“If you don’t strive to figure out just what you’re capable of, you’ll never reach your potential,” says Stephanie Hill. This advice—part of a childhood challenge from her father about her schoolwork—helped shape Hill’s lifelong approach to leadership. It also helps explain her varied and successful three-decade-plus career at aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, where today she serves as executive vice president of Rotary and Mission Systems—a $16 billion, 35,000-employee organization.
Hill recently joined a meeting of McKinsey’s Black Leadership Academy for a forthright conversation with McKinsey partner Sara Prince about creating trust in teams, leading with authenticity during challenging times, and striking a balance between family and career. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
Sara Prince: You’ve had a remarkable and varied career at Lockheed Martin. What are some of the pivotal moments that brought you to this point as a leader?
Stephanie Hill: What really started it for me was that I have an incredible and supportive family. Growing up, my mother would say to my two sisters and me, “You can do anything you want to do as long as you’re willing to work hard and you treat people well.” The idea of respecting people was important, even if that respect wasn’t returned. She would say, “If you know better, you have to do better—even if they don’t.” That really stuck with me.
My father, meanwhile, was a taskmaster. I was a good student, and I can remember coming home with a 95 and Daddy asking me, “Where are the other five points?” And he was serious. If I came back with a 98 the next time—all proud of myself—he’d say, “Where are the other two points?” This was very frustrating at times, because I thought he wanted me to be perfect. But that wasn’t it. His point was, if you don’t have to leave five points on the table, why should you? And if you don’t strive to figure out just what you’re capable of, you’ll never reach your potential.
Sara Prince: How have you tried to take that advice to heart in your career?
Stephanie Hill: It’s not easy, but it’s really important to be willing to get out of your comfort zone and try something that you just never thought you would do. I was fortunate to have help with this—leaders who saw things in me, sometimes when I didn’t see them in myself.
One experience stands out. I had been in engineering and in program management—areas I considered to be mainstream, line roles—and I was offered my first executive position as the director of Mission Success and Quality. And I was hesitant to take this job because I viewed it as out of the mainstream. The person who offered me the job was also my mentor at the time.
As I was hesitating, my mentor told me, “No, Stephanie. This is a job you need to take. And you’re going to make it your own.” So I trusted him and took the job. Oh, my goodness. It was the best decision I could have ever made. I learned more in that role, and grew in different ways, exercised different muscles, figured out new things that I could do with teams.
The job was a pivotal experience for me, and a personal reminder of how important it is to take the hard jobs—to run to the hard jobs. Be sure you have a support system when you do, but recognize that those hard jobs help you figure out what you’re capable of.
Sara Prince: What other leadership principles have been helpful to you?
Stephanie Hill: I have several that I try to live by, starting with trust. The most important job of a leader is to set the tone. And whether you lead an organization or a team, if there’s trust at its foundation then there’s nothing you can’t do.
Sara Prince: How do you build trust as a leader?
Stephanie Hill: You start by keeping your commitments to your team. And if you’re not able to keep them for some reason, you own up to it. Everybody makes mistakes, full stop. And the most powerful thing I’ve seen done—and that I try to do—is to say you’re sorry. You tell your team, “You know what? That thing I did or that thing I didn’t do, that was wrong. And you have my commitment that I’m going to work on it so that it doesn’t happen again. And if it does, I want you to hold me accountable.”
That goes a long way, because you’re putting yourself out there, being vulnerable. Senior leaders too often make a mistake and let it ride, because nobody’s really going to call them on it.
The other thing I do is I have my team’s back. Let’s say we’re meeting with a customer and things get gnarly—which happens sometimes. I will take the bus for my team. I will stand in front of it, whatever it is.
Of course, if it happens too much the team and I are going to have a really clear conversation when we get out of that meeting [laughs]. But in that moment? I’m going to take the brunt of it because when you do that it builds trust. And when you have the team’s back, they will have your back, too.
Sara Prince: What other elements are important in creating a strong team?
Stephanie Hill: Transparency is so important, especially when you’re doing hard things. You want to create an environment where people will tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly. You need to understand what the hardest things are in your business, and in your culture, so that you can address them.
For example, in that difficult role that I mentioned earlier, we had so many challenged programs that needed to be turned around. And when I first came in, I saw that people weren’t opening up and sharing the problems they saw. And if they did share, they’d get clobbered. As leaders, we simply can’t allow that.
When I first came in, I saw that people weren’t opening up and sharing the problems they saw. And if they did share, they’d get clobbered. As leaders, we simply can’t allow that.
So I said to our leadership team, “The first thing we’re going to do when any member of our team brings us a hard problem is we’re going to say, ‘Thank you.’ And then we’re going to listen. And then we’ll roll up our sleeves and figure out how we can help.”
This started to catch like wildfire throughout the organization, but it took practice. And for some leaders, it was frustrating at first. They were saying, “Why didn’t they tell me a long time ago?” And our leadership team and I had to tell them, “Nope. Take a deep breath. We’re moving forward. We’re setting a new tone, creating a new environment.”
Sara Prince: We’ve talked about trust and vulnerability. What about authenticity? As a leader, what does it mean to show up as your full self?
Stephanie Hill: When you can truly be yourself, you’re better at anything that you’re doing. For me, authenticity means being true to who I am and not giving any of that up for a role. Authenticity doesn’t mean you just show up any kind of way and say anything that comes into your head. You need to understand how people see you.
Early in my executive career, I was working with a program that faced a lot of challenges, and the company was at financial risk because of them. So every month I was reporting progress two levels up, to the staff of my own leader’s leader. At the first meeting, I remember talking about where we were with the program and what our plan was to get things fixed. It was an hour-long presentation, and I felt really good about it. I thought it went great.
Afterward, I got a call from a trusted mentor who told me, “No, it didn’t go well.”
I was shocked. “What do you mean it didn’t go well?” I asked. “I laid out the problem; I had the plan.” And she told me that based on how calm I was, the staff didn’t think that I really understood the magnitude of the problem. They wanted me to be fussing, to be angry, and maybe to pound the table a little bit.
Sara Prince: How did you react?
Stephanie Hill: I’ll tell you, Sara, it just ticked me off. I was furious. They didn’t want a calm leader? They didn’t want a leader knowing she has a plan she’s executing with her team? It didn’t make sense to me. And so my initial reaction was to reject that feedback.
And then I stopped and I said to myself, I’ve been telling people forever that feedback is a gift [laughs]. So I stepped back, and I decided that I had to find a way to make sure that the team knew that I understood the magnitude of the problem. But I was never going to be pounding on tables and screaming. That’s just not my style.
So the next time I met with them, I started by saying, “I want you to understand that if we are not successful with our plan, we’re going to lose money. We’re going to lose our reputation.” And I went down the list [of what would happen] and told them, “And that’s why we’ve put together this plan, and we’re working on it as hard as we can, and we’re going to ask for your help when we need it. Here are our results to date. Here’s our plan forward.” OK, finished.
I got a call from my mentor later, and she said, “You nailed it.”
My point is that I didn’t give up who I was. I didn’t try to emulate some of the people I had seen. Instead, I asked, “How can I tweak my style and still stay true to my mother’s words: ‘If you know better, you have to do better?’” I needed to stay true but modify.
Sara Prince: You’ve described some of the ways you’ve benefited from mentors over the years. How do you view a related topic—sponsorship—and what role does it play in leadership development?
Stephanie Hill: It’s interesting, because I believe that sponsorship is important and has been significant in my own career. But at the same time, we don’t always know when somebody’s sponsoring us. They’re in the room and we’re not.
Sara Prince: Do you encourage people to seek out sponsorships?
Stephanie Hill: I think it’s absolutely acceptable for someone to ask for sponsorship directly. And if you do, you need to take an active role. I think this holds for mentorship, too.
Let me unpack that a little bit. One of the most common questions that I get in my mentoring relationships—and I’m blessed to have a lot of mentees—is, “I’m working longer and harder than anybody around me, and yet they’re the ones getting the jobs. Why?”
I give them two pieces of advice: first, you need to make sure that people understand what you aspire to. Too often we think, “Well, of course my leader knows I would want that next opportunity.” And good leaders will know that. But not everybody’s a good leader. And besides, leaders are busy, so if you’ve got your head down, and you’re getting incredible work done, but you never say, “I want that role,” it can be easy to miss. That doesn’t mean you should be a climber—nobody likes a climber—but just be clear that you aspire to greater things and bring some specificity to it.
Second, if you want a sponsor, you need to understand how you’re contributing to what the organization—and the leader—values. You’ve got to give the “what” and the “so what,” because then the leader—your would-be sponsor—has the right words to use. You need to take an active approach.
Sara Prince: I’d like to go back a little bit and talk about family again and, in particular, the challenges of working mothers. What have you learned from balancing the roles of executive and mother?
Stephanie Hill: This was absolutely a challenge for me early on. I am a wife of more than 28 years and a mother, and my mother had stayed home with me. I was her third child, and she called herself a “domestic engineer.” My idea of a good mother was somebody who is always there.
When my children were growing up, I was working, and there was always a bit of a monkey on my back about whether I was being the best mother I could be. And so I was not relocatable. This was a real boundary for me. And if you won’t relocate, and all of the director jobs are somewhere you’re not, [laughs] then you’re not getting that job. It’s just not going to happen.
For a period of time, I actually viewed this as, “I’m not going to grow [professionally],” and that was very limiting. What I came to realize is that everybody has personal boundaries but not all of those boundaries have to be limitations. That was a powerful lesson for me. So I took a lot of lateral roles. There was a time when I took probably four different lateral roles as a director.
Everybody has personal boundaries but not all of those boundaries have to be limitations. That was a powerful lesson for me.
I decided that if I can’t go up right now, then I’m going to go broad. And looking back, that actually helped me prepare for going up in an accelerated way.
Sara Prince: What do you tell other women looking to balance family and career?
Stephanie Hill: I was on a panel where the question came up, “Can you have a family and an incredible career?” And my two fellow panelists, both women, answered first. Their view was, “Absolutely not. You have to choose.”
We’d been simpatico on almost everything to that point. But I had to step in and say that while I loved and respected them, I completely disagreed. You can have both. It takes energy; it takes commitment; it takes a lot of communication. But I’m going to tell you that you can do it.
I was that mom who, when it was back-to-school night [at my children’s school], got every event in my calendar. I was asking, “When are the field trips? When are the professional days?” And the teachers would say, “Field trips? It’s the first day of school. We don’t know yet.”
I’d tell them, “You don’t understand. I need to put them in my calendar now so I can make sure I’m there.” And, Sara, even in those roles of increasing responsibility, I didn’t miss much. I was blessed with a strong support system, and if I couldn’t be around, I wanted [my children] to be around family.
Sara Prince: And when you were on the road?
Stephanie Hill: I’m Homework Mom, and I’ve always been Homework Mom. I remember a trip when I was in Japan. I called my husband, and I said, “Well, how did [our daughter] do? Spelling test was Friday.”
He said, “Oh, she got most of them.” And I said, “Most of them? [laughs] It’s ten words.” And I realized that no matter where in the world I was, I was still Homework Mom. And to date myself, we would send homework back and forth by fax to the hotel and do all kinds of things.
So my message is, you can do it. You have to be willing to do it. You have to be clear in your work life what your priorities are, and you have to be clear in your family life that there are going to be times when you’re going to be gone for a week.
And now that I’m on the other side, and have adult children, I think my children and I are as close as [any who had a stay-at-home mom]. And I’m just blessed and grateful for that.
Sara Prince: One last question. What’s the thing you carve out for yourself that allows you to power all this—to find a source of renewal and replenishment?
Stephanie Hill: I’m a person of faith. And I’ve been fortunate to sing in my church choir since I was 12 years old. Different churches, but I go there for renewal. And I get energy from family, and the unconditional love that we have among us. I just pinch myself about that.
And I get energy from work, from the knowledge, the camaraderie, the support to be able to contribute and make a difference. Because that’s what my parents taught me. “Whatever you do, treat people well and work to make things better.”
Sara Prince: And you do not leave five points on the table if you don’t have to [laughs].
Stephanie Hill: You better not [laughs].