Learning is Hard, but Necessary

Mark Wehde, MS, MBA

Mayo Clinic, Division of Engineering

TEMS Leadership and Management of People and Organizations (LMPO) TAC

I recall as a young engineer being told by my mentor that most engineers learn one technology in school and then progress to other technologies throughout their careers until they are no longer able to invest the energy into learning yet another. Early electrical engineers who learned to design electronics with tubes had to transition first to transistors and then to integrated circuits. Not all made the leap.

Engineering management is no different. We learn from the mistakes others have made before us. I ask, what does an organization look like, how does it benefit, when it has a set of leaders that are open, curious, and committed to learning? How does the organization change when the culture changes? If we want to encourage people like that to succeed, how do we give them access to like-minded individuals, to training, and provide them recognition for their special breed of leadership.

I’m going to suggest that there are 3 major components to learning: study, discussion, and application.

Study to many is an innate part of their character. They will dive deeply into any subject which draws their attention and strive for excellence in all that they do.

Discussion is important because as a student we are often blind to what we do not know. We learn without context and make generalizations when none are warranted. A process of collegial inquiry and cooperative mentoring allow the student to accelerate their learning through the experience of others.

Application is essential, as without deliberate practice new learning is rapidly lost. Knowledge that is acquired must then be transferred through analogy or metaphor to actual situations. Knowledge is only powerful if it can be applied. As students we must all take what we have learned and apply it to our own circumstances.

Many managers choose not to prioritize learning. They mistakenly believe that they don’t have time. In truth, that often means they are trying to solve a problem that has already been solved. In the end, that costs more time than it saves.

There are group of leaders who are intrinsically motivated to improve and excel. I don’t believe any particular rung on the management ladder is likely to have more or less. It just seems to me that there are some people who have arrived and are changed only by a force of nature. And there are others who are always on a journey, occasionally plateauing, and then continuing on.

I envision a group for those on that journey. The IEEE Technology and Engineering Management Society is a place for us to find kindred souls and to sometimes get a look ahead and sometimes a chance to reflect a bit on where we have come from. I don’t believe that this can be anything other than an organically grown organization which those of us on the journey find useful, a place we return to on a regular basis. We need to self-select.

I’m reading a great book right now called the 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. It talks about leading above the line. Leaders above the line are open, curious, and committed to learning. Leaders below the line are closed, defensive, and committed to being right.

We all think of ourselves as above the line. But we aren’t. We need to be truthful with ourselves. Maybe at the end of the day, that is what leadership really is. The ability to be truthful with ourselves, honest with our staff, and true to our values. The worst thing is to be below the line and not know it. Because then you can’t change.

Mark Wehde is Section Head of Technology Development within the Mayo Clinic Division of Engineering. His team develops custom medical and research devices. Mark has a faculty position in the Quality Academy, in the Office of Leadership and Organizational Development, and in the Mayo Biomedical Engineering and Physiology graduate program. He is also an adjunct lecturer for the University of Wisconsin Consortium MBA program. Mark is a juror for the national Medical Design Excellence Awards, a technical committee member for the IEEE International Symposium on Medical Measurements and Applications, and a board member for the non-profit Pediatric Device Innovation Consortium. Mark has an MBA, a MS in Biomedical Engineering, and a BS in Electrical Engineering.

About the author

Ravikiran Annaswamy

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