On Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2006, Rosanne O'Brien, Northrop Grumman's Corporate Vice President of Communications, delivered the keynote address at the Northrop Grumman Women's Conference in Manhattan Beach, Calif. Below are her remarks.
Thank you, Sandra (Evers-Manly, Northrop Grumman vice president, Ethics and Diversity ), for those kind words. I’m so delighted and honored to be here with all of you for Northrop Grumman’s first women’s conference. What a great event—and hopefully a very useful one too. It is important for many reasons. First, because it clearly demonstrates the value you bring to our company. For another, it confirms the confidence we have in you as leaders of today and tomorrow. And finally, it is an investment in the human capital that you represent. We expect great things from you. And events like this are intended to bring out the potential in all of us.
For those reasons, the theme of this conference is right on target: Northrop Grumman Women – Achieving Excellence, Embracing Opportunities. For the next few minutes, I would like to impart to you some of the things I have learned over my career—things that are relevant to this theme.
And let me begin with ambition.
The notion of ambition gets a bad rap these days. It is associated with such qualities as greed and a hunger for power. And for us, ambition and assertiveness often carry additional negative associations. But I think the bad rap on ambition is undeserved. The morality of an ambition is a reflection of its objective. That objective, in turn, is a reflection of the person holding the ambition. Therefore, it may reveal low character but it does not cause it. Ambition itself is neutral. It is nothing more than the harnessing of incentive and aspiration. And it is critical. From the pyramids to Apollo, civilization’s great accomplishments were powered by the engine of ambition. Michelangelo used to say a prayer that went, “Lord, grant that I may always desire more than I can accomplish.”
In a free-market society like ours—a society ruled by laws applied equally to all—it is also a feature of ambition that it presupposes fair play. In other words, when the system works right, ambition is satisfied when merit is rewarded—when the ambitious person is rewarded for being the best that she can be in the field of her choice.
That is, when the system works right. I’ll have more to say about that in a minute.
My first significant job was with an airline called Flying Tigers. It was primarily a cargo hauling company. I was there for eleven years, ending up as Director of Corporate communications. From there I went to Glendale Federal—a bank. I was hired to be the Vice President of Public and Investor Relations—an office I built from scratch. From 1993 to 1999 I was the Vice President of Corporate Communications at Teledyne. And in early 1999 I came to my current position with Northrop Grumman.
My career has had ups and downs, challenges, surprises—and even a few shocks. Many of my ambitions have been realized. But perhaps most relevant to our gathering today, my career has taught me how to harness and channel ambition to achieve excellence and take advantage of opportunities. Let me tell you some of the things it has taught me.
First, it has taught me the importance of stretching beyond your comfort zone. It’s called a comfort zone for a reason. It’s familiar. You know your way around it. And because you do, it takes effort and courage to step beyond its boundaries. But that is exactly what we have to do, because if we don’t we will grow risk averse. We will lose our abilities to improvise and adapt. And we will soon become uncompetitive.
I had no banking experience at all when I took that job at Glendale Federal. Nor did I have any investor relations experience. But I was hired to establish both a communications and investor relations department and I did. I felt I could do it, and that it would be an important accomplishment to put on my resume. And it was, because the investor relations piece was a key part of the position I won at Teledyne—my next job. And without the Teledyne position, I would not have been considered for my current job.
Self-confidence comes from assessing our skills against a task and concluding that we can do it. Faith is when we lack the hard information to judge our skills against the task, but we forge ahead anyway. Sometimes you have to dig deep to find one or the other, but either way, we need to be willing to push yourselves out of our comfort zones.
Another thing my career has taught me is the value of flexibility. Years ago, when I interviewed for the Glendale Federal position, I met with the president/CEO who was to be my boss. I was very impressed with him. He understood and appreciated the value of communications. I left feeling that we would work well together. I was offered the job and I took it. My first day on the job I was told to draft a press release stating that the president had resigned and a new president was being named in his place. And as a communicator he was the first president’s exact opposite. The first several months were very rocky. But I adapted, and in the end, my accomplishments there proved very valuable to me in later positions. We cannot allow ourselves to be thwarted by surprises or reverses. Samuel Johnson said that nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome. He was right.
I said earlier that for ambition to be properly rewarded, the system has to be fair. Last month an edition of Fortune magazine featured a cover story on how many more women are CEOs these days. In the battle for professional fairness, women have made progress over the past few decades. But we aren’t there yet. We still have a long way to go because I believe the glass ceiling is alive and well at many companies across the nation. Last summer a Wall Street Journal article recognized this progress. But it also made a compelling case that women are at a disadvantage as long as they are expected to fit into the male career track model. I think this gets to the heart of the issue because—fair or not—our cultural demands differ between men and women.
Before I explain why, let me make a disclaimer. I don’t like identity politics wherein a person of a particular class, ethnic group or gender, cannot perceive the world except through the prism of her group. Sooner or later, those who indulge in identity politics are seduced onto the easier path of waiting for their problems to be solved for them—be it by government, their company, or someone else. If there is anything you take away from my remarks today, I hope it will be that you and you alone are responsible for your career, your life, and your happiness.
Having said that, the corporate gender gap is real despite the progress we have made. Between my first job out of college, and the time I arrived at Northrop Grumman, I had been chased around more than one desk. I had been subjected to other indignities as well. I had even been turned down for stock options on the grounds that I would be just as happy with a parking spot. I don’t think behavior like that is commonplace anymore. But making such behavior unacceptable represented low hanging fruit. Some of those transgressions were against the law. Some were simply inappropriate. The problem was that neither laws nor standards were being enforced.
Today, laws and standards are being better enforced and the fruit now hangs higher up the tree. Many of the problems corporate women face today are more difficult because they are cultural in nature. They revolve around families, and like it or not, the cultural expectations are different for men and women in this area. A corporation might be willing and eager to promote a woman, but if that woman decides to leave the workforce for five or ten years for family reasons she can hardly expect to return at the level she would have been at had she never left. And as we all know, it is most often the women on whose shoulders the child-rearing duties fall.
Let me be clear: It is not my place to pass judgment on which side of the work-life balance you should give the most weight to. As I see it, the greatest advance to come out of the feminist movement was that it brought us choice. Staying out of the workforce to raise children is now a choice, not a mandate, and that is good news.
For those of you who are still pondering your choices in the work – life question, I have only one strong opinion. In my opinion, the worst possible choice we can make is to avoid the difficult introspection necessary to decide what we want, and how best to channel our ambition toward that goal. If we avoid that task, life will be something that happens to us. I suggest that life should be something more than that. To the greatest degree possible, life should be lived on our terms, not on those of fate.
So, how do we overcome those cultural obstacles? We can’t, entirely. But we can work around them. Some of the ways to do this lay with management. As our company consolidates further into One Northrop Grumman, it should become easier to establish additional women’s councils, executive development programs, and networking groups.
In the meantime, I encourage you to be a mentor and find mentors who can show you the way. And I encourage you to help recruit women and other minorities, because the more diversity we have on the payroll and in the pipeline so to speak, the quiet objections that still remain become less credible.
But the surest path to realizing our ambitions is not necessarily gender specific. So let me leave the topics of gender gaps and women’s issues to discuss professional development in general.
If you look around you, you will see that the room is filled with co-workers, counterparts, and colleagues—all people of talent, credentials, and potential. I don’t need to tell you that the number of top tier leadership slots is far fewer than the number of faces in this room. To acquire one of them, you will need to set yourself apart. I encourage you to take every opportunity the corporation offers to better yourself. I recently served as the Executive in Residence at the “Leading One Northrop Grumman” program. The spirit and passion of those enrolled was inspiring. Some of you may have gone through the program or will be going through it as well. Many of your bosses have gone through it, and you should aspire to go through it as well.
You should also look for any opportunity for cross-sector experience, or rotations through different aspects and departments of this varied company of ours. Sometimes a lateral move can be just as important as a promotion if it expands your base of knowledge and experience. As we continue to make progress toward a culture of one Northrop Grumman, this should become easier.
Versatility and a breadth of knowledge are becoming more important every year. Two years ago I was asked to deliver commencement remarks at my alma mater, the University of Redlands. I told the graduates that day that businesses are looking for far more than specific skill sets because those skill sets will likely have to evolve over time. They are looking for critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and leadership; the ability to pursue opportunities, not just solve problems. You need to be self-motivating, flexible and adaptable. These qualities are also highly valued here at Northrop Grumman.
Here is one more quality that will serve you well; the ability to communicate—clearly and concisely. That skill will set you apart and elevate you above the others. There are lots of people at your level who are as talented, bright, and hard-working as you are. The better communicator will be the one who gets noticed—and will be seen as a leader.
The good news is that skill in this area is ten percent talent and ninety percent learned. And believe me it can be learned. For many of you this will require breaking out of your comfort zones. But doing so will pay handsome rewards throughout your careers. So, if you don’t have public speaking experience, get some. Find a chapter of Toastmasters if you have to, but get some.
Finally, in setting ourselves apart, we can hardly do better than to act ethically. Corporate scandals come and go in the press, but the absolute, compelling necessity for ethical behavior will never change for us. Stay abreast of what constitutes breaches of ethics—they change and evolve over time—and remember that nothing is more corrosive to business—and nothing is more potentially damaging to our careers—than unethical behavior.
I wish you all the best at this conference, and in the years to come. I hope you will all choose to be ambitious—with your careers, and with your lives. Reflect. Be introspective. Know Thyself. Make sure you keep your ambition grounded on the solid foundation of ethics, and good will. And once you decide on the target—or targets—of your ambition—plan. Be pro-active, not re-active.
Remember that comfort zones are a toxic environment for ambition. Dig deep to find the self-confidence or the faith to take the risks demanded by a life well led.
And remember what a wise man once said about luck—that it is the residue of design. So go out and make your luck. You don’t have time to wait for it. Time and responsibility are heartless tyrants: Neither cares anything about our desires or our state of mind. Time marches on whether we are keeping up or not. Responsibilities reward attention and penalize neglect, without caring how hard you are trying. Neither gives any extra credit for the goodness of your intentions.
So be ambitious. And have the confidence—or the faith—in yourselves that I have in you—because I know that each of you is equipped to realize whatever ambitions you choose for yourselves.
You are the future of our company—our company’s future officers and hopefully, future CPC members.
Once again, I am very honored to be here today and I salute each and every one of you.