On Monday, April 19, 2010, Linda Mills, Corporate Vice President and President, Northrop Grumman Information Systems sector, addressed the Girls Scouts of America in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Below are her delivered remarks.

Principles for Success: What Makes an Effective Leader

I’m so happy to be here in the heart of Pennsylvania. It's a particular honor to be here with Joyce Murtha. Like her late husband, Congressman John Murtha, Mrs. Murtha is a longtime supporter of the Girl Scouts.

Tonight, I would like to talk to you about leadership – the opportunity and responsibility that we have, as volunteers and business leaders, to encourage young women to take on positions of leadership and to pursue careers in science and technology – a sector that continues to grow, even in today’s tough economy. I’m also here to pay tribute to the Girl Scouts – one of America’s oldest and most respected volunteer organizations dedicated to teaching young women the importance of leadership through national and community service.

The Girl Scouts have nurtured some of today’s most powerful women leaders: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former First Lady Laura Bush and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, as well as many U.S. senators and congresswomen. There are so many other famous Girl Scouts – journalists, writers, scientists and astronauts.

When I’m asked to explain what makes an effective leader, I often think back to advice from my mom and dad, who stressed three important principles for success: Set the bar high and push to excel, love what you do, and be flexible and open to new ideas. These principles have served me well – particularly in my engineering and technology-driven industry.

Although all three principles are critical to success, let me speak about leadership and that third principle – being flexible and open to new ideas – which, to me, translates into having the confidence to take risks.

All of us take risks both through our actions and our inaction. Risk is everywhere. There’s no avoiding it. But risk can be managed. Part of my own success has come through taking risks and then learning from my mistakes. We don’t always hit a home run the first time, but we must take that first step. It takes practice, patience and persistence. An early mentor of mine once told me that good leaders are not right all the time. His rule of thumb was: if most of your decisions are correct, you are on the right path. You see, leaders know that it is important to learn and adapt quickly to changes around them. The best leaders learn from every experience – the great and the not so great. Business today moves quickly. We must too!

For women, making career decisions is much easier than it was, and therefore seemingly less risky. More and more sectors have opened up for us. Yet I’m still struck by the contrast between the tremendous strides women have made in the American workplace generally and their continuing under-representation in the ranks of scientists and engineers.

In the 1950s, women accounted for only 27 percent of the U.S. workforce and only 8 percent worked in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math – what we call the STEM sector. Today, while women represent 47 percent of all workers in the U.S., only 26 percent of STEM workers are women. But there is positive news. My field – information technology – has seen some of the largest growth in the numbers of women among the different components of the STEM sectors, and we need more.

Debates rage about why women don’t gravitate to STEM as readily as other fields. I think one reason girls might not take to these fields is because they haven’t been exposed to them early enough. We don’t think that science and technology are for us. They are not fun. And that’s one reason that outreach and mentoring programs to reach young girls and encourage exploration are so important.

Young women considering science, technology and engineering careers should consider this: According to the U.S. Labor Department, information technology is among the economy’s largest and fastest sources of employment growth. And the very nature of the industry – the persistent change and rapid evolution of technology, and businesses’ need to keep up – will keep this industry growing as far ahead as the eye can see. Great news for women – particularly young women now starting to consider their college and career choices. Women need to understand that these subjects are for us. These growth sectors can provide vast opportunities if we choose this path.

I applaud the Girl Scouts for seeing these trends and for making science and technology a priority. The Girl Scouts have created programs ranging from robotics to space exploration to engineering and nature that encourage a girl’s natural curiosity about science and break down the stereotypes. These programs are critical if we are to open the world of science to young women. Starting this conversation early is so important because the numbers show that by their early teens, many young women have opted out of science and technology, and do not take those critical foundational STEM courses.

We – as business and community leaders, as employers and most importantly as parents – also have a role to play. We should ask ourselves: What are we doing to encourage young women to pursue careers in science? Well, one thing everyone in this room is doing is supporting the Girl Scouts – and I applaud this. Businesses can also support programs that catch kids at that critical younger age. For instance, Northrop Grumman launched a mentoring program called the Weightless Flights of Discovery, which gives teachers a real-life simulation of space travel. The idea behind this program is that the best way to encourage young students to pursue science and technical careers is by first reaching out to their teachers – inspiring teachers to share the experience with their students and realize how fun, exciting and creative science can be.

This type of hands-on experience certainly changed my career path at an early age. When I was in junior high school, I was always interested in science and thought I would become a veterinarian. That all changed when I worked in a veterinarian’s office, where I found out that animals can get sick, which I did not like. Although I still love animals, I became much more interested in mathematics and computer science, and less in biology! This is where that flexibility and openness my dad always talked about became very important. Little did I know that one of my businesses today would be health IT. I have 20 MDs, a dentist and a veterinarian reporting to me.

For instance, cyber security is a relative newcomer to the market, and it’s a field desperately in need of talent. The U.S. economy – practically all of it – runs on or depends on information technology – not just the military and government, but private businesses, too. Information technology, or our systems and networks, are lucrative targets for attack and exploitation by foreign governments, terrorists, criminals, and hackers.

Luckily, the Obama administration grasps how much is at stake and realizes what ingenuity can accomplish – both ours and our adversaries’. Just last year, the president said that America's economic prosperity in the 21st century will depend on cyber security and that this country’s technological advantage is key to America’s growth and its safety.

Defending our systems and networks is imperative. Having talented people to work on these problems is vitally important. Information technology is already central to our lives and to our economy. Just think about the Internet and its growth over the past 10 years! As a result, the opportunities and gains from attacking our information technology are immense and growing – both here in the U.S. and overseas, as Google and others have experienced. This means that the employment opportunities and the demand for skilled people to help counter this threat are also growing. This is not only very vital work. It is also extremely exciting, challenging and creative.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, total employment in science and engineering will increase at nearly double the overall growth rate for all other occupations. More startling is a recent study by the National Science Foundation showing that over 25 percent of workers currently employed in the science and engineering fields are over 50 years of age. Clearly the demand will continue to grow as these individuals retire. Today, 47 percent of our workplace is women. And women in particular should consider entering the information technology or STEM sector, because we absolutely need their energy, their talent and their creativity to secure our nation.

But it isn’t just our young people who should be aware of this growing sector of the economy. Communities, too, should be focusing on the STEM sector – particularly communities hoping to attract new industry and investment. Communities that position themselves advantageously and offer a skilled workforce will be attractive areas for business investment and growth.

My advice to young women – set the bar high, strive for excellence, love what you do and don’t be afraid to take risks. I realize it may be hard for young women entering industries where women are historically scarce, as you may feel all alone. The first person to do anything is always alone by definition. That’s what innovation is all about. I can tell you from experience there will always be people to encourage and to help you.

For instance, the Girl Scouts. By providing women a way to "try out" career paths and search out new experiences, the Girl Scouts give young women the tools and confidence they need to be successful.

Juliette Gordon Low, the Girl Scouts’ founder, once said, “Badges mean nothing in themselves, but they mark a certain achievement. For when one girl sees a badge on a sister Scout, if that girl has won the same badge, it at once awakens an interest and sympathy between them.” In the same way, a woman who enters the world of science and technology serves as an inspiration to the generation behind her. She is in effect wearing a badge that says, “I did it, you can too!” Well, I did. I love what I do and know you will too.

This is a national priority. Just think what would happen if each of us encouraged one young woman to experiment with science, technology, engineering and math. Just think of the impact on that young woman, just think of the impact on the industry that is so vital to us, and the impact on our country. I have no doubt that if we put our collective energy to this, we will meet this challenge.