When former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates was summing up his thoughts on leadership a few years ago, he laid out a list of what he called “pragmatic visionaries,” a handful of rare individuals who “envision a new way forward” but were also “practical, with the skill to build broad support for and implement their vision.” It’s a pretty good list. Ronald Reagan’s on it. So are Margaret Thatcher, Deng Xiaoping and Nelson Mandela, along with Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Howard Schultz. And so is Marillyn Hewson, the chairman, president and chief executive of Lockheed Martin—and Chief Executive’s 2018 CEO of the Year.
Robert Gates was pretty perceptive. Passionate, poised and relentlessly methodical (as you would expect from her industrial engineering background), Hewson, 64, seems uniquely cast for her role at this particular moment in time, a chaotic era with Russia and China reasserting their strategic aspirations globally while the new president has deepened the political divide in Washington—far and away her largest customer.
Hewson has thrived under the pressure. Since taking the reins of the world’s largest aerospace and defense company on January 1, 2013, total shareholder return for Lockheed over her tenure has been 309 percent, versus 107 percent for the S&P 500. Rising global defense spending bodes well for the future.
Under Hewson, the $51 billion (sales), company has doubled down on defense and moved away from dalliances with civilian IT businesses, ground though a difficult purchase of helicopter maker Sikorsky and, most importantly, rolled out the world’s most advanced warplane, the F-35, the most complex, arguably most vital and, at around $400 billion overall, definitely priciest weapons platform ever developed for the U.S. Department of Defense. “It gets a lot of scrutiny by Congress, it gets scrutiny by the administration, scrutiny by the Department of Defense, by the media,” she says. “It’s always front and center.”
The bravura performance was lauded by the CEOs on this year’s CEO of the Year Selection Committee. “Marillyn has led her company with tremendous vision and integrity,” says Tamara Lundgren, CEO, Schnitzer Steel. “And the results have shown through both financial and operational performance, as well as the diversity and loyalty of the people she leads.”
“It’s been a year of strong candidates,” says Mark Weinberger, CEO of EY, “but Marillyn demonstrated exceptional leadership, proving to be an exceptional role model and exceptional person—something we need in business, especially today.”
Her ascent to the top job at Lockheed was hardly preordained. After an ethics scandal engulfed Chris Kubasik on the eve of his taking over as CEO, the board turned to Hewson, then EVP of the company’s vast electronic systems business. It proved a lucky break—for Lockheed. After 30 years of increasing responsibility at the company, Hewson put her deep network of connections and visceral understanding of Lockheed’s culture, customers, products and history to work immediately.
She met with buyers at the Pentagon and around the world and found Lockheed had an engineering approach to customer service, often talking more than listening. She made international expansion a priority, eventually raising the total share of overseas revenue to 30 percent from 17 percent. She invested heavily in digital transformation and, above all, pushed to successfully launch the F-35.
It was a long, long way from where she’d started. The daughter of a struggling single mother of five (her father died of a heart attack when she was 9), she grew up in Alabama and earned her bachelor’s and master’s (in economics) at the University of Alabama. After school, she worked as an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics before joining Lockheed Martin’s Marietta, Georgia, plant as an industrial engineer in 1983. She was usually the only woman in the room at meetings. Over the next three decades, she worked her way up through the company and held leadership positions in four of the company’s five divisions.
Chief Executive recently sat down with Hewson at the company’s headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland, for a wide-ranging conversation on the state of the world, the state of the business and a master class in how to lead 100,000 employees through a chaotic era. What follows is edited for length and clarity:
Thank you for making the time today and, again, congratulations.
Thank you, it’s really an honor.
This weekend, if all goes right, your company will launch a spacecraft to Mars. What’s that like?
We, as a company, have been on every one of NASA’s Mars missions from the beginning. It’s never routine, and it’s always exciting. I was just out in Denver with our team there that put that satellite together and just the excitement about being in a position to have a satellite land on Mars, all the scientific work that it’s going to do, it’s exciting.