McKinstry is a proud supporter of the Skills that Shine mentorship program offered through the Washington State Opportunity Scholarship (WSOS), which provides both scholarships and mentoring for college students from low- and middle-income households majoring in science, technology, engineering and math fields.
As part of the program, I’ve volunteered as a mentor for several talented scholars—sharing my experiences and coaching them as they transition towards a professional career. Over a similar period, McKinstry’s engineering department has hired a robust cadre of young engineers who are each uniquely talented and passionate about delivering high-performing buildings for our clients.
The infusion of young talent—combined with a deep bench of experienced engineers—has paid serious dividends for our engineering team. As we continue to grow, recruiting just the right people to contribute to this culture can be tricky, especially in Seattle’s competitive labor market. Working with the WSOS scholars and sitting in on some recent interviews prompted me to think about what I’ve learned from some of my co-workers who’ve deeply impressed me.
The typical encouragement for emerging professionals is to “be a leader!” University magazines repeatedly tout their institution’s vast experience in developing great leaders or they glorify alumni who’ve “made it big.” LinkedIn articles and business rags buzz with advice about “entrepreneurship” and “innovation.” For scholars entering the job market, though, I’m not convinced that leadership really matters the most.
Before I took my first full-time engineering job, I spent three months in Alaska with the National Outdoor Leadership School, learning expedition skills in some of the country’s most pristine wilderness areas. One of the most important things I learned from that course is the reason that my co-workers are so effective: the principle is called “active followership.”
An active follower finds a trustworthy leader and figures out how to support that leader really well. They know their job isn’t steering the ship—their job is to make the ship sail fast and steady. In business, the best way to support a leader is to be someone who will reliably and thoughtfully execute at a high level. Here are a few specific behaviors that I see from these active followers at McKinstry:
- Ask great questions, and don’t be shy about it.
- Clarify the commitments and expectations being asked of you. Be certain of what you are trying to do before you go try to do it.
- Be as knowledgeable and focused about the outcome of your assignment as your boss is.
- Figure out how to run tasks to ground so that you leave nothing undone.
- Make your work as concise, thorough and on-message as it can possibly be.
- Solicit the opinions of other people in your office (as well as outside opinions) to provide robust feedback and input.
- Pay attention to your peers, and actively look to learn from them.
- Share what you know without hesitation.
- Develop an “engineering moxie”—a willingness and keen interest in doing a great job.
This last point about “moxie” requires some additional description. I see it as the combination of intellectual curiosity, grit and passion that differentiates mediocre work from exceptional work that clients demand. Moxie reflects putting your time and energy into something you sincerely believe in.
While experienced leaders can and should be innovating and thinking entrepreneurially, I’d argue that active followership is the best way to build your career in an entry-level position. I feel very fortunate to work with (and learn from!) many of the younger engineers at McKinstry who’ve set such a strong example with their active followership and exceptional work.