How to woo high-flying engineers

The Sainsbury Management Fellowship was set up to get more engineers into senior business roles

Engineering faces an image problem. Engineers may manage multimillion-pound projects, work in sci-fi style clean rooms and develop cutting-edge space technology but they remain at the distinctly unglamourous end of the graduate spectrum. Too few students are studying engineering at degree level and even fewer are going on to climb the ladder to British boardrooms - and that, in the view of Lord Sainsbury, the minister for science and technology, puts UK plc at a competitive disadvantage.

"During the Eighties, I increasingly felt that we needed to see more people in the boardrooms of British industry who had both an engineering qualification and effective management skills," recalls Lord Sainsbury, who chaired his family's supermarket chain until 1998. "I set up the Sainsbury Management Fellowship (SMF) in 1987 to test this idea by encouraging some of the UK's leading engineering graduates to get management training, which in turn would aid their advancement in UK business, particularly at senior levels."

Sainsbury, although not an engineer himself, having graduated from Cambridge with a degree in history and psychology, believes engineers possess skills that are invaluable to the running of a successful enterprise.

SMF president Paul Dolan says: "Engineers are instinctively good at project management with the added benefit of having a real appreciation of what technology can do. When you add the commercial nous that an MBA can supply, then that's a very valuable combination."

Tom Delay, who emerged from Insead in 1988 as one of the first Sainsbury Management Fellows, certainly backs this. Delay decided to study for the qualification while working for Shell in Africa. "I was being exposed to a broader business agenda but found I could not speak finance or accounting or strategy - and I realised I was going to need to speak those languages if I was going to be effective," says Delay, who returned to Shell after his year at Insead. "I would recommend an MBA to any young engineer. Even if you just want to be a very good professional engineer then the MBA will give you the ability to talk outside the engineering box credibly and professionally. And if you want to move on, it gives you that opportunity."

The Sainsbury fellows have certainly grasped the opportunities offered by the scholarship, many of them moving into senior positions in blue-chip companies or starting their own businesses.

"An MBA opens doors," says Delay, who is now chief executive of The Carbon Trust. "Most engineers are high achievers but they are usually held back by a virtual wall. The MBA allowed me to believe that I could be as effective outside the strict definition of engineering as I was within it."

Dolan agrees. "The MBA was a very valuable addition to my skill set. It gives you that extra boost to move into more senior roles or look at other options, such as setting up your own business."

There is little doubt that the Fellows are a high-flying bunch and a number have certainly fulfilled David Sainsbury's goal of populating boardrooms with engineers. David Weston, for example, is president of Shell's Canadian operations and Patrick MacDonald is CEO of John Menzies plc.

Yet a fair proportion have opted out of big business to set up their own enterprises, be it technology start-ups, consultancies or dotcom businesses.

Dolan, who as the inventor of a revolutionary chilled packaging product for food and pharmaceutical products, founder of internet business schooluniforms online and a consultant to the oil and gas industry, epitomises the many talents of the modern engineer, says this entrepreneurial vein reflects changes in the industrial make-up of the UK since the fellowship was set up 17 years ago. "Over time it became clear that the approach needed to be two-pronged: getting people into the boardrooms of big companies and getting people to set up new industries to create more wealth and more jobs," he says.

Philippa Dickenson, who attended Insead under the Sainsbury scholarship and now runs her own consultancy, The Thinking Partnership, echoes this. "David Sainsbury's vision was to help UK industry but that doesn't necessarily mean joining a FTSE100 company. Most people in the UK are employed by organisations of fewer than 100 people."

Lord Sainsbury, himself an MBA graduate from the Colombia Graduate School of Business in New York, professes himself satisfied with the evolution of the programme over time.

"An unexpected spin off has been the emergence of many innovative and pioneering start-ups, all witnessing tremendous growth," he says, highlighting Andrew Phillipps's online hotel reservations business, www.activehotels.com, which was recently sold to a US company for £90m, or Andy Doe, a serial entrepreneur with four successful business launches behind him, including Confetti.co.uk.

The programme has evolved in other unexpected ways too. "The SMF was initially set up as a scholarship scheme but it is now also an invaluable networking and support group," says the supermarket millionaire. "As the scheme continues to grow, I firmly believe that these individuals will have an increasing role to play in UK business as well as encouraging more engineers into business, through the support of fellows as mentors."

He adds: "The scheme in itself is only ever a driver of change - a spearhead of fellows to encourage more and more technical people into business. I like to see it as the starting point to greater innovation in business as opposed to an end solution."

To find out out more about the Sainsbury Management Fellowship, visit: www.smf.org.uk. Applications for the scholarship are managed through the Royal Academy of Engineering: www.raeng.org.uk/education/professional/sainsbury.htm

'I was keen to have a broader career'

Cambridge engineering graduate Phillippa Dickenson, founder of the Thinking Partnership, gained an MBA in 1988 from Insead

I was working as an engineer at Mars when I decided to do an MBA. I was keen to have a broader career and saw an MBA as a shortcut to getting the skills I needed. The MBA was one of the best things I have ever done: I was mixing with different nationalities, living abroad, and was exposed to a range of thinking and approaches.

I then joined McKinsey's, which is something I would have struggled to do without the MBA. I learnt a lot at McKinsey's but eventually I became frustrated and that's when The Thinking Partnership was born.

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