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Q&A With New Textron Chief Ellen Lord

Navigating Downturn, Keeping Top Talent, Textron Systems’ CEO Tackles Tasks Of Leading Big Defense Contractor

Mar. 27, 2013 - 06:18PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — Ellen Lord, one of a rising group of senior female executives in the defense industry, in October was named the new chief of Textron Systems. The Textron division handles much of the company’s defense business, including UAVs, ground vehicles and training systems.

Textron is the 19th largest defense contractor in the world by defense revenue, and is one of the few multi-industrials that stayed in the defense industry after the downturn of the 1990s.

Lord said that beyond the challenge of managing a large company through the downturn, she’s investing much of her time in finding, training and retaining top-level talent in a competitive marketplace.

Q. You’re one of a number of women who have recently been elevated to very senior positions with defense contractors. What do you think is the cause?

A. I think that women got into the defense industry a little later than some other industries, so just now you’re seeing a number of people that have had enough experiences in defense to be able to take over some of these leadership positions. I think it’s lagged the other industries. I think it’s just really coming to the point where there’s a great supply base.

Q. How are you finding the current marketplace for engineering talent? Are you getting the people you need?

A. Yes, although I will say that we have an enormous focus on retaining, developing and really promoting people from within. I’d much rather take someone internally for a key position versus pulling in someone externally. So a lot of our time and attention goes to assessing people’s strengths, their developmental needs, and for those people that have the interest and show the capability, we will do an enormous amount of coaching, mentoring, training, to bring those people along.

I spend a lot of time on talent, and if there’s one thing that I’ve probably changed, it is looking at how we’re making the most of the resources that we have. I have taken a number of people and probably jumped them up two levels. People with a lot of capability and high potential, I want to make sure that we utilize them to their fullest.

Q. That requires significant investment. Are you finding that you can retain people after you have put in that kind of effort, given that many companies are doing their best to poach talent?

A. It’s easy to get them to walk if they have a reason to look elsewhere. I think most people want to be part of an intense work community, and if you create the right environment with interesting work capabilities to advance, exposure, then it makes a big difference. They want to stay for the opportunity.

To give you an example of how much time we’re spending on this, I just spent the past two full days with my staff in Providence for our quarterly face-to-face management meeting. We always bring in a couple of extra people on special topics and so forth. My core group spent an entire day yesterday doing nothing but talking about talent and then how we communicate with that talent.

Q. Textron is one of the few multi-industrials left in the defense industry. What kind of advantages and difficulties does that present going into a difficult time for the defense budget?

A. I think it has great advantages in that, as we’ve seen work ebb and flow, we can even temporarily move people around, and that is a kind of win-win because not only does a company have surge capacity through sister companies when needed, but you can also give employees great bubble assignments that give them insight into things they never would see otherwise.

You say, what’s the disadvantage of being a conglomerate, a multi-industry company? Maybe we don’t have the leverage in the marketplace that a Lockheed or a Boeing or a [General Dynamics] or Raytheon has. However, I think we’re very agile because of our ability to move people around.

Q. Textron is known for its development of UAVs through its subsidiary AAI, but you’ve also been working on an unmanned surface naval vessel. Do you see a continued push into domains besides unmanned aircraft?

A. Basically, we’re leveraging that command-and-control capability that we have for our unmanned aircraft systems and leveraging that for naval vessels.

What we’re doing now is taking our ability to move data, and more importantly, information around, and we have a lot of visualization capabilities in terms of software, so we have a lot of offerings in terms of taking the full-motion video and exporting it to different platforms, to different operational control centers. The software that we have that allows you to take this data and relate it to other open-source information, sort of a multi-intelligence system, is one of the areas where we’ve been quietly working and I believe have some really differentiating technology.

Q. Have you seen any real impact from the Better Buying Power initiative, the administration’s major push for acquisition reform?

A. I think we’re seeing a lot of rigor in terms of contracting. I don’t know if I’ve seen changes. I think it has perhaps slowed things down a bit, which is a concern.

We’re seeing more peer reviews, we’re seeing more caution on the part of procurement officers, contracting officers, the Defense Contract Management Agency, the Defense Contract Audit Agency, because they’re learning as they go and trying to be very compliant.

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