On Tuesday, February 3, 2015, Northrop Grumman Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President Wes Bush addressed the Smith Business College at the University of Maryland, College Park. Below are his remarks.


A Career in Aerospace and Defense: Leadership, Trust and Values

Thanks for inviting me here today – I’ve been looking forward to talking with you.

I am pleased to say that I am learning my way around your campus. Over the course of the last year or so, I have been on campus several times, often for reasons associated with the ACES program, which Northrop Grumman sponsors.

ACES is a very innovative partnership between the university, the private sector and the government to increase the number of outstanding cyber security graduates to support the rapidly growing need for this expertise.

The program is off to a great start and we can all thank President Wallace Loh and his team at the University of Maryland for making it such a success so far.

In fact, our relationship with College Park is not restricted to any one discipline. Northrop Grumman currently counts over 1,100 College Park alumni on its employee roster – more from this university than any other in the nation.

Some of them are here today, including our new Chief Financial Officer, Ken Bedingfield.

Maryland alumni at Northrop Grumman span the range from new hires to vice presidents.  And they come from a wide spectrum of disciplines, technical and non-technical. 

I’m delighted that we have students from a variety of disciplines and majors here today. Northrop Grumman is a technology business, and we need the skills of business school graduates, engineering, science and math graduates, and other disciplines as well.

On a personal level, while I spend most of my time today focused on business issues, that was not the way I began my career.  
If we turn the clock back a little more than 30 years, I was an engineering student – excited about my future and thinking about how I might make a difference.

When I was graduating from college, I decided that I wanted to solve problems related to defense and national security. 

After several decades in this industry, I can tell you that I think it is the most exciting, fulfilling, and satisfying industry a young person can pursue.

So, for the next few minutes, I would like to give you a sense of what Northrop Grumman does within this industry.

Then I’d like to switch gears and describe the kind of qualities and character traits that this industry demands of those who choose to work in it.

So, what kinds of things is this industry doing today?          

Let me focus on a few of those representative technologies and why I am so excited to be part of this industry.

The first is broadly referred to as unmanned systems. 

This technology area refers to platforms in space, in the air, on land and under the sea. I’ll focus on the airborne platforms – some people call them drones – we do not prefer that description. 

These systems represent a revolutionary capability.

These unmanned aircraft range from the size of an insect, to the Global Hawk high-altitude, long endurance aircraft that has a larger wingspan than a 737.

They allow our nation to spare our citizens from doing a growing number of jobs that are dangerous, or demand more than a human can perform. For example:

  • When you need an aircraft over an area for durations longer than a day;
  • Manned aircraft are limited by the endurance of the pilot; or 
  • When you need to fly at very high altitudes to get above weather, or other flight traffic, or hostile action;

There are many uses for these systems – military uses have been the driver – but disaster assistance has also been a critical mission (Haiti in 2010 and Fukushima, Japan in 2011).

Today’s most advanced robotic aircraft are autonomous – no one is using a joystick to fly them – they fly themselves.

The technology surrounding unmanned systems is nothing short of amazing.  And their use is growing by the day. 

The next defense technology I’d like to discuss is cybersecurity.

Every day there are fewer and fewer aspects of our lives – from our nation’s security to the quality of the water in your homes or the money in your savings accounts – or even the entertainment industry – that do not depend on networked computers.

If those networks and computers are vulnerable, then our very way of life is vulnerable.

Well, as you probably know, those networks and computers are vulnerable.

And the threat to our critical national infrastructure – our financial systems, energy systems, transportation systems and other key infrastructure – is very real.

This is cause for real concern.

The threat is so real and so grave that the Department of Defense has ruled that a cyber attack could be considered an “act of war” to be responded to with conventional military force. 

Northrop Grumman plays a critical role in ensuring cybersecurity for the U.S. Government and our allies – this is an exciting, fast-paced field.

Not every challenge our industry works on has direct national security implications, however.  Case in point – the James Webb Space Telescope.

This newest space telescope will extend our capability beyond Hubble.

From Hubble and other observatories, we have learned about:

  • Dark matter;
  • Black holes;
  • Planet formation; and
  • The age of our universe, which we presently estimate to be about 14 billion years.

And while telescopes look back in time by observing light that was transmitted many years ago, Hubble is not sensitive enough to show us the universe as it was 14 billion years ago.

So, how do we build a telescope, which essentially acts as a time machine, that can take us all the way back to the time period just after the birth of the universe?

James Webb will need to be a hundred times more powerful than Hubble.

Whereas Hubble orbits the earth about 350 miles above the surface, this new machine will need to be so light-sensitive that it will have to operate at a temperature near absolute zero, requiring it to be positioned at a location known as a LaGrange point about a million miles away from Earth.

To take us back to the birth of the universe, this new machine will require bigger mirrors – so big, in fact, that they will have to fold up to fit in the rocket fairing for launch.

And they will have to be incredibly smooth – an accuracy standard of less than a billionth of an inch.

So smooth that if each mirror segment was the size of the United States, no defect in the smoothness would exceed 2 inches in height.

The instruments that work with these mirrors will have to be able to detect the energy of a photon particle that began its journey 14 billion years ago.

When this system is deployed, it is expected to re-write the textbooks on our knowledge of our universe. It will also dramatically advance space technology.

But we know that it is people who develop all these technologies. Just as we develop outstanding technologies, we also work hard to develop great leaders. 

In fact, that is one of the most important activities of any leader – developing the team of leaders for the future.

So let me switch gears for a few minutes, to talk about what it takes to be a successful leader in the defense industry – and I think these same principles apply broadly to other enterprises as well.

I believe there are three strengths found in almost all successful leaders:

  • First, a passionate commitment to their work that influences all those around them;
  • Second, competence, which includes both knowledge and expertise; and
  • Third, a serious focus on ethics and integrity. 

I’ll offer a few comments on these three leadership fundamentals – but devote most of my remarks to the value-based decision-making that personalizes a leader’s style.

So let me start with Passionate Commitment.

Most successful leaders genuinely enjoy what they do. 

They have a positive view of their work and its rewards and they can remember the exciting time in their life when they first began acquiring it. 

For me it started in the 1970s when I was working my way through middle school and high school.

NASA’s amazing series of moon landings had just been completed and the first series of successful unmanned missions to other planets was under way – the probes of Jupiter and Saturn, the landings on Mars.

My intense interest in these programs, along with encouragement from some great teachers, eventually led me to study electrical engineering in college and pursue a career in aerospace.

Many of us at some time, through some set of experiences, become absolutely hooked on what we do.

I believe that we must be oriented this way if we expect to lead, because it is this passion that enables us to excite the team about what our organization can achieve – and to motivate a determination to excel and succeed. 

But a leader must have more than excitement – you must also bring a real knowledge of the business.

A leader’s main task is to set, maintain, and constantly assess the organization’s course, and to accelerate its progress towards its goals.

So, in addition to passionate commitment, all leaders must have knowledge and expertise – and given today’s complex business environment, this expertise must include strong analytic skills and problem solving abilities. 

I believe those abilities come primarily from working inside a business and having a variety of experiences in the business to gain a breadth and depth of real understanding.

I spent a decade as a hands-on engineer designing satellites in our company, then served in program management, business development and finance positions, in addition to a variety of general manager positions.

That experience serves me well in working with our teams across the company in determining the strategies and actions we should take.

Really understanding the business, I believe, is critical to the ability to lead.

Passion, knowledge, and expertise are fundamentals – but even that mix is not sufficient to achieve long term success.

To stay strong and successful, companies need to have a culture of integrity in relationships and performance. 

Ethical behavior must underpin company teamwork, partnerships with other organizations, stakeholder loyalty and public trust. 

The company’s leadership team must epitomize this complete integrity. 

Now let me move away from these three universals of leadership and talk about what differentiates one leader from another. 

In their decision-making, leaders often rely on an important personal input. Over time, most of us will develop certain guideposts for decision-making that reflect our own particular outlooks and judgments – that are based on our own deeply held values. 

I’ll share some of the key guideposts that I regularly use – but not to suggest that these should be your guideposts. I merely want to give you some perspectives and encourage you to think about this value-based approach to decision-making.

My first guidepost for decision making is my belief in the importance of building trust in relationships. That is, I want to make decisions that contribute to increasing this trust. 

To inspire trust you have to communicate openly and be honest, and you have to meet your commitments.

Trust is what keeps our customers coming back for more of the same high-quality mission support that we have a reputation for delivering. 

In a highly collaborative business environment, leaders need to build ties of trust with multiple stakeholders – multi-company teams, globally diverse team members, a variety of public officials, and a global customer base.

Within organizations, we all recognize the importance of inclusive, participative management. So, in employee relationships, trust in one another’s commitments is especially critical. 

The teams that know how to collaborate based on trust can do amazing things: they pull together, make high-quality decisions and work their way through the difficulties no matter how tough these are. 

It is because trust underpins all kinds of relationships that I take it as a guidepost for decision-making – that is, in all relevant cases I consider what contributions my decisions will make to maintaining or increasing trust.

A second guidepost I rely on in decision-making is my personal commitment to encouraging innovation.

Keeping one’s mind open to new approaches and embracing change when it looks promising will bring vigor and real value to an enterprise.

In fact, I find that those who naturally possess this mindset make the most remarkable contributions, not only in the workplace but in private life as well.

Innovation is growing ever more important for businesses, given the increasing pace of economic, technological and other changes we’re encountering in our operating environment.

This is not to say that innovation is always welcomed by companies. In large organizations, especially, there is often much invested in the "as-is" condition.

In fact, I have seen organizations that practically drive good innovators away, in order to minimize the inevitable disruption that comes from fresh ideas.

These organizations usually don’t last too long, thank goodness.

Some of the best advice I ever received regarding innovation was from my thesis advisor in engineering school.

I was very fortunate to have an advisor who had worked in industry for a number of years, as well as having a very accomplished academic career.

When I went to see him just before graduation, I asked him what advice he would offer as I made the transition from graduate school to industry.

His advice was very straightforward.  He said that he fully expected me to have some new ideas that I would want to try out at my company – ideas I would be passionate about.

His advice was to seek out the most experienced people I could find in the company, and fully explain my ideas.  If they thought what I proposed could be done, my advisor said he would bet that they would be right, and I should work hard to make it happen.

But if they said it could not be done, and yet I felt passionate about it, my advisor said he would bet even more strongly that it could be done, and that I should not be deterred in making it happen.

As I said, it was some of the best advice I have ever received.  I think about it often as I see innovative ideas put on the table by those who have done their homework.

I usually decide to support such ideas, even when they will lead to uncomfortable change and increased risk.  Innovation’s burdens must be tolerated if the potential for payoff is sufficiently promising. 

A third very important guidepost for me in making decisions is a commitment to creating value. 

Not just profits, but also the value sought by other stakeholders – our customers, our employees and the various communities we operate in.

I apply the guidepost of value-creation not just as a business person, but also to what I want to accomplish in my life as a whole person, including the many aspects of my life outside of business.

On the business front, the concept is pretty clear – creating value means using resources in such a way that you actually get more out than you put in. 

The concept of "return on investment" captures the notion very well.

But the same notion applies more broadly.

When we think about creating value for customers, employees and local communities, there are a number of non-financial metrics we can use to evaluate what kind of return we are generating. 

Examples are measures of quality in products and services, customer satisfaction, workforce engagement, environmental stewardship, and community support.

The guidepost of value creation is also applicable when you are thinking about your own individual capability to make good things happen.

Each of us is granted a certain amount of human capital – how we put it to use, and what we make of ourselves, determines the return on that capital that was granted to us. 

Using the framework of value creation helps us understand the basis for and implications of the actions we take and can significantly contribute to the quality and confidence of our decision-making.

Let me sum up the points I’ve been making. 

I believe successful leaders of organizations rely on three fundamental strengths:

  • A passionate commitment to their work and people;
  • Real expertise and knowledge of their business; and
  • Uncompromising integrity. 

In addition, many of these leaders have strongly-held personal values that uniquely shape their decision-making priorities. 

Relying on values-based guideposts helps them deal with the challenges of decision-making.  

Leaders use the strengths I’ve discussed to lay a foundation for continuing success:  they elevate the dignity of work, raise employee self-esteem, build an inclusive team, foster open communication, generate and maintain trust, and encourage learning and growth.

I have never regretted my choice to work in this industry.

I’m working with some of the most brilliant people on some of the most challenging and satisfying projects imaginable. 

I also work among some of the finest and most ethical people in any industry anywhere in the world.

As I look across this hall, I see a very bright future for our country.  Perhaps I will get to work with some of you some day.

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