Skip to Main Content
The Faculty's Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (ILead) is partnering with industry to develop the next generation of engineering leaders (Photo: Roberta Baker).

What does it take to make an engineer a leader? And why is leadership in the profession so important?

These fundamental questions are what Professor Doug Reeve (ChemE) and his colleagues in the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (ILead) are exploring in the Engineering Leadership Project (ELP). It’s an emerging partnership between ILead and industry and government leaders to develop the next generation of engineers.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that there is an important transition in the engineering profession,” said Reeve, explaining that many people in business and government have been expressing an urgent need for engineers to embrace leadership development.

“If we can mobilize [engineers’] brainpower, mobilize their work ethic, mobilize their logical facility, this would do all kinds of good things for the profession, for business and industry and for society,” he said.

Reeve is the founding director of ILead, a five-year-old multidisciplinary hub in the U of T Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering that offers unique courses and other programming to help engineering students develop critical skills in self-leadership, teamwork, communication and organizational leadership.

Last year, Reeve and ILead’s research team, Dr. Cindy Rottmann and Professor Robin Sacks, completed the first phase of the ELP. The goal of this segment was to conduct a careful study of how leadership manifests itself in the practice of engineering. Funding came from the Dean’s Strategic Fund and four companies: Hatch, ERCO Worldwide, Vale and Google.

The findings from the first phase concluded that engineers can lead in three distinct ways, which were published in the journal Leadership Quarterly in summer 2014:

  • by passing along their technical expertise;
  • by collaborating effectively with others in the workplace;
  • and by translating their innovations into practical solutions.

Following these conclusions, Reeve launched the second phase of the project last year, known as ELPII, through a new initiative called “The Community of Practice of Engineering Leadership”. It received two more years of funding through the Dean’s Strategic Fund, and six organizations that employ engineers in leadership positions have signed on so far: Hatch, ERCO Worldwide, ChemTrade Logistics, the Independent Electricity System Operator (IESO), Accenture and Toronto Hydro. Reeve expects more to join in the time ahead.

Reeve explained that the intent of ELPII is to further explore how engineers lead, and also to connect engineering students with engineers in the workplace to enrich student development.

“Getting the job done requires another set of skills once you have the correct technical solution,” he said. “That set of skills is what we’re looking to define in our research with engineers in the workplace, and then to deliver to our students through ILead.”

ELPII focuses on three transitions that engineering students may experience as they move into the workforce:

  • The first hurdle is getting engineering students to self-identify as leaders, as many do not think of themselves as such.
  • The second is making the transition from school to work, and Reeve said this is often a “rude awakening” for students who are typically proficient at calculus but then get dropped into a work environment and need a whole new set of skills to be successful.
  • The third transition is moving from being an able technician to becoming a manager of other employees, and that requires yet another set of skills, said Reeve.

The research project includes conducting case studies of senior engineering leaders, while having them reflect on their own path to leadership and how they made their transitions.

“These case studies will give us outstanding material for curriculum, and we can use this material to have engineering students explore leadership in an engineering context and in a Canadian context.”

This integration of industry thinking into the engineering curriculum has been embedded in other Faculty programming as well.

For example, the 700+ undergraduates who take part in a 12- to 16-month Professional Experience Year (PEY) internship program, typically after third year, will have had some instruction in leadership before they start. These placements are often a student’s first exposure to a workplace and their experiences are of great interest to ILead’s research, said Reeve.

On the co-curricular level, ILead is also connecting students with industry through meet-and-greet luncheons, CEO panel discussions and student visits to a CEO’s own environment. Students appreciate having access to these senior leaders, and they in return have expressed their enjoyment in telling their stories and meeting bright, interested young people.

“The CEOs get to talk to the next generation of engineering talent, and they like that”

Reeve said the Faculty has been investing in leadership programming since 2002 and is the leader in this kind of work in engineering schools in Canada. The University is the lone Canadian member of a group of “like-minded” schools in the U.S. — including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Pennsylvania State University (Penn State), Northeastern University, Tufts University and Rice University — at the fore of engineering leadership education.

“We are certainly very well advanced in terms of the strength and breadth of our programs, and our industry outreach compares very favourably with these schools in the States,” he said.

“We think of ourselves of being at the forefront of this work.”

Learn more about the Institute for Leadership Education in Engineering (ILead).

Media Contact

Fahad Pinto
Communications & Media Relations Strategist