Some people don’t take a direct route to the engineering profession; Ron Duren Jr. is the perfect example of that. Ron isn’t exactly your prototypical engineer—his personal and professional background includes stints as a semi-pro baseball player, rodeo bull rider, builder and test pilot of an aerobatic airplane, Ironman triathlon competitor, Mechanical Engineer and manager at a Fortune 500 company. It’s safe to say that Ron’s life resume holds up against just about anyone’s.
It’s those life experiences and personal adventures that have fueled his interest in seeking out the next challenge and finding interesting ways to push himself further—which is exactly what he did years ago when he decided to earn his Masters in Engineering Management to advance his career.
Ron eventually turned his focus to a specific area of management that, in his view, seemed to be lacking in Engineering Management education and training—how to lead effectively in high-stress situations.
It’s an area to which he now devotes a significant amount of his professional pursuits, both as an instructor in CU Boulder’s Lockheed Martin Engineering Management Program—where he earned his master’s degree—as well as at the Leadership coaching and consulting practice he now owns.
For many of us, our life experiences inform the choices we make and the paths we take professionally. Not surprisingly, Ron’s journey to teaching and the development of his interest in high-stress management strategies were a direct result and a natural outreach of his early personal and career experiences.
“It was a good, stable career.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, Mr. Duren took a position as a design Engineer with a Fortune 500 company. “It was a good, stable career in a good, stable industry,” he recalls. “I was being well paid. The company I was working for was consistently ranked one of the top five in the country in terms of best employers.”
For 18 years he worked in data storage, designing various electronic boxes to be used in server rooms. Then one day he asked himself the question that, today, he tells his students to constantly ask themselves—is this what you really want to be doing in life?
“If I’d been working at SpaceX sending things to space, it might have been different,” he quips now. But that wasn’t the case and he knew it was time for a change.
On what Ron describes as a “whim,” he decided to pursue his Master’s degree in Engineering Management. For him, the decision wasn’t necessarily driven by an overwhelming desire to climb the executive ranks but by a need to feed his curiosity and fulfill his quest to learn new things. “I was feeling like my career was becoming a little stagnant and pursuing my Master’s degree was a way to scratch that itch. The experience really changed my mindset about a lot of things,” he recalls. “Where I am today is a direct result of that decision.”
But it was an experience he had while working as a design engineer that initially sparked his interest in how to step up in high-stress situations.
“There was a situation when I was working on a design team and my manager had to call out of the office because his wife was having a baby. He was supposed to give a big presentation on how our project was progressing the next day,” Ron remembers. “the Vice President of Engineering asked if anyone else from the team would be willing to step in and give the presentation—and nobody raised their hand, including myself. I eventually did, but most of us were afraid of public speaking and giving a presentation like that.”
But that public-speaking challenge wasn’t the only time Ron would find himself in a dicey situation.
“It’s about owning your mental game.”
The path that led Ron to dive deeper into managing high-stress situations didn’t run only through an executive boardroom. Playing professional baseball in front of 30,000 spectators, competing in rodeos on a 1,500-pound bull, running in Ironman triathlons and ultra-marathons, and test piloting airplanes all gave him first-hand experience in performing under pressure.
“I didn’t always perform well, in fact many times it was outright atrocious,” he says. “During my first test flight, my brain kind of shut down. I was having engine issues, the air traffic controller was talking to me and I wasn’t hearing the radio calls, my thinking and my brain just kind of shut down. Luckily I walked away and didn’t get hurt. But I wanted to understand why I couldn’t think my way out of that high-stress situation.”
Ron will be the first to tell you that he’s not a thrill-seeker or an adrenaline junkie, but he does like to tackle big challenges and experiences. It’s this curiosity coupled with his life adventures that drove his interest in learning to find ways to deal with high-stress situations effectively—on the job, in the air, and in life.
In the world of Engineering and Management, stress, to some extent, is a fact of life. Engineers who pursue an Engineering Management degree and find themselves taking on more Leadership responsibilities quickly discover there are a number of things that can trigger stressful situations. Some of these may include:
- Heavy workload—it’s not uncommon for projects to pile up, all of which have deadlines that must be met.
- Underperformance by a team member—as a manager you’re responsible for the work of others, and that can include team members who drop the ball or don’t complete their work at a satisfactory level.
- Compressed deadlines—deadlines are adjusted all the time for any number of reasons, and often they’re moved up and your team’s work needs to be completed faster than originally thought.
- Dysfunctional office culture—whether it’s ineffective leadership at the top, a lack of teamwork, or a persistent negative atmosphere, organizations can suffer from a toxic culture.
- Poor communication—it may come from your superiors or those who report to you, but communication mistakes are a frequent cause of problems at every level.
- Inadequate resources—from technology needs to facilities to human horsepower, not having the resources to effectively do the job is an unfortunate reality that’s often encountered.
- Creative thinking being stifled—when final approval of you or your team’s work is left to others who may be risk-averse or take a too-cautious approach, that can stifle your ability to be creative and innovative.
- Frustrating approval process—it’s not uncommon for managers (in pretty much every profession) to find themselves up against a process that is sluggish, uninformed or simply unreasonable.
- Unclear expectations—having clarity on what is expected of you and the team you lead is obviously very important, but there may be times when those expectations are unclear or, worse, constantly change.
As an Engineering Management professional, you may find yourself up against one or more of these circumstances on any given day, and you’ll need skills in your toolkit to navigate them successfully. That’s what Ron aims to develop in his students.
“Leading others is a great responsibility.”
Ron came to the Engineering Management Program (EMP) at CU Boulder in 2015. He saw teaching there as a way to have a greater impact on the world and to serve the greater good. A big part of that mission has been to expose students in the Program to the realities of managing in high-stress situations and empower them to do so successfully.
“Leading others is a great responsibility, and performing well under pressure is critical,” he says. “When you’re in that position, things will get thrown at you from out of nowhere. You’re not always going to be ready for it. So being able to respond effectively—not react but respond—is very important.”
Ron teaches the EMP class, Leading Oneself, where he delves into the differences between reacting emotionally and responding reasonably in high-stress circumstances and also touches on many other areas that are often overlooked in graduate-level programs such as cultivating emotional intelligence, motivating others, conflict resolution and understanding organizational culture. What students gain through the experience is one more serious edge that can set them apart in a professional setting.
“Owning your mental game is about mental toughness, grit and resilience,” he says. “It’s about performing well under pressure. When you’re leading others, all eyes are upon you. Your team is watching you and how you conduct yourself. This becomes magnified when a stressful situation arises. You have to know how to be the calm in the storm. I always tell my students calm is contagious, but so is panic. So how you present yourself to others in stressful situations is very important.”
A key to succeeding in that endeavor, he says, has to do with the way one chooses to approach a situation. Students in his class learn that every crisis is an opportunity and every high-stress situation can be looked upon as either a challenge or a threat. Ron emphasizes that leaders who perform well look at stressful situations as a challenge—which brings a more positive and optimistic mindset—as opposed to a threat, which is based on fear, is constrictive and not as effective.
“Threats make us close down, we become less creative and less innovative,” he says. “The team you’re leading picks up on that and their actions will reflect your actions. When you frame the situation as a challenge, you’ll see it as an opportunity to overcome the situation.”
This can be especially true for Engineers, and in companies and organizations with an Engineering or technical orientation where creativity and innovation are essential. It’s something Ron can personally reflect upon any time he thinks back to the day when nobody wanted to step up to give the presentation in his manager’s absence.
“When you can raise your hand and manage your fear, you can overcome it and set yourself apart as a professional,” he says.
“This class really can change your life.”
Although Ron’s baseball and rodeo days may be behind him, there are still plenty of new adventures to be had. He is an avid runner, currently training for the Leadville 100 mile trail run. He has competed in Ironman triathlons, is an aviation enthusiast and a motivational speaker.
Through his leadership coaching and consulting practice he specializes in Leadership development, training executives to perform at their best during high-stress circumstances. And he continues to pursue his interest in performance psychology in sports and business.
His adventures in the classroom are also going strong. Ron draws just as much, if not more, personal satisfaction from his role at CU Boulder helping to educate and train the next generation of Engineering Management leaders in business and industry.
“I do tell my students that this class really can change your life,” he says. “Whether it leads them to a higher position in management or not, it’s about giving them a set of life skills that can be applied in pretty much any professional or personal pursuit. Coming out of my class I want them to understand that they never have to settle for mediocrity, they don’t have to go through life on autopilot. I tell them to find your path, that thing that lights you up. Just ask yourself what you want to be doing in life.”
The Lockheed Martin Engineering Management Program at CU Boulder
Many Engineering professionals may find themselves in a similar position as Mr. Duren was when he made the decision to pursue his Master’s degree in Engineering Management: curious, needing a change and reaching for what’s next. Whatever your personal reasons or motivations might be, a key part of that decision to turn to further education is finding the kind of program that will meet your needs and empower you to achieve your goals.
For the past 30 years, The Lockheed Martin Engineering Management Program (EMP) at CU Boulder has been a leader in educational options for engineers and technical professionals throughout the state of Colorado and around the country. It provides the kind of relevant programming, distinctive course offerings, scheduling options designed for working engineers and professionals, and real-world instruction from experienced technical managers and leaders that sets graduates of the Program apart.
“When I have a student come to me at the end of the course and tell me it really did change their life, that’s what I love most,” Ron says. “I know it’s not going to change every student’s life, but there will be some who click with it. I once had a student at the end of a course come up to me and say, ‘When you said this class could change my life I literally rolled my eyes.’ But then he went on to tell me that, in the end, it actually did. That’s just a great thing to hear.”
The EMP offers graduate degrees, undergraduate degrees and professional certificates designed to prepare engineers and other technical professionals to advance within their current organization, make themselves more marketable to new potential employers, build skills to deal with a wide array of leadership challenges or become their own boss by launching an entrepreneurial venture of their own.
The EMP offers programs through CU Boulder’s highly-regarded College of Engineering and Applied Science, which was founded in 1893 and is widely recognized among the top public research institutions in the country.
The College’s Master of Engineering in Engineering Management provides a strategic and distinctive path ahead for career professionals. The curriculum focuses on:
- Business basics of project management
- Finance and accounting
- Quality management
- Project management
- Quality sciences
- Research methods
Classes are offered on campus as well as online and are designed and structured so that working engineers can fulfill their course requirements and earn their degree without sacrificing their current job or other responsibilities. Graduates leave the Program equipped with the knowledge and training to perform in a wide range of areas, including:
- Leadership and ethics
- Project and portfolio management
- Product management, technology innovation and entrepreneurship
- Sustainable, resilient and regenerative enterprises
- Production and operations for the 21st century
- Management and leadership across engineering industries
One of the distinctive aspects of the EMP experience at CU Boulder, Ron says, is that it attracts students who aren’t just looking to advance in their careers for personal gain, but also as a way to lead others effectively and ethically. He sees his role as an instructor as an opportunity to empower them to do just that.
“My style of teaching is in many ways like being a coach,” he says. “Students will come to me with problems where they don’t know the answers, and I just talk them through it. I want to help them realize that they had the answer all along and just needed someone to help them talk through it and uncover that answer.”
In terms of the industry’s outlook, the timing is good for anyone considering whether to pursue a masters in engineering management degree. According to data from the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of Engineering Managers is expected to grow two percent over the next decade. And the need for Engineering Managers in the engineering services industry, such as with consulting firms, is projected to grow six percent over the next decade.
If you would like to speak with an advisor or request more information about the Master of Engineering in Engineering Management or any of our other programs, please visit the CU Boulder EMP website. You can also contact our graduate advisor, Kendra Thibeault, at Kendra.Thibeault@colorado.edu or call 303.492.0954.