On Monday, April 19, 2013, Linda Mills, Northrop Grumman Corporation Vice President of Operations, addressed women students at the University of Illinois College of Engineering. Below are her remarks.

Leadership and Women as Innovators

I’m really delighted to have the opportunity to meet with all of you. I want to focus on women as leaders, as we need more innovative and bright engineers like yourselves to keep us competitive in a global market.

So, what makes a great leader and how do we develop ourselves as leaders?

Why are women natural innovators and how can we leverage this skill as a leadership strength?

Afterwards I look forward to your questions, and to having a discussion, because that dialogue is what is most valuable.

First, let me tell you a little about my company and what I do. Northrop Grumman is a $25 billion company with approximately 70,000 employees. I never cease to be amazed at what we do, as a global security company, to protect our nation.

For example, we built the B-2 bomber that recently flew to South Korea and the Global Hawk, an unmanned, high altitude surveillance aircraft that surveys a vast geographic area in day, night or all kinds of weather. Think of our troops in battle, border patrol, hurricane monitoring, disaster relief support. 

We are building the James Webb Space Telescope for NASA, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope that brings us those amazing pictures of stars being born and dying. We’re also the leading provider of cyber services to the federal government. A lot of very diverse, cool stuff.  

What’s my role in all of this? I’m the corporate vice president of operations. My boss is the CEO. I’m involved in everything that we do to ensure we operate and perform at the top – our programs, quality, technology, engineering – and also for driving innovation and affordability throughout the company. So, that’s a lot of responsibility and an exciting role.

What I’ve learned is that great leaders worldwide, from all walks of life and different cultures, have many similarities: 

  • They talk about their desire to excel, often against adversity.
  • They’re passionate about their work. They’re driven to succeed by their love of what they’re doing.
  • And they often describe an influential relationship with a family member, teacher or someone else who inspired and motivated them to excel.

These basic factors – excellence, passion, relationships, and a fourth, the willingness to take risks – resonate powerfully with me. They’re the foundation for leadership and essential in today’s global, fast moving world.

When I was in middle school, my parents, who are an important influence in my life, often spoke to me about excellence and passion. Their focus was on education, and excelling in school. They encouraged me to do better – beyond what I thought was possible.

There is simply no substitute for commitment and hard work. Things sometimes seem difficult because they’ve not been done before, they appear risky, have no obvious solution, or you might fail.

The important people in your life can inspire and help you succeed, but in the end, the only person that can really deliver excellence, is you.  

The great Einstein said, “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” 

Excellence is much easier if you have passion for what you do and the willingness to persevere in your efforts. This passion is the second most important characteristic of leaders. 

Steve Jobs, one of the world’s most well known innovators, said “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” And he is not alone. 

Many great inventors, business leaders, entertainers and athletes are not driven by fame and fortune, but by their passion.  

We all spend a tremendous amount of time working. In your case, I’m sure you’re spending all your time studying. 

We should all love what we do.

I knew early on that math and science was my choice, because they involve discovery, creativity and innovation. And, aerospace gives me just that – the opportunity to be creative, to innovate, to be challenged and discover new frontiers. Importantly, it also allows me to make a difference to our country.  I’m very fortunate as I can do these things at Northrop Grumman. It’s why I’ve stayed there.

At many points in your life you’ll have a choice, to go down one path or another. Always strive to choose the one you love, where you can add value and learn, even if it seems riskier. 

The third factor contributing to success is building relationships. 

Engineers are usually not noted for their people skills, but building relationships and trust with your peers – bosses, teachers and fellow students – will help you both now and in the future. 

I learned about the importance of building relationships first hand when, as a young math major, I spent a year in Europe taking classes in a foreign language. I was very far away from home, in a totally different culture. People had different viewpoints and a different history. I had to learn how to build rapport, and communicate in their framework and language to succeed. 

It dramatically broadened my frame of reference. It taught me the importance of building relationships and communication.

Whether here or abroad, we must be able to connect with people of diverse backgrounds, particularly in a global, technology-driven world.

The final success factor is being willing to take risks.   

Why is this important?

I once had a boss – a brilliant engineer – whose leadership advice was that "you only have to be right most of the time—to be great." This advice has served me well in my career.

You never have enough data to make the perfect decision. Sometimes speed and agility are so important, you have take a risk and just make a decision. Risk is everywhere. Taking risks is an inherent part of learning, stretching yourself, asking good questions and trusting your intuition. This is particularly true in my current role where I am involved in so many activities and am not the expert.
If you focus on excellence, pursue your passion, and build strong relationships, you’ll have the key ingredients for success. When you learn to take calculated risks, you’re learning to be a leader. 

And that brings me to the second topic, why women are ideally suited for innovation and how we can leverage this critical leadership skill. In fact, research shows that women possess inherent qualities that are most conducive to success and creativity. 

When it comes to innovation, women are naturals. We innovate instinctively. 

A recent study published in the Harvard Business Review found that the single most important factor in making a team most successful is the presence of more women. The qualities women commonly bring to the table – listening, sharing criticism constructively, having open minds, being democratic – were increasing the collective intelligence.

These findings are particularly important in light of the most recent statistics on women in STEM disciplines.  

The Department of Commerce says that despite making up nearly half of the U.S. college-educated workforce, women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs. And, it’s declining. Clearly we need a national strategy to deal with this urgent issue.

However, as women in STEM disciplines, imagine the tremendous opportunity this poses for you and for our country. Each of you is an untapped resource, crucial to America’s innovation and our global competitiveness.

So, set the bar high. Strive for excellence. Love what you do. Build relationships. And don’t be afraid to take risks – and to innovate along the way.

These traits will serve you well in our global, fast-changing world.