The Happy Engineer Podcast

143: How to Quickly Operate and Succeed at Work with Dr. Robert Santer | Navigating an Engineering Organization

Do you have a compass to navigate the engineering organization? What are the tools and frameworks we need to quickly operate and succeed at work?

In this episode, skip ahead 40 years of experience and learn from someone else’s mistakes what it takes to succeed at work with Dr. Robert “Bob” Santer.

Bob knows that transitioning new engineers into professionals who can blend in and contribute to the technical organization is, at best, doubtful.

Worse still, you and I both know that even a decade later as engineering managers, we still have huge gaps in what it takes to succeed outside our technical acumen!

Bob has his PhD in Engineering from the University of Michigan, GO BLUE! He has over 40 years of domestic and international industry experience in the aerospace and automotive fields as an engineering management professional, including Boeing and the Ford Motor Company.

If you love to learn, and you want to succeed as an engineering leader, then you’ll love Bob’s rigorous organizational framework to operate from.

He delivers guidance using a dual approach of academic insight and decades of hands-on professional experience.

So press play and let’s chat… it’s amazing how fast you can go when you navigate with the right compass!

Join us in a live workshop for deeper training, career coaching 1:1, and an amazing community!  HAPPY HOUR Workshop Live with Zach!


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Previous Episode 142: Special Thanks and Special Announcement You Don’t Want to Miss


Building a Successful Engineering Career: From Technical Skills to Mindset and Organizational Fit

In this episode of The Happy Engineer Podcast, Dr. Robert Santer and I dive deep into the challenges faced by engineers in organizations, the importance of self-awareness, and the skills needed for success.

Here are the top three insights:

1. Knowing Yourself Matters: Understand your strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, and values. They shape the work you do and the advice you give. It’s not a straightforward process, but a messy and subjective journey that requires self-reflection.

2. Embrace Contingency and Questions: Shift from the mindset of one right answer to embracing the idea of contingency. In engineering, answers depend on various factors and circumstances. Asking questions and challenging assumptions is essential.

3. Navigating Your Career: Transitioning from academia to the professional engineering world requires different skills. Observing, analyzing organizational dynamics, and understanding hidden relationships are crucial. Be curious, listen, and take time to gather information before sharing opinions.

To go deeper and build an action plan around these points and why all this matters, click the podcast above and listen to the entire conversation.



With over 40 years of diverse industry experience in aerospace and automotive sectors, Dr. Robert M. Santer is a seasoned engineering management professional. His extensive career at Boeing and the Ford Motor Company encompassed various facets, including aerospace and automotive engineering, product design, organizational development, research, and technology futuring. He played a pivotal role in international automotive design and production across the United States, Europe, and Asia, notably representing Ford in global governmental outreach. Recently concluding his tenure as Chief Product Analyst for Ford’s Chief Technology Officer, Dr. Santer holds a PhD in Engineering Management from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and has actively contributed to academia, serving as a Lecturer in Engineering Management. His expertise extends to senior management presentations and speeches, with a track record of over 400 briefings to major national governmental leaders and international audiences.



Please note the full transcript is 90-95% accuracy. Reference the podcast audio to confirm exact quotations.

[00:00:00] Zach White: Happy engineer. Welcome back. And you’re in for a treat today. I’m pumped for this conversation. Bob, welcome to the show. Thanks for making time to be here, man. Hey, I’ve been 

[00:00:10] Dr. Robert Santer: looking forward to this for quite some time. Thanks for having me. 

Expand to Read Full Transcript

[00:00:13] Zach White: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. I’m really excited. So, Bob, you released the book, Navigating the Engineering Organization.

[00:00:22] A new engineer’s guide. And when I saw it, I immediately thought, Holy smokes, everybody needs to have a conversation with Bob Santer because most of the coaching that I do involves some aspect of feeling lost inside of engineering organizations or knowing how to navigate. Our career and the fact that those career building skills are totally different than the engineering skills that we get taught in school.

[00:00:52] And I just thought, man, here’s, the textbook. You literally wrote the book on this topic. So I’m so excited, but before we talk about the content of the book and what you’ve learned over decades of experience yourself, I was hoping you could take me back to one of your earliest memories, maybe at Boeing in that first.

[00:01:13] position where you had the realization what I learned in school is not enough for this situation. Like, I’m missing a piece of the story that your book is now designed to fill in the blank. But when was that first moment you can remember where it’s like, they didn’t teach me this in 

[00:01:33] Dr. Robert Santer: undergrad? About day three.

[00:01:36] Day three, okay, what, what happened? Well, I was in a design area, mechanical design area, and my very first assignment was to compare two compressors that were going to be used on a fighter jet. Two contending designs, and my supervisor asked me to just do a weight estimate between the two

[00:02:01] compressor designs. And, I’m ready. You know, I, I go out there, and I’m ready to grab. Grab all the information and I do a very careful analysis. I, my weight estimate is to three decimal places. I mean, it’s, it’s something I want to show them my technical chops. The next morning at eight o’clock, the supervisor comes up to me and says, so what’d you find out?

[00:02:24] And I said, well. Design A is, 31. 275 pounds. And he says, well, what about the, uh, the other one? I said, well, I haven’t gotten to it, but I think I’ll have it by the end of the day. And he looks at me and he says, what? He says, we’ve got to report out this result in one half hour at 830. You mean you tell me you’ve only got half the assignment done?

[00:02:47] And I go, yeah. And he’s all man. Well. We got to tell him something. So we go to the meeting with the chief program manager. My boss makes the presentation because, you know, it’s bad news. He says, we don’t have only half the answer and the boss is annoyed, but he says, okay, I want to see it at the end of the day and I go back to my desk.

[00:03:13] And I learned two things. Number one, The estimate, it was not about an estimate to three decimal points, it was maybe a tenth of a pound. And secondly, it needed to be a back of the envelope, estimate. It didn’t need all, all that. And third, I didn’t know when it was due. And, and I, and I didn’t know enough to ask the question, when is this due?

[00:03:44] Right. And to what level of accuracy, and the boss assumed I knew this by osmosis. He’s very busy person. And so he was not glued in to train me. He assumed you’re running a lean and mean. So two big errors in my very first meeting. Wow. 

[00:04:05] Zach White: Day three. That is a, that’s a I

[00:04:11] just would feel terrible. Yeah. 

[00:04:13] Dr. Robert Santer: Well, what I came away with is something called the paradox of promotion. And here’s the idea, that what… Got you to a level of success, what knowledge, what skills you have, basically becomes when you get to the next level, become pretty much instantaneously obsolete. Those skills that you had to get the position are not the skills you need.

[00:04:40] to move on in the position and you have to learn quickly to a new set of skills as fast as possible. And it’s a paradox, it goes to anybody, but the idea that you’ve got to be ready to change quickly. 

[00:04:59] Zach White: Yes, well, sounds like you’re First manager had not done a great job of that either to have made the assumption that this day three rookie was going to know all those pieces.

[00:05:11] Right. So this is interesting before we, cause I know there’s. Amazing list of topics around even just what you said, paradox of promotion. And I went through the table of contents of your book and there’s about 50 things I want to talk about with you today. We’re not going to have time for all of them. I just want you to maybe frame it for us, Bob.

[00:05:31] If we call our engineering degree. What we learned in undergrad or our master’s or PhD, you know, the knowledge, the academia basis. If that’s what it takes to do engineering problem solving or, or, you know, the nuts and bolts of the career, what do you call the, the body of knowledge or the skills and tools of, of your book then?

[00:05:54] how do you discern or distinguish the two? What would you call this other side? 

[00:05:59] Dr. Robert Santer: well there’s really, the book has two sections. One is the, the visible organization, that’s the formal organization, that’s the resources, that’s the talent, and so on, but equally important is the hidden organization, the invisible organization, uh, it’s common name is culture, and frankly when I started out, um, didn’t believe culture existed.

[00:06:25] I was absolutely A plus B equals C, you are judged by your technical performance. Uh, and that was it. Instead, I found out… that over time the hidden organization, the soft skills, if you will, which I, I don’t like that term, but the behavioral, the organizational skills are equally important to the technical skills, equally important.

[00:06:56] In fact, many. performance review forms, ask your supervisor to judge you not only on your technical performance. Were you able to technical knowledge, but also how do you fit in the organization? And that fit is key and is many times is weighted equally to the technical So it’s a very, very important, insight for me, and I think for many people.

[00:07:24] Mm 

[00:07:24] Zach White: hmm. What I love about your book, too, as I read it, Bob, was how that… Visible and invisible organization concept, you present what that looks like in the company context, the literal organization that we’re working within, but also as a single person, like my mindset. And the values and the beliefs that I bring as being that sort of invisible part of myself and the visible part of my behaviors and actions within that organization.

[00:07:55] So it’s really cool how you’ve sort of scaled the concept not just to the company lens, but all the way down to how I show up within that company. And I have a visible set of actions and behaviors and an invisible set of mindsets and beliefs that I bring. as well. So I think that that was really impactful to me as I looked at your book, the way it’s structured.

[00:08:17] can’t only focus on the tangible, the physical, visible side, the invisible matters as well. So tell me for you. If you’re a student coming out of school right now, and you’re getting that first, it’s day three at Boeing, here in 2023, what would be the most important starting point to begin to pick up this entirely different body of knowledge and skills that were not taught in 

[00:08:46] Dr. Robert Santer: undergrad?

[00:08:46] it’s a great question because there’s a number of skills that you need to apply immediately. It’s a number of things, but, one of the most important things is to be a sponge, to witness and look and try to analyze what the people around you are saying, doing, behaving, because that’s your first cue.

[00:09:10] As to what the, what’s going on in the particular organization you have, how formal or informal it is, who’s in charge, who’s really in charge. The organizational chart is basically useless. because it doesn’t map out. The real relationships going on. And that’s really, really important to get that.

[00:09:33] so there’s a number of things. Be curious to what is what’s going on. Talk to people and then listen, ask questions, but listen, and don’t be so quick to throw in an opinion. Yet your first 6 months, you’re on an information gathering task. You’re not, uh, kind of Just listen at there will be plenty of time in your career to make opinions, right?

[00:10:02] Right? 

[00:10:04] Zach White: Your first week on the new job right out of undergrads not that the day 

[00:10:07] Dr. Robert Santer: for no, no because frankly frankly, if you do just between you and me if you do come up with a Opinion like that. They won’t say it but the older engineers may say Who the heck are you to give an opinion here?

[00:10:23] You have no cash. Yeah, you don’t know what you’re 

[00:10:24] Zach White: talking about. Oh man, that’s, okay. this idea of being a sponge. Bob, like it sounds really easy, and yet, I know for a fact that there were plenty of days when I was junior that I did not act that way. And I’ve seen, as an engineering leader myself, lots of people come in who don’t show up that way.

[00:10:44] And it seems so easy. Like, why, what makes it hard for somebody to take on that kind of an approach? what’s the barrier? Is it because of how we’re taught or conditioned? Is it a personality thing, do you think? Like, what? What is it that would make it hard for someone to apply that insight? 

[00:11:02] Dr. Robert Santer: Well, it’s, we are never taught this.

[00:11:06] We are never really taught to investigate. The people around us or the situation. I view it sometimes as, you as an engineer becoming a anthropologist to witness the group around you and try to make some conclusions or an investigative reporter who comes in and says, okay, this is what’s going on.

[00:11:29] And why?

[00:11:31] It’s hard for us because we don’t have necessarily the skills and this is something if ethnographics we have no doing ethnographics is require skill and requires practice, and we tend not to have that. Plus, I think there’s a natural tendency. We come out of college with more of a technical approach Point of view than a, behavioral point of view.

[00:11:59] we as engineers tend to stick with the facts, stick with the facts. Well, facts are relative, okay? Not all facts are the same. You know, 1 plus 1 we all know is 2. but there’s a big assumption in there when you say 1 plus 1 equals 2, and the answer is, well, that’s assuming base 10 numbers.

[00:12:21] 1 plus 1 equals 10 in a base 2. So we always assume a number is in base 10, but if you’ve got a situation that’s base 2, you are wrong. You’re 

[00:12:33] Zach White: in a world of hurt. Okay, this is a great segue to one of my favorite sections of your book, Bob. You have a piece in there that says, Nobody Knows Anything.

[00:12:43] And when I saw that, I was like, I can’t wait to read this. And you quoted screenwriter William Goldman, and he talks about this concept that absolute and definitive knowledge No matter who it is or how long they’ve been working in engineering is impossible to acquire and use. And I was wondering if you could expand on that concept that nobody knows anything and maybe relate it to a moment in your own career experience.

[00:13:12] How this shows up in real 

[00:13:15] Dr. Robert Santer: life. we, I think as engineers tend to want to. convert everything into a quantitative entity, a number, something that’s measured, okay? And the measure is assumed to be totally accurate and totally truthful. and there are many, many variables in the typical, for instance, decision making, there tends to be, well, we have this variable, this variable, this variable, but we convert it to a number.

[00:13:46] We do a max min calculation on it. And here’s the number. within each of those numbers are assumptions and guesses. when doing a customer survey, they said, Oh, between 1 and 10. How did you like this product? Well, that’s incredibly inaccurate. Okay, because the people are telling you perhaps what you want to hear.

[00:14:12] So they’re being nice people and they affirm your design or whatever you’re asking them. andthere’s many, many, many factors that go into even The simplest decision, but we tend to not be aware of those assumptions or those boundaries. Yeah. And as a result, we simplify decision making to the point where we come up with a wrong decision.

[00:14:37] Okay. And as a result, you didn’t know anything about the decision . 

[00:14:43] Zach White: Bob, is there any moment from your career history that stands out where you thought you knew something, but the truth is you didn’t know anything. Oh, yeah. 

[00:14:51] Dr. Robert Santer: God. Yeah. The, uh, I used to be an aerodynamicist for a major automotive company where we would design vehicles for maximum aerodynamic benefit.

[00:15:02] And you’re working with a designer, a stylist. And so here I am, an engineer. You know, a numerically based guy. I’m in a wind tunnel with the designer and, uh, I do some changes to the vehicle that reduce the drag and prove fuel economy saves oil. And, uh, I’m very happy. I’m full of myself because it worked and the designer who’s with me says, I can’t let you do it.

[00:15:30] And I said, Sure, I have the data right here. And he says, Yeah, but it makes the car ugly.

[00:15:38] It’s ugly. I can’t let you do this, you know, and, uh, uh, we went to the vice president to argue it out with him and, uh, the vice president said to me that, well, Bob, it’s just not appropriate to the looks of the, of the vehicle. And my stylist says, you see, I told you it was ugly. 

[00:15:58] Zach White: Oh, man, Bob, I have a story just like that.

[00:16:00] I was working at Whirlpool on a kitchen. Products, ovens, freestanding ranges in particular. We were developing a new line that had the control rather than in the back. It was up front and we were doing this packaging study on how are we going to fit this control and the touch screen in this space and some thermal requirements to in terms of temperatures that we could have.

[00:16:25] We basically Came back and said, look, we’re going to have to bring this forward towards the customer. You imagine standing in front of the oven. It was going to protrude a little bit more out. I think it was, Bob, we’re talking, I think it was maybe eight to 10 millimeters. I mean, it was not a big number, right?

[00:16:41] It was not a big number. And we said, Hey, we need to change the whole contour of the front edge of this oven to accommodate the control. And same thing, the design team who I have deep respect for. They have a tough job, but they pushed back, said, no, no, no. you cannot move the. The a surface of this design.

[00:16:57] It is sacred. All things. We said, it can’t, this is stupid. It can’t be sacred. It’s like eight millimeters, right? Like move it. You know, it’s like, it’s so obvious, right? Oh man. Same thing that escalated all the way to the general manager. And we had this big discussion and the project director is in there.

[00:17:13] Everybody’s in there. Sure enough. Asurface wins, engineers go back to the drawing board. We had to re engineer the whole thing and put that electronic in a different spot. And it cost us, like, two months of, prototyping and delays and stuff. It was ridiculous, in my perspective. But that’s because I thought I knew, and it turns out…

[00:17:33] Nobody knows anything. Tell me, how do you take that concept? It’s kind of a fun thing to joke about around the water cooler. You know, nobody knows anything. But how does that become a meaningful principle to actually guide your career and help you earn promotions and be successful? 

[00:17:50] Dr. Robert Santer: It forces you to be humble.

[00:17:55] Okay, knowing your own limitations, and that’s one of the things that I recommend that new engineers do when they come into any new position is to know yourself, that is, take the which I know when when that time came for me to do it, I resisted. I thought I knew all about myself.

[00:18:17] But in reality, you have to know yourself. You have to know your strengths and weaknesses. Your Thoughts, your beliefs, your values, because all of that colors or impacts the work you do and the advice you give that decisions will be made. That’s incredibly important to know yourself is a very first step because that then conditions the type of calculation you might do or the type of analysis you might do and to be humble that.

[00:18:57] You don’t know it. You will never truly, truly get all factors under control. There will always be some assumptions or some boundaries out there that are unknown and unknowable. 

[00:19:14] Zach White: I love this. Bob, you’ll really appreciate. How true that’s been in our coaching. One of the exercises out of many things, you know, my, my programs for these engineering leaders.

[00:19:25] These are some of the top talent engineering leaders on the planet. You know, they’re L six L seven level and these big tech companies, they’re doing amazing things in manufacturing and every We’ll come in and we do all this stuff, right? We’re talking about productivity and we’re talking about advanced strategies from managing up the org chart and all this stuff, but when I get to the end of the program and ask these engineers, what was the thing that had the biggest impact for you over these last 90 days of immersion and training and coaching?

[00:19:54] The most common answer is the core values and purpose exercise. this just knowing yourself at a deeper way and for most of them, they’ve never really explored that topic to the depth that we take them to. I mean, we really, really peel back the layers. And I, I think it’s surprising to them because they’ve done all the personal development stuff.

[00:20:17] They’ve read all the books. They’ve, you know, they’re 20 years into their career already. And this core values exercise is what stands out as the most impactful thing for so many of them. Yeah. 

[00:20:29] Dr. Robert Santer: think, I think a lot of engineers, I know this happened to me, was that I wanted a checklist If I was gonna do an exercise on knowing myself, let me get a book, let me get a workbook, let me check the boxes, fill it all out, do the numerical scoring.

[00:20:46] Okay. Look at the, you know, it says that I’m a. This or that. I’m a, control freak or I’m not or whatever it is. instead, I, I had to kind of learn that knowing yourself is messy. It’s a messy exercise, and there’s no one right way to do it. It’s, um, what do they say? There’s many paths to nirvana. And if nirvana is knowing yourself, there are many paths, it’s not an efficiency exercise.

[00:21:20] It’s an effectiveness exercise. 

[00:21:23] Zach White: I love that. I love that. Well, speaking of no One right way. One of the other pieces that I love from your book when we talk about navigating the engineering organization was this underpinning reality of contingency theory. And I love the way you talk about this. And so would you first?

[00:21:45] Maybe define what is contingency theory, and how does that play out into how we navigate our careers? 

[00:21:55] Dr. Robert Santer: Yeah, it’s related very much to the assumptions. Contingency theory means, basically, in two words, depends. It depends. Uh, for instance, I mentioned 1 plus 1 example earlier. look at science. We say how, uh, how many planets are in our solar system?

[00:22:17] And it says, well, it depends. If you were before 1938, there were eight from 1938 to 2009. There were nine. And then after 2009. They’re back to eight again. Now, somebody didn’t go out there and blow up Pluto, okay? It just was re re categorized by a bunch of scientists in a room in Geneva, Switzerland. So, it depends.

[00:22:48] Day of the week, or what is the date? Well, it depends today. We know what the date is. We’ve assigned it. But before 1586, The day of the week was, or the date was actually two weeks before, because the, the scientists of the day said that, well, we’ve been miscalculating the movement of the planets and movement of the stars.

[00:23:17] Therefore, We’ve got to make up the difference. It’s about two weeks of, difference we’ve got to make. So the Pope, the Roman Catholic Pope at the time said, well, effective on next Monday, we’re actually going to be not the 17th, but the 27th or whatever it is. 

[00:23:33] Zach White: Wow. I forgot about that. That’s a really, that’s a really interesting.

[00:23:37] piece of history that I had, I’ve heard before, but I completely forgot about that, man. Okay. So it, it depends. And the seasoned veteran engineers listening to us talking are going to say, of course, duh, like I’ve learned this in many cases through. The school of hard knocks. Like we get taught this just by being in our career.

[00:23:56] if you’re a young engineer hearing this, it’s like the sooner you can get out of this mindset from academia, where there’s one right answer to every problem and take on this spirit of contingency and it depends and ask questions and be curious and look at the assumptions the better. Bob, I actually want to get your perspective though.

[00:24:17] If I move through my career and fast forward. I’ve gotten a few promotions, I’ve been in things for a while. One of the challenges my clients often face is at some point they get into a room with a more executive level of leadership. And everybody gets really grouchy about the engineering answer, it depends.

[00:24:37] Like, stop telling me it depends, we need a decision or we need a direction. I’m kind of curious for you, how do you relate the two concepts? And, and how would you see that tension where it’s like, at the beginning we need to come off of. One right answer and learn about contingency theory, but it seems like when you get towards the end of your career People want you to go back to having one right answer again.

[00:24:59] Would you agree with that? Or how do you see that play out? 

[00:25:01] Dr. Robert Santer: many answers Have an element of nuance in them and management, especially engineering management may not want to Perceive they don’t want to deal with the nuance. I would need an answer because there’s only so much Space in my brain to be able to process the information.

[00:25:22] I mean, management supervisors, managers, directors, executive directors, vice presidents. there’s not a lot of bandwidth available to them to process large amounts of information and especially information that is coming fast and needs to be acted on fast. Right. So they ask for it to be, I don’t want to say dumped down, but give me the bottom line.

[00:25:47] Give me the bottom line. It’s important that as an engineer making that kind of report that you briefly say at least ahead of time. Well, assuming This condition, this condition, and this condition is in play here, then, here’s our best judgment of what the answer is, but to basically put the boundaries in place, because people, if you don’t put the boundaries and make them explicit, people will then, extrapolate the answer to say, Hey, Well, that’s for all cases.

[00:26:25] And, you know, it’s not true. So being able to, even though the boss may not like it, because I’m busy, I’m distracted. So to bring it to their attention, it’s your responsibility as an engineer to communicate those boundaries. You’ve done your job. If you said this, this and this based on this. Then this, so it’s part of the engineers.

[00:26:50] I want to almost want to say ethical responsibility to do that, even though you may not get a welcome response. 

[00:27:01] Zach White: There’s plenty of things we do in our engineering career that doesn’t always get a welcome response. It doesn’t make it the wrong decision. So, okay, Bob, let me. Zoom out from this for a moment.

[00:27:13] You’ve had, four decades of real experience in everything from, you know, aerospace and aviation and automotive and around the world, and you’ve seen some things, you know, big companies, small companies, huge breadth of experience. Is there anything that shows up in your book that you released recently?

[00:27:33] here it’s 2023 at the time of our recording. That. would not have been there 40 years ago. It’s something that has evolved or changed in terms of how organizations and the dynamics of this works, or in your estimation, is everything here timeless? 

[00:27:52] Dr. Robert Santer: I would say that the whole idea of the hidden organization, the culture was not.

[00:27:58] Really accepted coming up through the mid 1980s. when I started, if you talk to corporate culture, you’d be literally and figuratively laughed out of the room. because it was considered a soft skill and in spite of, you know what business education, does and so on.

[00:28:19] There’s an awful, awful lot. On the more behavioral side that we just don’t know it’s not been around that long really compared to engineering is, you know, well, over 100 years, business management, administration and, organizational behavior of Ben. late 60s, mid 60s is when it really started to be an area of academic study.

[00:28:48] So hidden organizations are pretty recent, in the big picture. 

[00:28:54] Zach White: That’s really interesting. my estimation is that Knowing and building a certain level of mastery. I don’t know if we could call anybody a true master of it. To your point, it hasn’t been around long enough, but that’s a place that’s a big differentiator in terms of who creates this, what we might call rapid development.

[00:29:12] levels of success in their career versus those who really struggle and feel frustrated constantly is in this space. Is that true from your estimation as 

[00:29:20] Dr. Robert Santer: well? Yeah, I think it’s to become not only an engineer with excellent technical skills, right, but also a bit More empathetic, for instance, you know, what’s, what’s your job in an organization, especially as a new person?

[00:29:37] Well, I, I calculate do a computation of fluid dynamics calculations and, you know, so on or, uh, FMEAs or whatever is the technical job. That’s my job. But there’s a school of thought that says, well, that’s fine, but your real purpose, your real job is to solve your manager’s problems, whatever those problems are.

[00:30:01] Your job is to solve it for them to take it off their plate. Be empathetic of the fact that any boss is, as I mentioned earlier, overwhelmed. With information overwhelmed with requirements, everything is hyperspeed, and they are under a lot of, I don’t want to say low, low, low grade stress, and they don’t have a lot of certainty.

[00:30:29] You know, the external environment that a business or a firm works in is fast and accelerating and more and more unstable. And organizations have to react to that instability. So if you can take. A piece of your boss’s problems off their plate. I think they might think highly of you. 

[00:30:54] Zach White: My, my experience validates that conclusion.

[00:30:59] does anything shift? In terms of how we apply these skills or which skills matter when you go from individual contributor to, you know, supervisor, manager, or then more executive level director and above level leadership, how would you describe the evolution of these principles as you move up the ladder?

[00:31:19] Dr. Robert Santer: it does, uh, as a entry level engineer, the emphasis, you know, 50 50 will be on technical ability and fit as you go up into, more supervisor management roles. it’s less technical and more. Managerial, which is control. Management is control. Here’s what the plan is. How are we doing relative to the plan?

[00:31:48] How’s our result? How’s our our budget doing? And so on. So management is a function. Okay. As you go higher, you turn into leadership. And leadership is not a function. It’s a relationship. Leadership is a relationship of, the leader to the people. the roles and responsibility of a leader is very different than that of a manager.

[00:32:18] And there’s obviously very different to the initial rank and file engineer or technical person. So what goes with each one of those levels is very different. there has to be continuous change and continuous thought openness to make that change over time. And I’m surprised… Back to 

[00:32:40] Zach White: your very first comment about the paradox of promotion comes back 

[00:32:43] Dr. Robert Santer: right there.

[00:32:43] Yes, it comes right back. 

[00:32:46] Zach White: you’ll hear lots of people say you’re a leader at every level. you don’t have to wait till your VP to be a leader. And I mean, that’s not what we’re talking about here. More of this idea of when you think navigating the organization and the primary Responsibility of your role shifting.

[00:33:02] That’s, you know, that’s 

[00:33:03] Dr. Robert Santer: the key to that. That’s right. You know, I understand the leaders at every level thing. Uh, and that’s a little bit different because that’s more tactical. Local, or operational than it is strategic, for instance, if you’re a, a new engineer and there’s a crisis has come to your organization, your department, it’s all hands on deck.

[00:33:26] Everybody’s got this thing and you’re not given a, an assignment as part of the crisis. Well, it’s a great opportunity to see something that needs to be done and do it without being asked. Just do it. You’re being a leader. At the most basic level, being self starting, but see what needs to be done and do it is a form of local leadership.

[00:33:53] Zach White: Love that. Bob, out of 40 years of experience, what was the most difficult moment in your career? 

[00:34:04] Dr. Robert Santer: Ethics. Ethics. Absolutely. 

[00:34:08] Zach White: Is there a story that goes with where that showed up? 

[00:34:12] Dr. Robert Santer: the book covers ethics in a, in a, with a fairly deep example and, uh, basically an engineer, uh, who’s that I know well, who is real talent and real up stand up kind of fella.

[00:34:31] he worked for a supplier to the automotive industry. And basically, they had a piece of material for a fuel line that failed a test, a specification test, and they went, they were going to have to recall a lot of this fuel line. And the head of the company says, we’re not going to do it.

[00:34:55] We’re not going to do it, because we’re going to lose too much money. And my friend said, this is dangerous. And he thought nobody will find out. And he struggled with this and tried many times to get that owner to change or reconsider. And he wouldn’t do it. So my friend left the company. He resigned.

[00:35:19] Now it’s one thing if you’re on your own. and it’s only you to. Be concerned. That’s one thing when you resign. But my friend had one small child, another child on the way. His wife was not working outside the home and they didn’t have a lot of money in the bank. Now it’s one thing to decide for yourself to leave on an ethical issue.

[00:35:45] It’s another when you come back to your spouse and you look them in the eye and you say, need. Dear, I resigned over an ethical issue. That’s when the what? Yeah, I mean, I’m so impressed with with what he did many ethical problems so that a regular person, we’re not talking about Exxon Valdez or Deepwater Horizon or all those terrible corporate.

[00:36:13] ethical problems, but personal ethical problems, the fact that you may be asked to do something that makes you uncomfortable, what will happen is many times those ethical problems will be deep down in a technical analysis, changing an assumption, changing a, a condition. That comes out to the right answer.

[00:36:37] And the other thing that’s universal is you will have no time to decide which ethical path you’re going to take. You will be asked to decide now. Now. Now. So you’ve got to have your ethics taken care of, sorted out ahead of time. You won’t have time when it comes. 

[00:36:56] Zach White: That’s a voice of wisdom right there.

[00:36:59] And I’m, I’m really glad you shared that. Super important. And. If anything matters at the end of the day, will you be able to put your head on that pillow at night and go to sleep knowing you, you lived up to the ethic that, that matters. That’s awesome. Bob, we barely even touched the tip of the iceberg of what’s in your book, Navigating the Engineering Organization.

[00:37:22] Where can people connect with you and if you have, they want to explore more or follow your work, what’s the best way for someone to do that? 

[00:37:30] Dr. Robert Santer: Well, there’s various ways. One thing, if you’re interested in the book, it’s on Amazon and Barnes and Noble or the website for the publisher, which is CRC Press, Taylor and Francis.

[00:37:43] You can go to my website, www. santergroup. com. So it’s pretty simple. www. santagroup. com Uh, I’m on LinkedIn as well, Robert Santer. Uh, so there’s a lot of different ways you can get a hold of me and I would love to hear comments from your audience as far as reactions to the book, reactions to what we’ve talked about today.

[00:38:08] it’s a spark conversations like what we’ve had today. Is not only to me important, but it’s a lot of fun. Yeah, it 

[00:38:15] Zach White: is. Yeah, it is. Okay. Happy engineer. Go connect with Bob on LinkedIn. Send him a note, let him know you heard him here on the happy engineer podcast. So he has some context and we’ll put a link in the show notes to your website and to Amazon to buy the book, get a copy.

[00:38:31] It’s it’s by engineers for engineers. You know, it reads, I really loved it. It’s so much in there. Amazing content, Bob, as we wrap it up, you know, this from your decades of experience, great engineering, great coaching, you know, these, these have in common that the questions lead and the answers follow, and we’re all looking for better answers in our careers and in our lives.

[00:38:56] So we want to ask better questions. What would be the question you would leave the happy engineer with today? 

[00:39:04] Dr. Robert Santer: What direction are you headed? And who do you want to be when you, the old thing? What do I want to be when I grow up? there’s two choices.

[00:39:14] Whenever I have a dilemma, I talked to my wife, Beth, who’s really smart. She’s very good at this type of knowledge. And I would come and talk to her about it. Dilemma I had and she would always tell me, which was great advice, Bob, would you rather be liked or respected and that sets up the whole decision?

[00:39:38] Because, you know, if you can be liked, both liked and respected, that’s wonderful. That’s a unicorns and rainbows. But most of the time, you’re going to have to make a decision Would you rather be liked or respected? And that’s a great question that comes up continuously, no matter how long you’ve been working or how many experiences you have.


[00:40:03] Zach White: love this. Where are you going? Who do you want to be when you get there? Would you rather be liked or respected? If you can have both, great, but make your decision. Bob, thank you for being here. This is so awesome. We could go all day and maybe we’ll need to come back and do a round two on the rest of these incredible subjects from your book, but I just want to say thank you for your generosity and sharing with us.

[00:40:27] It’s been awesome to have you on the show, man.