Corner Office: Fitting In, and Rising to the Top (Interview with Linda Hudson)
September 20 2009
Fitting in, and Rising to the Top
This interview with Linda Hudson, president of the land and armaments group for BAE Systems, a military contractor, was conducted, edited and condensed by Adam Bryant.
by Luke Sharrett/The New York Times
Linda Hudson, president of the land and managements group at BAE Systems, says it is crucial to study the corporate culture.
Every Sunday, Adam Bryant talks with top executives about the challenges of leading and managing.
Q. What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned?
A. It was when I first became a company president, and it was the first job where I was truly responsible for the performance of a company. I had mastered the day-to-day mechanics of running organizations. But I don’t think the leadership part of it had settled in quite as profoundly as it did when I took over a company.
I was the first female president of the General Dynamics Corporation, and I went out and bought my new fancy suits to wear to work and so on. And I’m at work on my very first day, and a lady at Nordstrom’s had showed me how to tie a scarf in a very unusual kind of way for my new suit. And I go to work and wear my suit, and I have my first day at work. And then I come back to work the next day, and I run into no fewer than a dozen women in the organization who have on scarves tied exactly like mine.
And that’s when I realized that life was never going to be the way it had been before, that people were watching everything I did. And it wasn’t just going to be about how I dressed. It was about my behavior, the example I set, the tone I set, the way I carried myself, how confident I was — all those kinds of things. It really was now about me and the context of setting the tone for the organization.
That was a lesson I have never forgotten — that as a leader, people are looking at you in a way that you could not have imagined in other roles. And I didn’t see that nearly as profoundly when I was leading a functional organization or a smaller enterprise.
But to this day, not only the awareness of that, but the responsibility that goes along with it, is something that I think about virtually every day.
Q. What else did you learn from that?
A. Well, it gets back to the obligations that go with the position, or how do you parlay that position into something that is effective for the organization. And I think it’s all about clarity, where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, what you have to do to do it, communicating effectively and often, and being very accessible and open to the people around you. It’s trying to bring the human part of leadership into the day-to-day aspects of what you do.
I’ve observed it too often: leaders, particularly of large organizations, isolate themselves from the people who work for them, and the personal relationships that often define who you are and what you’re trying to do tend to disappear. I work very hard for that not to be the way I do things or the way I interact with people.
Q. Give me some specifics. What have you done to counteract that tendency?
A. Well, just on a day-to-day basis. I have, what, 20,000 employees now, but I look for every opportunity, when I’m out visiting locations, just to sit down informally with a cross section of employees, from hourly workers to others, and say: “Anything’s on the table. What do you want to talk about?” I do that as frequently as I can find an opportunity to do it. I find that it’s extremely well received.
My e-mail is open to anybody in the organization. Anybody can send me a message, and I answer it. And I find they don’t abuse that.
I’m not a touchy-feely kind of leader. I tend to be very decisive and make decisions quickly. But I think it’s incredibly important to realize that relationships define everything that we do, and it’s all about the quality of those relationships that makes an organization work.
Q. Are there any other lessons you learned that shaped your management and leadership style?
A. I was a teenager in the ’60s and in college in the late ’60s and early ’70s. So I grew up in a very uncertain time, when the country was going through lots of difficulties, the Vietnam War, and riots because of civil rights issues. Women were just beginning to get active in the women’s rights movement. And that time very much defined who I am, along with the fact that I grew up in Central Florida at the peak of the space program.
So I grew up wanting to fly airplanes and be an astronaut, and I was very technically inclined in an era when that was not an acceptable thing for women. I was the only female in my engineering class at the University of Florida.
When I graduated from college, and I graduated near the top of my class, I was turned down for my first mortgage because I might get pregnant. Women were not entitled to their own credit. American Express turned me down for their college credit card program.
In those early years, I was often told and treated like I didn’t count, I didn’t matter. I made more money than my husband, but they wouldn’t count my income. In the workplace, there were no laws at the time to protect women from sexual harassment. There were all kinds of evil and ugly things that happened in the workplace, and there was nothing you could do but find a way to cope and to find a way to make things happen.
I think it’s those kinds of things that formed not only the person I was in my 20s, but also set the stage for the person I am today. I know what it’s like to be mistreated. I know what it’s like to be discriminated against. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re invisible in a room, and I know what it’s like to have to find the skills to cope with that and still do well and still succeed and not let it defeat you.
I think, in large part, that’s defined who I am and how I do things. And in many ways it has given me an ability to deal with people that’s more inclusive and more empathetic.
Q. How would you say your leadership style has changed or evolved since you first started managing people?
A. I’m at a stage in my career now where what matters more to me is how I develop others and what I leave behind. I’m trying very hard to spend more time coaching, teaching, looking for development opportunities for people, seeing the role and the value I bring to the organization as far more than just leading it myself. It’s creating a sustainable business model that can carry on when I go on.
Q. What’s your best career advice?
A. I tell people that in a corporate environment, which is all I’ve ever known, first and foremost you need to understand the culture you work in, and find a way to make it work for you rather than trying to fight it. Corporations are very interesting machines. And what you need to look for is the informal power of the corporation, not necessarily the way the organization looks.
An early boss told me, spend the first couple of months in this job figuring out how things really work around here, and then go and establish allies with the real movers and shakers in the organization because that’s the way you will be the most successful. And I advise people to do the same thing.
You can never succeed in a corporate culture on your own. It is all about how you fit, how you know how to make things happen within the infrastructure and in a way that’s acceptable to the norms and values of the corporation that you work in.
Once you catch on to who really pulls the strings and where the real power base is, who you have to collaborate with, who you have to inform, who you have to seek for advice and agreement, you can actually make these big, very, very lumbering organizations work very, very well. It’s all about the informal structure. It’s about the critical relationships, and it’s about fitting in, in a constructive way, so that you really make your decisions that not only benefit yourself but benefit the corporation as well.
Q. What have you learned to do less of over time?
A. I am trying to talk less and listen more. And I have to work at that. I tend to have the kind of personality that will take over and dominate a situation, and if I’m going to accomplish my objective of coaching, teaching and building a more sustainable organization, I need to be quiet more. I need to listen more, and I need to suggest instead of telling people what we need to do and let them grow and begin to spread their wings a little bit and make decisions.
Q. Let’s talk about hiring. What do you look for in job candidates when you’re interviewing people for senior levels?
A. Usually by the time I get in an interview process, I’m rarely there to question their professional credentials or that sort of thing. What I’m looking for when I interview somebody is passion and excitement about what they’re doing in both their professional and their personal lives.
I approach interviews a little differently. The first thing I always ask someone is: “O.K., I’ve got your résumé. I’ve been over all the details. Just tell me about your life. Start wherever you want to, from the beginning or the end, but talk to me about you, what you’ve done, and then walk me through what you’ve done with your career.” And I find that the way people talk about what matters to them tells me an awful lot about how engaging they are, how committed they are, their energy level, their passion. And that’s the sort of thing I’m looking for.
I’m looking for the chemistry that would fit well in our environment and how articulate they are. Can they communicate effectively, which I think is extremely important? And it’s more of a subjective assessment of, do they have the people-skill part of what we need in the job. There are a lot of people who have the professional credentials, but do they have that extra something and the passion and people connection that sets them apart from others? What gets you excited? What do you look forward to? Those are the kinds of questions I ask.
Q. What would you like business schools to teach more of, or less of?
A. Well, first of all, I’ve never been to business school. But what I see when I look at the business school graduates that come to work here is they come with a great theoretical knowledge about business. But they don’t have a clue of what it’s like from a people-skill point of view, or the coping-skill perspective of learning to deal with disappointment and failure.
I find new business school graduates come in here thinking that, first of all, they’re going to run the company overnight. Many of them are convinced they’ve never made a mistake. They’re not accustomed to encountering the kinds of road blocks or disappointments that often come with the way decisions get made in a corporate environment, and they have almost no people skills.
So I think an important part of teaching business ought to be focused more on realistic expectations and the people-skill part of business, dealing with failure, learning from adverse experiences, navigating the corporate environment, because quite often they don’t get it, and they have not been taught the coping skills of being told no, or being told that they can’t have what it is they think they need. We give them all the book smarts, but we don’t tend to give them the other skills that go along with business.
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