Leadership Rundown: Finding power in purpose with Kathy Warden

Like so many others, I was captivated by the ethereal images from the James Webb Space Telescope earlier this summer. Those images marked a new era of astronomical discovery and signify a herculean human and technological accomplishment—something Kathy Warden, Chair, CEO and President of Northrop Grumman, can speak to firsthand.

I had the chance to connect with Kathy last month, and in addition to humoring my questions about space (Northrop Grumman led the development and delivery of the James Webb Space Telescope—a technology marvel), we touched on many dimensions of leadership—from Kathy’s ascent to CEO in 2019 to steering the company through the pandemic a year later; to Northrop Grumman’s focus on inclusive leadership; to her journey into a career that gives her a true sense of purpose.

It was a fascinating conversation—full of both optimism and practicality—and it’s my privilege to share Kathy’s perspective with you today.

Kathy, it’s great to see you. You became Northrop Grumman’s CEO in 2019, just before the pandemic began. What have you learned leading through a time of such intensity and change?

The last three years have certainly required resilience and flexibility. Our teams and leaders have been amazing, and they continue to show their ability to innovate and adapt even in the new kind of dynamic times we’re living in.

This experience has also underscored the importance of empathy and taking time to truly cultivate trust—and we’ve been intentional about this. We also communicate openly, have a clear priority in our people, and we are united around our shared purpose.

You used the word “purpose.” Often, the idea of purpose is very conceptual, but you have taken intentional time to translate Northrop Grumman’s purpose into concrete actions that your people can take each day. What were the practical mechanisms you used to make this happen?

In early 2020—right before the pandemic—we very clearly defined our purpose and a set of guiding values. Really, they are a rearticulation of the behaviors we have always valued in our team. We paired those values with leadership behaviors, and we provided our leaders with tools and training so they can implement and communicate those values and behaviors with their teams.

This effort has really given our people a north star and empowered them to operate within our value system. And over time, it has helped us move faster as an organization.

We are also data-centric, and increasingly so. We set quantitative goals, and we measure our progress. That keeps us accountable. It helps ensure that we’re not only living our values, but we’re also continuing to improve the operational environment within our company as well.

That’s very powerful. One of the things I admire most about Northrop Grumman is your dedication to diversity & inclusion, and the degree to which you’ve defined inclusive leadership as being core to your organization. Can you talk about that journey, and about what the next chapter looks like for you?

Our culture is incredibly important to me and to our team because it’s at the center of our ability to deliver value to all our stakeholders. I believe that diversity of thought and tapping into people’s broad experiences gives us the ability to innovate. It truly sets us apart from other organizations and makes us all better.

The next stage in our journey is about focusing on a sense of belonging across every part our organization. So, we are exploring how we can better position our team members to not only be part of diverse and innovative teams but to continue to grow and feel like they can bring their entire selves to work. And that journey is one that we’ve been on for a while, but I don’t believe ever ends.

I have to ask you about the James Webb Telescope. This is such a seminal event for the world, not just for the United States. What has it been like to lead through its launch? How has it been received inside your organization?

Well, it was a bit harrowing! To lead through the development, launch, and now the actualization of the telescope—there were so many new technologies we needed to invent to be able to look back 13 billion years in time through light travel and the capture of that light.

But really, it’s just amazing to me that we have the technical talent to support such a phenomenal feat. We are producing these stunning images, and it is such a motivator—not only to people who were a part of the program—but to the entire Northrop Grumman team who contributed along the way. Not to mention the people around the globe who are getting to see this amazing science. It creates a new sense of curiosity and excitement about space and our understanding of it.

I really hope that capabilities like the Webb Telescope inspire a whole generation of people who might not otherwise have pursued a career in STEM to do so. That may truly be Webb’s greatest legacy.

Its such an important breakthrough and it will be a gift for generations to come. If I can pivot to the defense industry, an industry that is fast-changing with new challenges emerging all the time—What excites you most about the direction in which the industry is moving today?

Certainly, recent global conflicts have underscored the need for defense and an evolution of security. It also underscores the complexities of modern warfare, which I believe has the potential to change more in the next five years than it has in the last 50.

Being a part of that and looking at how we can rapidly develop technology and bring it into these national security applications is what our company does well. We have this ethos around problem-solving and pioneering that I am very excited to bring to today’s environment; and I believe we have both the mindset and the capabilities to do that.

Im hearing a sense of optimism in your tone and in your words in describing the future.

I am an optimist. I believe in American ingenuity and in democracy. I also think capitalism drives innovation and entrepreneurship that other systems do not. And so, yes, I’m very optimistic about our ability to compete, not just as a defense industry but as a nation.

Taking a step back—I would love to hear a little bit more about your own path as a leader. What were the most pivotal moments in your journey to becoming the CEO of one of the worlds most important institutions today?

I’m from a small town in Maryland, and I was educated in public schools. I am amazed when I look back and see where I am today. I think it was a lot of support and good fortune along the way.

Probably the most significant moment in my career journey was following the events of September 11, 2001. I, like many others at the time, was personally impacted by the tragedy of that day.

Shortly afterward, I had the opportunity to take what I thought would be a short work assignment—one within the intelligence community that leveraged my commercial technology experience. That work brought a new sense of purpose and clarity to me, and it’s what set me on my current career trajectory and what ultimately led me to Northrop Grumman.

We’re in a world full of uncertainty. As you look ahead, what leadership characteristics do you think will be most important as we look to the future?

Grit, resilience, and determination, of course.

We must also be able to effectively rally people around a vision for the future and a set of values—and we must ensure those are upheld throughout the organization. That requires an excellent grip on communication, along with a commitment to the highest standards of ethics and integrity.

Finally, in times like these, the importance of courage cannot be overstated. Courage to act. Courage to make decisions without perfect information. Courage to change course as things become clearer. These characteristics will be critical for leaders for the foreseeable future.

Asutosh Padhi is a senior partner and the managing partner for McKinsey in North America, leading the firm across the United States, Canada, and Mexico and serving as part of McKinsey’s 15-person global leadership team. He is also a member of McKinsey’s Shareholders Council, the firm’s equivalent to a board of directors.

He is also the co-author of The Titanium Economy, a new book that explores the industrial tech sector and the bright future that it can help create. It’s available for pre-order now.

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