Beyond technology: Wayne Delker on the importance of engineering leadership

A unique component of the UC Berkeley Master of Engineering program lies in its leadership curriculum. Not only do students learn the technical skills they need to become successful engineers after graduation, but they also build crucial leadership and teamwork skills that give them valuable insights when it comes to both their professional and personal lives.

Wayne Delker, Director of the Corporate Capstone Experience at the Fung Institute and Interim Executive Director, shares his take on the leadership aspects of the program in this Q&A.

What is the importance of teaching leadership classes in a technical-based engineering program such as the one at the Fung Institute?

I feel there are two reasons why this is so important.

Currently universities do an excellent job at teaching the technical material scientists and engineers need to be successful. However, during my business career I have seen countless engineers struggle with how to become leaders and create high performing teams. When this occurs I’ve seen outstanding engineers either “burnout” or become pigeon-holed and provide far less value to the company than they could if they were better able to become leaders. I also want to make the point that often leadership is taken to mean leading people. However, we believe in a broader definition of leadership that also includes technology thought leadership. Both types of leadership are capable of influencing organizations and inspiring them to accomplish more than anyone thought possible.

The second reason is that the world is becoming increasingly technical and our organizations, be they corporate, government or NPOs need leaders who understand the technology and are comfortable making highly technical decisions. I believe that many of the problems the world faces can be solved through technology. Our engineering leaders can transform the world.

Our engineering leaders can transform the world.

Which type of approach do you take when teaching leadership courses? Does it differ from the way you teach other courses?

Since leadership is both art and science we need to take a different approach. First, it must be experiential. You can’t learn to lead in a classroom so we have year long Capstone projects that our students participate in. These projects are selected to be challenging enough so that the students learn how to lead through adversity and failure. We expect, actually hope, that teams will have the normal problems that come from the typical form, storm, norm, perform process so they can learn how to address and solve these problems in the safety of the Berkeley environment before they need to practice these skills in higher stakes position.

However, students also need to learn some of the skills of leadership, and have ways in which they can be coached by more experienced leaders. Consequently, we augment our Capstone course with classroom work in communications, teaming, project management and leadership and we provide a mechanism for students to get individual attending from experienced leaders.

We believe it is the combination of classwork, coaching and real life experience that builds leadership.

What is the most rewarding aspect of teaching these courses?

There is the reward of helping the students in their leadership journey and watching them grow throughout the year. We see many of our students really blossom as they learn both how to lead as well as how to be on a high performing team. However, as an ex-business executive I think my greatest pleasure is talking with our alumni about the great things they are doing after they leave us.

It is here where they will make a real difference to not only themselves and families, but also their companies and the world. What we do at Berkeley is a small part of a much longer journey leaders make that lasts throughout their career. We are proud of what we do in the beginning, but we never forget that they are the people at the center of the stage, who will make a real difference in the future. It is gratifying to be a small part of that.

As someone with experience in the field of engineering, how do you think the leadership courses at the Fung Institute help prepare students for the job field?

The courses provide the students with three major components of their education:

1. We provide specific skills like how to create a vision and plan for their team, reach out to stakeholders, identify and deal with team issues manage their project.

2. An opportunity to practice these skills in a real world experience.

3. Coaching to build self confidence that they can be successful as leaders and high performing team members.

What is your most important piece of advice for students who want to improve upon their leadership skills?

This is a hard question since one of the most important things a leader needs to learn is that there are no “silver bullets” or “the most important piece of advice” since leadership is about connecting many elements together and it is very individual. However, I can frame the leadership journey as having two major components that students should learn.

The first is to have the passion to be a leader. This means realizing that when you become a leader it is no longer about you, but it is about the mission and the team and those needs come first. You need to be be willing to subjugate your personal agenda to the team agenda. This is very hard for some people so students should be sure they are becoming leaders for the right reasons or they will be disappointed. However, leadership is very rewarding since you get to watch individuals and teams grow and accomplish things that they never felt were possible.

The second element is perseverance. Leadership is very tough work and you are going to make mistakes. You need to learn from these mistakes and continue to move boldly forward since your growth as a leader will continue for your entire life.