenges they face when stepping into leadership roles. The book emphasizes the importance of developing both technical and leadership skills to drive personal and organizational success. In a concise and engaging manner, Rulkens provides a comprehensive framework for engineers to enhance their leadership abilities and create a positive impact in their professional lives.

“How Successful Engineers Become Great Business Leaders” is a must-read for engineers who aspire to take on leadership positions and make a lasting impact in their organizations. Rulkens draws on his extensive experience working with engineers and business leaders to deliver a well-rounded and practical guide that addresses the specific needs and challenges engineers often encounter in the corporate world.

One of the book’s strengths is its clear structure and organization. Rulkens takes readers through a logical progression, starting with an exploration of the mindset shift required to transition from an engineering-focused role to a leadership role. He emphasizes the importance of developing a strategic mindset, thinking beyond technical aspects, and embracing a broader perspective on business and organizational dynamics.

Throughout the book, Rulkens provides numerous real-world examples and case studies that illustrate the principles he presents. These examples not only make the concepts more relatable but also demonstrate how successful engineers have successfully made the leap into leadership positions. The inclusion of these practical illustrations greatly enhances the book’s value and makes it easier for readers to apply the concepts to their own careers.

Rulkens emphasizes the significance of effective communication and interpersonal skills for engineers aiming for leadership roles. He offers valuable insights into building strong relationships, influencing others, and leading teams. The author’s emphasis on the importance of emotional intelligence and self-awareness is particularly noteworthy, as these qualities are often overlooked in technical fields but are crucial for successful leadership.

One of the book’s notable features is its focus on continuous learning and personal growth. Rulkens encourages engineers to adopt a mindset of ongoing development and provides guidance on how to cultivate skills such as strategic thinking, innovation, and adaptability. He also offers practical tips on time management, decision-making, and overcoming common obstacles encountered by engineers transitioning into leadership roles.

While the book primarily targets engineers, its principles and advice are relevant to anyone seeking to enhance their leadership abilities. Rulkens’ writing style is accessible and engaging, making the content easily digestible for readers with varying levels of leadership experience.

In conclusion, “How Successful Engineers Become Great Business Leaders” is a valuable resource for engineers who aspire to become effective leaders. Paul Rulkens’ expertise shines through in his practical advice, actionable strategies, and relatable examples. This book equips engineers with the necessary tools and mindset to navigate the challenges of leadership, enabling them to make a meaningful impact in their organizations. Whether you are an engineer on the cusp of a leadership role or an experienced leader seeking to refine your skills, this book is a worthwhile investment in your professional growth.

Alex Lim is a certified book reviewer and editor with over 10 years of experience in the publishing industry. He has reviewed hundreds of books for reputable magazines and websites, such as The New York Times, The Guardian, and Goodreads. Alex has a master’s degree in comparative literature from Harvard University and a PhD in literary criticism from Oxford University. He is also the author of several acclaimed books on literary theory and analysis, such as The Art of Reading and How to Write a Book Review. Alex lives in London, England with his wife and two children. You can contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Website | Twitter | Facebook

    Ads Blocker Image Powered by Code Help Pro

    Your Support Matters...

    We run an independent site that is committed to delivering valuable content, but it comes with its challenges. Many of our readers use ad blockers, causing our advertising revenue to decline. Unlike some websites, we have not implemented paywalls to restrict access. Your support can make a significant difference. If you find this website useful and choose to support us, it would greatly secure our future. We appreciate your help. If you are currently using an ad blocker, please consider disabling it for our site. Thank you for your understanding and support.