First, some background:
I had the distinct advantage of being an engineering intern at a large aerospace firm while I was a sophomore in college. It allowed me a unique viewpoint in that I was surrounded by exciting technology and incredibly accomplished people (and I knew I couldn’t be laid off, which was a plus). I viewed this time as an opportunity to learn about careers in advance of starting my own. The world was bright and full of possibilities. I soaked up as much as I could about the profession, about corporate America, and about careers in general.
It was during this time that I experienced one of the most important lessons that I have ever learned – to check one’s ego at the door.
One afternoon I was asked to join an engineering review meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to review the progress and share ideas for improvement of the 8 major components that comprised the device we were making. Each component was represented by the lead engineer. In addition, there was a project manager and myself. The 10 of us entered a conference room at 2:00PM for a 2 hour meeting.
What ensued was a lesson that I still reference today.
The engineer of component #1 stood up, gave his progress report, and stated some of the challenges he was experiencing and how he planned to solve them. The other 7 engineering leads then suggested alternative solutions and constructive criticism (and the suggestions were quite good). Upon each suggestion, however, the lead engineer of component #1 immediately shook his head and responded that his solution was superior and that there was no need to consider alternatives. The other 7 engineers became agitated that their views were not being fully considered. But the engineer of component #1 concluded his presentation and sat down. Following his presentation, the lead engineer of component #2 stood up, gave his progress report, and stated the challenges that he was experiencing. Again, the other 7 engineering leads gave suggestions and alternative solutions, but they were similarly dismissed by the lead engineer of component #2. Again, the other 7 engineering leads became agitated that their solutions were not being considered. The lead engineers of remaining 6 components, in turn, gave their presentations, listened to the suggestions and criticisms, and dismissed them. And in each case, the 7 other engineers were agitated that their views were not being considered.
In all, the “2 hour” meeting took 6 hours to complete, primarily due to the length of time that each engineer took to refute the proposed suggestions. In each case, the lead engineer expended immense effort to prove that his ideas were superior to all the others. And in each case, the other 7 engineers expended immense effort to prove that their alternative solutions were worth merit. But in each case, the engineers were willing to provide criticism but not receive it… or one could also assess that each engineer was capable of talking, but none was capable of listening!
As an intern, I found myself amused and chuckling quietly to myself. If this had been a graded exercise for one of my engineering laboratory classes, we all would have failed because while we would have succeeded in communicating ideas, we would have failed in sharing and accepting ideas for improvement. What I didn’t immediately understand was that if I, a sophomore in college, could perceive the problem, why couldn’t the lead engineers? What was the specific problem that was preventing them from learning from one another?
What was the source of the problem?
And then it struck me!
It was not about the problem or the best solution anymore… it had become all about the egos! Each engineer had committed the same mistake of allowing their ego to interfere with the exploration of a better solution. Their egos were preventing the learning process from occurring.
It became clear to me, at that point, that the key to a successful meeting (and career) is checking your ego at the door so that your mind is open to other possibilities. Leave your ego outside the conference room (or office building).
I am so glad that I learned that lesson during that day. At each stage of my career following that meeting, I have allowed for the possibility that – “for every solution I have conceived, there may be a better one.”
The biggest takeaway for me:
I have recalled this lesson time and again and it has helped me to NOT avoid criticism. In fact, I have learned to seek criticism and feedback, whether it be good or bad, at all times. For if I reach the point where I think my solutions are the best to the exclusion of all other possibilities, then I have reached the point where I can no longer learn. And if I cannot learn, then I cannot progress as a person.
Michael Markey has 16 years of engineering and software experience in various areas including aerospace, military, and commercial sectors. He currently leads a team of consultants that specialize in access control and commercialization of online content.