Chief Executive Names Boeing’s McNerney ‘2015 CEO of the Year’

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Q: With all the success Boeing has had, both in private and government aviation, what is the next big thing?

JIM McNERNEY: It is more of the same, but refreshed with new technology. Ours is a growth industry for two reasons: One, there’s an underlying growth in the application of aerospace technology, whether it’s satellites or airplanes or rockets or drones or whatever, as we penetrate more applications. Then there is a kicker to that growth, which is the refreshment of  new technologies. The 787 is a good example, where you obsolete the base, and get a multiple on an existing growth-market trajectory. I still think things will fly and will go into outer space. There will be surveillance, intelligence, reconnaissance kinds of missions and the need for better technologies and the data that manipulates them.

Q: I was hoping you might say something specific, like you’re working on a spaceship to Mars. 

JM: As it turns out, we are. The Space Launch System would be an example of a program that we’re working. We’re building a rocket in Michoud, Louisiana that’s significantly bigger than the Saturn V and will have the ability to go beyond the moon, beyond the asteroids, to Mars and even beyond that. By 2018 we will test the system in anticipation of a missions by 2021 or 2022.

Q: How do you keep entrepreneurial and innovation momentum in a big company, dealing with long lead times and complex technologies?

JM: The bigger you get as a company, the more that challenge is important to meet. We do it two ways. One, people are imbued with a sense of mission in this company and are excited by the things they do even if they’re a relatively small part of it.

For example, the Triple 7 is the result of tens of thousands of engineers designing it and 5,000 or 6,000 suppliers working with us. And it all has to come together. The thing that we do uniquely is bringing various things together—that final systems integration against performance parameters. Systems engineering and the manufacturing process to support it—that is Boeing’s sweet spot.

It helps to have something that is fundamentally exciting to begin with. “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s design the world’s greatest airliner,” “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s design a rocket that goes to Mars, then we’ll take people to Mars,” “Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s design an autonomous aircraft that can fly halfway around the world and stay aloft indefinitely like a satellite.” The kind of people attracted to our company are willing to be a small part of a big exciting thing.

Q: What is your role in all of this? How do you, doing what you do, push this forward?

JM: It’s not one thing; it’s kind of everything. Because you’re right, the biggest challenge of a CEO is to keep everybody aligned and feeling motivated about being aligned, and to be able to afford career growth and financial opportunities for those who are aligned. Painting a picture of what we’re all doing and why it’s important, and supporting each and every person to get it done, is a big part of my job.