The Whole is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts

July 2013

NSPE Today: Outlook
The Whole is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts


Executive Director Mark J. GoldenWhen I took over as NSPE's executive director in February, I faced the usual immersion course in Society operations, culture, and history that any new staff leader faces when joining an organization: getting to know the people, understanding the problems and opportunities, and seeking to find the best way to apply the skills, knowledge, and talents I have developed in a more than 35-year career assisting voluntary organizations achieve success to the unique needs of NSPE.

Just to keep things interesting, a new CEO is required to simultaneously find a way to engage with impact at a strategic and future-focused level and deal with the day-to-day of management and administration. It is a sometimes overwhelming process. So far (three months and counting, as I write this), I think I have avoided any major operational catastrophes. I have had to drop everything more than once to deal with surprising and disruptive events. And I hope I have achieved some small measure of success simply keeping the trains running and making immediate improvements, wherever possible.

On the strategic front, I have been getting out of the office to experience Society affairs directly , and spending a lot of time on the phone, introducing myself, talking, and even more importantly, just listening to national, state, and local leaders. I have also made a study of NSPE's 79-year history.

The Society and the profession it exists to serve have gone through a lot of ups and downs over that long and impressive history. Much has changed since David Steinman first began efforts to organize the existing but separate groups representing different regions and segments of the engineering profession into a national organization in 1934. But some things have not changed: the commitment to promote licensure and ethical standards, to make the public aware of the value and contribution of professional engineers to society, to help encourage and support students to become engineers, and to cooperate generously with all other organizations (local, state, technical) in furthering these objectives.

I am not naive or in denial of the serious challenges, even the setbacks that NSPE and the profession have faced in recent years. And, as I have observed before in other trade and professional associations, sometimes even the weight of past success can itself create challenges for the future. The underlying importance and principles upon which NSPE is based remain as valid today as they ever were, but the sense of urgency can become dulled over time.

Familiarity can also make it too easy to take for granted the value and benefits routinely delivered through the three tiers of national, state, and local organizational activism. For most of you working as engineers, the conditions these efforts helped create have always been in place, and the press of more immediate concerns in your professional and personal lives understandably wins your more immediate attention.

And let's frankly acknowledge that in addition to great accomplishments, mistakes were made. There has been some splintering between the organizations, "professional and otherwise," that David Steinman talked about working in selfless cooperation back in 1934.

In my conversations over what is needed for the engineering profession today, two schools of thought have emerged. One of them views the world as a zero-sum game: Every organization in the engineering field (national, state, local, technical) needs to stand alone and justify its own existence. That is true, to a point. But implicit in this worldview is the idea that anything one entity achieves must come at the expense of some other organization: We are in competition for member devotion and dollars, asking them to choose either/or?.

I view things differently. I value the strength of the word "and" over the word "or." Each organization certainly must deliver real value to its members, but as I see it, and I think NSPE's history amply demonstrates, the various levels of organization serve the profession best as a single system of autonomous but interdependent parts.

Rather than a zero-sum game, this worldview starts from an assumption that we can do so much more together than could possibly be achieved collectively by each of us separately. And this isn't a vision I just made up. Steinman articulated it when he made the argument for a national society of professional engineers in The American Engineer magazine in January 1935, and it is written into the mission statement in the front of this magazine and printed on the back of my business cards.

Noble words and high aspirations, to be sure. And I am very cognizant of the need to make it practical and make it real. You don't want platitudes?you demand and you deserve results. Accomplishing that will be hard. But that is the job I signed on to help you achieve. And with your good will and cooperation, we can translate the conceptual into practical reality. For, as one statesman commented 155 years ago, a house divided cannot stand.