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ME Channels / Workforce Development

Focus on the Workforce: Constructive Engagement

Joseph J. LaRussa






Whether you're a student, a practicing professional, or an experienced leader, constructive engagement has value and will benefit you, your organization, and your network.

Constructive engagement is one of those things you do without knowing you're doing it. You do it as a part of your everyday routine. You do it at work, at church, at school, or anywhere else where there are people. It's a means of interacting that leads to positive outcomes for those who recognize it and exploit it.

As an abstract concept, constructive engagement is difficult to measure. What is certain is that there are three levels of constructive engagement that are the same no matter where or how you do it. Level one is "passive," that is, you're consuming content from a source because you believe that content has value. For a student member of SME, passive engagement could be Manufacturing Engineering magazine or the SME library resources. For a professional or a leader, passive engagement could be attending an SME event, technical group meeting, or chapter activity. All of these content sources are valuable, and make the consumer a better-informed, and therefore higher-functioning member of the engineering profession.

The second level of constructive engagement is "involved." That is, you're participating in the creation or delivery of content because you believe that others will benefit from the content's value. Because this level of engagement is other-focused instead of self-focused, it represents an escalation from passive engagement. This does not mean, however, that the involved person doesn't benefit from the engagement. The involved person is now an author, a presenter, an organizer, or a facilitator instead of an attendee or consumer. The involved person is now differentiated from others in the engineering profession. That person has gained something—something more than those who are passively engaged.

Involvement naturally progresses to a third level of constructive engagement,"leading." Leading means you are now innovating on value, and leading the creation and delivery of content that provides value. Leading is an escalation from involvement because accountability and responsibility become visible. The leader is committed, and owns the results of that commitment, good or bad. The leader becomes an example for others who, in turn, pursue this level of engagement for themselves.

Stories tend to do a better job of conveying concepts like constructive engagement, so what follows is an adaptation of one SME member's story that will show the clear progression from level one to level three, and hopefully illustrate the benefits and value of constructive engagement to him and those around him.

A 16-year-old paperboy arrives at a customer's house to collect. This is a ritual he's performed every week for five years. This customer happens to be a retired tool-and-die man, and he asks the paperboy if he's considered his college and career options yet. The paperboy tells him he has applied to several schools to pursue engineering, and that his major will likely be electrical engineering. The tool-and-die man pays the paperboy and lets him know he's making a wise decision.

Some weeks later, the paperboy returns again to collect. This time the tool-and-die man has a gift for the paperboy, a one-year membership to SME. The tool-and-die man explains that while the university will prepare the paperboy well, this membership will fill in the gaps. The paperboy accepts the gift, not really understanding the value or what gaps there will be. He thanks the tool-and-die man, who pays him and sends him on his way.

The paperboy enters university and begins to pursue his major as a student in electrical engineering. Along the way, this student finds a need to understand the practical application of what he's learning. He visits the SME library, and devours information on topics from power management to microelectronic sensors to control systems. He religiously reads Manufacturing Engineering magazine, taking in every article, because learning about electronics is more important than skimming for a catchy title. In addition to the electronics topics, he also gets exposed to machine tools, rapid technologies, and many other areas that aren't a part of his formal education. He attends some chapter functions and plant tours, anxious to see all the things he reads about in action.

After graduating, this student joins an automotive manufacturing company. He ends up doing a lot of mechanical engineering work. He's working on powertrain components made of plastic. They're injectionmolded parts, and he's very aware of the manufacturing constraints on his design because of his exposure to injection molding in all the articles he read. He continues his SME membership as a professional, and decides to go to a couple of events. At one in particular, a Management Forum, he sits down to lunch with a table of strangers. They exchange business cards, and the gentleman next to him chats about where this professional works, what his interests are, and whether he's an SME member. After a great lunchtime conversation, the gentleman asks the professional if he would mind if his information were passed along to another SME member. The professional says, "Sure," and some weeks later, the professional is asked to join a conference call to form a new technical community within SME. The professional diligently calls in, and for the most part listens more than he contributes.

A few years later, this professional interviews for a management role in his company. The interview overall goes well, but the hiring manager points out that the professional has no direct experience managing a budget or timing plan. Because of this, the hiring manager is uncomfortable putting him in a profit and loss-responsible position. The professional didn't get the job. Around the same time, SME was launching a chapter engagement initiative that included a new volunteer role called a membership consultant (MCON). The MCONs would be responsible for the health of their assigned chapters, as well as a budget for chapter engagement. The professional volunteered to be an MCON for five student chapters. He committed to a budget of $10,000, and to have all his chapters healthy within two years (as defined in the chapter planning and assessment guide).

Within 18 months, three of his five chapters were functioning and the others were on the road to health. At around this time, another management role position opened at the MCON's company. This time, he was able to directly demonstrate his experience in managing timing and a budget. He got the job.

Are the three levels of engagement visible? Is the progression apparent? His level one engagement began as a student, his level two engagement as a technical community steering committee member, and his level three engagement as an MCON. In all three stages, this member gained valuable experience that had a direct impact on his path as a professional and helped him move into management. The benefits of this constructive engagement are threefold:

  • The member develops leadership capability and advances professionally,
  • SME gains a committed and vested member leader,
  • The company gets a developed leader with virtually zero investment.

All of this because a tool-and-die man bought a paperboy an SME membership.

Quantifying the benefits of constructive engagement is admittedly difficult. If the tool-and-die man were asked to present the return on investment (ROI) for his decision to buy that paperboy an SME membership, he likely couldn't have done it. At least, not at that time. If asked today, it would probably be easy for him to do it.

Constructive engagement benefits those who are connected, and those around them. From a workforce-development perspective, this is an experience you can't buy. The skills developed are invaluable, and the collaborative nature of constructive engagement reinforces a successful recipe for achieving goals and objectives. How many times at work were you successful without collaboration with others?

Another workforce development advantage is that constructive engagement provides a leadership test bed for organizations. In the marketplace it's "sink or swim." If the organization doesn't pick the right person at the right time in the right circumstances, there is no second chance and the consequences of failure can be severe. The constructive-engagement experience, however, allows for leadership mistakes without such dire consequences. If the paperboy had failed as an MCON in the narrative above, SME would have been no worse off, because the chapters would simply remain in the condition they had reached prior to the MCON being assigned. Instead, the paperboy was able to use this experience to successfully gain demonstrable results that ultimately led to the management role he wanted. His company could assess his accomplishments, and make an informed decision to give him the position based on these results. He was able to solve the chicken-and-egg problem that companies have when developing their employees: "I can't give him the job without any experience, but he can't get experience unless I give him the job."

The question is, then, how is constructive engagement created and maintained? In the narrative above, it was done by creating a personal obligation on the paperboy's part. The tool-and-die man didn't try to list the benefits of SME membership. He didn't explain the value proposition. He simply said to the paperboy "This is important and it will help you. You won't understand now, but you will." Those words stuck with the paperboy every year when his renewal notice showed up. Even when he transitioned from student membership to professional membership and his dues went up, those words stuck in his head. Now, the paperboy can see the value, and he isn't explaining it to anyone. He's trying to create personal obligations in those who are within his sphere of influence. He's telling his paperboy "This is important and it will help you. You won't understand now, but you will."

Constructive engagement benefits you, your organization, and your network. Visit and enhance your engagement today.


This article was first published in the July 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 7/1/2009

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