On Wednesday, October 3, 2012, Northrop Grumman Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President Wes Bush gave the keynote address at the 2012 U.S. Business Leadership Network's (USBLN) 15th Annual Conference & Expo in Orlando, Florida. Below are his remarks.

The Value and Power of a Diverse Workplace

It is so great to be here with you this evening. Tonight I’m joined in spirit by the 70,000 employees who comprise Northrop Grumman and who make it such a great place to work. Those employees work in all fifty states and around the world. They are engaged in developing innovative solutions to some of the most difficult technological challenges our nation faces today – solutions that will help our young men and women in uniform to better perform their dangerous duties around the world; solutions that will determine how secure we are at home and at work.

This kind of work requires talent. It is an ongoing struggle to find such talent, to keep such talent, and to create a workplace that enables such talent to do its best work at all times. This gets to the heart of why Northrop Grumman supports the work of the U.S. Business Leadership Network. Technology companies like the one I am privileged to lead succeed or fail based on the intellectual capital we recruit and retain. And as anyone familiar with America’s pool of available technical talent will confirm, there just is not enough to go around. It is estimated that in some key disciplines up to fifty percent of our nation’s existing workforce will retire in the next ten years.

It is hard to overstate the potential loss of intellectual capacity represented by that figure.

The writing is on the wall. The talent crunch is here and every available source of talent must be found, nurtured and developed. This is where the Business Leadership Network comes in. Their role is to make the business world aware of an underutilized talent pool – people with disabilities. It is a talent pool of incredible value to our nation and its employers. And it adds an important aspect to the diversity of our nation’s workforce.

Let me be clear – Northrop Grumman understands the value and power of a diverse workplace. Our company is committed to it. It makes good business sense and it makes us a better company. Diversity of thought generates the great innovation we need to become the high performing company we strive to be. This is because the more diverse the group, the wider will be the base of ideas across the team.

Diverse thinking and an inclusive environment generate better ideas and foster stronger team commitment, collaboration and engagement. And these, in turn, power the performance that delivers value to our customers, our shareholders, our employees and to our communities. Put simply, diversity generates more innovative solutions for our customers.

Now, let me ask all of you: Is there a group of people anywhere who are better; more practiced; more innovative at solving problems every day than people with disabilities? I suspect not. And I suspect it is because, just as DI-versity can generate innovative problem solving in a team, AD-versity can generate it in an individual.

The extraordinary value of the talent pool you all represent is possibly the best kept secret in the business world. And it’s a secret that the Business Leadership Network is determined to expose.

It’s going to take some doing. The unemployment rate for people with visible disabilities is almost seventy percent. And those people interview, on average, eight times more than non-disabled candidates with the same credentials.

As an employer, we have an obligation to hire the very best talent, and to retain that talent. Well, I would simply tell my fellow employers in other companies and industries that the scales give a pretty clear picture. People with disabilities have a significantly higher retention rate. And fifty percent of the current pool have college degrees, with, on average, slightly higher GPAs.

The power of strong leadership by those with disabilities is a fact I can attest to first hand through my association with two remarkable people. One of the divisions within Northrop Grumman is run by a man named Bill Carty. Bill’s division generates many hundred million dollars of revenue. Over the last couple of years, he has executed a bold strategy and reshaped its business portfolio. His efforts have dramatically improved profitability and increased the levels of engagement throughout his team.

Nothing holds Bill back, including his visual impairment. In fact, I would say he is one of our most well-traveled executives.

And then there’s Bob Vetere. Bob has been with us for over three decades. His title is “Human Resources Specialist,” but believe me; Bob’s role is much broader than that. Bob is a pioneer.

He’s a relentless advocate for those Northrop Grumman employees with disabilities, and for those young people with disabilities who may work for Northrop Grumman one day. He is a mentor, who is tireless in his outreach to young students considering careers in science, technology, engineering and math. Bob’s calling is to expose the value and importance of this talent pool I’ve been talking about, and to enable these talented young people to contribute.

Bob and Bill personify a new order. It’s built on the recognition that we have moved beyond the industrial age. Today, our economy is driven by brainpower and innovation. A large majority of those jobs in highest demand today are quite compatible with people with disabilities. Bob and Bill are inspirational leaders and strong contributors to our company. Bill could not be with us this evening, but Bob is here. Thank you for all you do for our company and for USBLN.

So, once a company hires a person with a disability, the work is over, right?

Of course not.

A mere employment relationship does not serve the interests of Northrop Grumman or the person being hired. Once hired, the company must never stop working to ensure that employee feels engaged in his or her work, that they feel comfortable being who they are in the workplace, and that they understand and internalize their value to their team. In other words, every employee must feel included.

For employees with disabilities, management’s efforts at inclusiveness can take many forms. They will usually be in the same form as applies to everyone – recognition of jobs well done; engagement of the employee in useful work consistent with their strengths and interests.

For employees with disabilities, inclusiveness might additionally mean modifying the workspace or the tools needed for them to get their jobs done. Some may refer to this as a cost. The correct description is “investment,” because there is a real return.

Whatever its form, an inclusive work environment is essential for attracting, retaining and developing top talent in all its diversity. And the power of diversity can only be realized insofar as that diverse workforce feels comfortable enough in their work places to truly commit to the organizational goals and ultimate success of the company. Like diversity, inclusiveness is a core value at our company because it is so critical to our drive to realize, sustain and improve a performance culture.

I don’t want to give the impression that we have all the answers and that Northrop Grumman is where we should be. We don’t, and it isn’t. We have a lot of work to do, but we are trying.

One example of our efforts is Operation IMPACT – which stands for Injured Military Pursuing Assisted Career Transition. We started this program in 2005. It finds opportunities for wounded veterans to gain meaningful post-military employment. It provides accommodations and training to help the veterans succeed in their new jobs. And it facilitates post-hiring support for veterans and their families. Northrop Grumman has worked with more than 400 such veterans.

Those veterans, like all their fellow workers with disabilities, need advocacy. In 2007, Bob Vetere and Anita Wright co-founded an employee resource group at Northrop Grumman called the VOICE. It stands for Victory over Impairment and Challenge Enterprise. Today, Anita chairs the group’s Executive Board and she’s with us tonight as well. Anita, thank you for your leadership.

The purpose of VOICE is to collaborate with management to hire, promote, and retain a diverse workforce that is disability inclusive. It strives to develop a sense of community and empowerment among individuals with disabilities by improving accessibility, increasing awareness, developing leadership skills, and facilitating career growth. Its philosophy is to allow every employee to be who he or she is; bringing their ideas and their whole selves to work.

What are some of our shortcomings the VOICE has helped us focus on? Well, we are working on several of them.

One of the most challenging shortcomings – even for a technology company – concerns web accessibility. This is a substantial software engineering challenge that will have to be overcome before our workers with vision impairments can benefit from the same web access that the rest of us take for granted. And we are tackling it.

We are also working to establish a centralized resource – one-stop-shopping, if you will – where our employees with disabilities can go for whatever they need: ergonomic office furniture and technologies; parking passes; accessibility requests for ramps, power doors, or whatever they might need.

But of course, the shortcoming we are working hardest to correct concerns numbers. We need to boost the representation of people with disabilities on our employee rosters. We take this objective seriously.

Each of us is unique in terms of our background, experiences and the way we approach issues. Northrop Grumman’s leadership understands that it is incumbent on each of us to establish an environment of inclusion throughout our organization to ensure that diversity in its broadest sense can thrive and flourish. It is this environment that will determine whether our employees are fully engaged and able to commit to the organizational goals and ultimate success of the company.

People with disabilities represent a component of diversity that, for too long, has been overlooked – but which, nonetheless, overflows with potential. Including people with disabilities is the smart thing to do, and it’s the right thing to do. We are not yet where we need to be. But we have established a momentum and we need to continue it.

The U.S. Business Leadership Network is front and center in this effort. And the USBLN needs all of our support to succeed. It’s important to the disabled community, to the business community, and to the nation.

I applaud all of the companies here tonight for your commitment to moving us forward, and I encourage all of us to support the organization and to work together to ensure its success. As we continue to make progress in this area, we can take pride in the knowledge that our efforts are helping to move outstanding people, our own organizations and our country forward.