Counting past two: Engineers’ leadership learning trajectories

In Counting past two: Engineers’ leadership learning trajectories Rottmann et al., examine the career paths and workplace learning experiences of 28 senior engineers. The study seeks to understand how engineers learn to lead as their technical and managerial roles merge, focusing on how day-to-day experiences on the job influence leadership development. This paper challenges the assumption that engineers advance along either a technical or managerial  path, by asking: What career paths do engineering leaders follow? and 2) How do they learn to lead from their everyday experiences – otherwise known as situated learning – as their careers unfold?

  • Through analysis of 28 two-hour interviews, researchers found that engineers followed one of six career paths. 1) Company man; 2) technical specialist; 3) boundary spanner; 4) entrepreneur; 5) social impact change agent; and 6) invisible engineer. The paths not only involve different advancement patterns, but also provide engineers with differentiated learning opportunities.  For example, company men are explicitly groomed for senior roles, while boundary spanners are often called in to manage a crisis, and entrepreneurs grow alongside their start ups.


  • Each of the 28 senior engineers linked their career transitions to memorable events. Have a look at these events and consider how engineering student’s leadership learning could be accelerated in the classroom by exposing students to the insights that professionals gained over the long term.


  • Consider what kind of leadership learning themes and topics offered at university might open a professional trajectory that would not otherwise be available to you. How can we shift leadership education culture so that it is available to all students rather than normalizing a leadership training as an exclusive pathway for “high-performing” students?


  • This paper reminds us that an equity lens can illuminate the impacts of implicit racism and sexism on engineers’ career trajectories. The conceptual framework outlined on page 5 offers an in-depth look at how attention to the tension between social structure and human agency shapes how we understand why engineers learn to lead in some instance and not others, who learns to lead or doesn’t. Budding researchers can reflect on these questions as inspiration for ongoing work.

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