Dare to Make Mistakes: Kathy Warden Slayed the STEM Fields

Even competing in a male dominated field, Kathy Warden has proven that women like her can stay and thrive.
Northrop Grumman CEO and the B2 Bomber showcase
Courtesy: Northrop Grumman
By | 9 min read

When we get to the world of science, it’s hard to find many women doing noble things there. It is a known fact that women are underrepresented in the STEM fields, comprising about only a quarter of the workforce, and this problem is not a pain point of a single nation, but every region in the world.

When the gap is still wide, efforts to getting more women in STEM is crucial to nurture a leap. Talking about women in this area, it’s a must to mention Kathy Warden, Chair, Chief Executive Officer, and President of Northrop Grumman Corporation. She’s the strong evidence that female representatives like her can stay and thrive in STEM fields.

There’s a long tale of this amazing woman, but first, many folks would love to hear about the early beginnings of her career.

Unexpected Career – From a Small Town to CEO of Northrop Grumman

Kathy Warden was born in a small town of Smithsburg, Maryland and spent her childhood there. There’s only 3,000 people in that tiny town, and they all know one another.

Looked back on her childhood, Kathy expressed, “Being in an environment that was so small, where people knew one another and trusted each other and understood their character based on what they did, not just what they said – that shapes you as you become older.  You realize how important character is to building relationships with people.”

From there, Kathy received her MBA at George Washington University in 1999. The CEO had graduated with her undergraduate and went to work for General Electric at the time, continuing on to get my MBA as a full-time employee and part-time student.

In those days at George Washington, Kathy had learned a tremendous amount about how to apply business skills in the work setting by doing her MBA at the same time that she was working professionally.

After leaving General Electric, Kathy spent a little less than a decade there. She continued to join a startup in the late 1990s, during the dot-com boom.

She left to work with a small company that was helping companies figure out how to use the internet for commerce and other business purposes. Kathy was consulting with a wide variety of customers in different industries and learned what it took to create an e-commerce business in these various industries.

She went on to work in aerospace and defense almost in an unplanned way.

“I was working with a company that had both commercial business as well as defense business, and post-9/11 in 2001, I was asked to begin using some of the skills that I had been applying with our commercial clients in the use of information exchange and information gathering into the intelligence community to address some of the issues that were identified with the 9/11 Commission,” stated Kathy Warden.

That’s what got Kathy started in the defense industry.

Kathy reflected on her journey, “I absolutely thought that that would be a short period of time, and that I would go back to my commercial roots, but I really fell in love with the mission.”

The noble woman spent the rest of her career in different roles, mostly profit and loss responsibility for business operations, and that all culminated in Northrop Grumman with her being named the CEO of the company in 2019.

A few months later, the pandemic hit, which was the chance for Kathy to demonstrate her leadership when being on board of Northrop Grumman.

As COVID Grinds on – Building People’s Confidence is Key

Northrop Grumman employees in protective uniform in a factory
Courtesy: Northrop Grumman

As the coronavirus hit, the defense contractor that has set up all the way from lunar landers to nuclear missiles was considered an essential business. Because of this, its factories continued to run, and workers there as well as elsewhere had to deal with fearful uncertainty regarding their safety.

“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,” Kathy reflected.

She continued, “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.”

As shared by the CEO, right before the pandemic—Northrop Grumman defined clearly their purpose and a set of guiding values. They were a rearticulation of the behaviors the firm has always valued in their team.

They aligned these values with leadership behaviors, equipping their leaders with tools and training to effectively instill and communicate these values and behaviors within 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,” Kathy said.

Values are important; however, the other magic glue of the defense contractor is data-centric. The firm set quantitative goals, and measure the progress. That keeps them accountable. It helps ensure that they’re not only living their values, but they’re also continuing to improve the operational environment within the company as well.

Warden herself had a good sense of the complex burdens faced by workers during the pandemic; she had her first child just after she began working in national security after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Warden also realized communication would be essential, and she says that for five months she wrote a weekly update to the entire company, covering what it was doing, specifically in response to the coronavirus.

“We needed to build people’s confidence…that they were going to be safe in the workplace,” she said.

That sort of direct communication between a CEO and her 90,000 workers is part of a larger effort at Northrop Grumman to create an inclusive environment. That involves not just seeking regular feedback, but establishing employee resource groups to bring together employees of particular backgrounds and empower them to push diversity efforts forward.

Talking about diversity and inclusion, Northrop Grumman has recently been recognized as one of the top 25 companies among the S&P 500 for its general equality performance. As stated by Kathy Warden, there are steps the company has taken towards promoting gender equality.

Everyone is Seen – The Art of Creating Diversity and Inclusion

Northrop Grumman CEO speaks at investor meeting
Courtesy: Northrop Grumman

As Kathy stated, diversity is foundational in her company; it is part of the core values to have a diverse population in the company that mirrors the communities in which they live and work. But there’s more to it than just diverse representation.

There is a culture of inclusion that means people feel a sense of belonging and respect no matter who they are, what their background is, or what they look like.

Kathy stated, “That’s the work that is done in our company day in and day out to ensure it’s well beyond a sense of having someone in the company that looks like you who’s able to succeed and get equitable outcomes, but to yourself feel like you’re contributing and belong in our environment.”

About a decade ago, the company set goals for representation in the company, long before most companies were making such a bold move. These goals are tied to executive compensation, giving them real meaning and accountability for the senior leaders to drive diverse representation.

They also conduct annual surveys to assess inclusion, and these are linked to their incentive programs. The goal is to continually improve on the culture of their company to create that inclusive environment.

Finally, they have numerous programs inside the company that help them implement strategies to increase not only the diversity of their workforce but the diversity of their communities.

Kathy Warden said, “Often, one of the constraints we face, such as having more women in technology, is that not enough women are pursuing STEM careers or even STEM education as a foundation for a STEM career.”

She continued, “In the case of minorities, we address various issues in our systems and processes for selecting and promoting talent to ensure equitable outcomes. We’ve done a lot of work across the organization to understand the root cause of these issues and then lay in place programs that help us to attack them.”

Even with an uptick in creating diversity, Kathy admits that Northrop Grumman still has work to do in building a diverse team. “We’ve made a lot of progress,” Warden said. “But I’ll tell you, we’re not done.”

Kathy Warden has come a long way, so she is the best one to extract wisdoms and give it to newcomers.

Leadership Lessons – Take Risks, Be a Lifelong Leaner, Dare to Make Mistakes

“Early in my career, one of the luxuries I had was being able to take some risks. I worked for companies that pushed me to challenge myself and step into roles that expanded my horizons—roles that, frankly, I might not have chosen to take had I not had that encouragement that I would succeed, and that the organization would be there to support me,” Kathy said.

She continued, “But that risk-taking is something that each individual has to get comfortable with. For me, it really helped me build a strong foundation of confidence to take on new challenges and stretch myself throughout the remainder of my career.”

As Kathy was in mid-career, what she learned is that careers really are a marathon, not a sprint.

It’s not about getting to a destination; it’s about picking up skills and building your network all along the way. You have to really immerse yourself in the learning that comes with every role, developing in me a sense of being a lifetime learner.

“I wasn’t going to reach a destination in my career where I felt the learning was done, and now I just executed. I was always going to be learning, always going to be expanding my network, and I needed to be purposeful and intentional about doing that in each opportunity I had,” as stated by the CEO.

Northrop Grumman factory with B2 Bomber
Courtesy: Northrop Grumman

What’s more? Kathy also underscored the importance of the understanding of the soft skills of leadership.

Things like empathy have been invaluable. Over the last year, the world has been dealt with a major change, and in that, individuals are feeling very disrupted, isolated from the pandemic, a sense of instability from social justice issues.

According to Kathy, It really requires leadership skills that we often don’t think of as what an executive need to possess. But communication and empathy have been at the core of what we’ve needed to use to operate through this pandemic over the last year.

Kathy shared, “So, Different skills at different times throughout one’s career, and I have always felt that I’m constantly learning. If you’re open to that, you can get good development out of absolutely any circumstance that you’re in, even those that don’t seem like the best or the most constructive circumstances. They are really valuable learning lessons.”

Kathy Warden is a role model for many women, and perhaps others as well, including men. That’s why many people believe that making mistakes as a role model is not a good thing. However, Kathy Warden has another take on this.

According to her, “Well, there is a lot of responsibility, and I’m humbled and honored to be thought of as a role model. I don’t think of myself in that way, but if I can inspire someone to believe in themselves and pursue a dream, I’m just thrilled that I can have that impact on someone. I think it’s important for all of us to realize that we can, through small acts, really have an impact on the world.”

“I do try to be a role model, but you’re going to make mistakes along the way. You can’t be afraid to make mistakes along the way, and I think that too is part of being a role model—how you respond when you do, and how you pick yourself up and move forward.”

This is a very strong charisma from her that we can see, Kathy will push herself forward in any situation to protect her vision in providing the US and its allies the ability to keep peace and stability.

Provide Powerful Instrument for US and Its Allies to Keep Peace and Stability

Northrop Grumman CEO speaks at INSA conference
Courtesy: Northrop Grumman

“As we think about how the world has changed even in the last few years, and the degrading stability, I think that we all are feeling a little less comfortable with how the world has evolved. The best way to deter conflict is to have the capability to quickly end a conflict. And our allies around the globe depend on that deterrent’s capability as well for peace and stability. We absolutely are staying on the forefront of advanced computing, artificial intelligence, even quantum,” Kathy Warden said.

She continued, “And as we think about those advancements in technology, we figure out how do we apply them then to the mission of our customers. What we do every day is help provide airmen, sailors and soldiers the capability they need to get to where their mission is, successfully conduct that mission and get home safely. And so that translation of those advanced technologies to mission systems that give them that capability is the core of our company’s work.”

To that end, the firm has been providing capabilities to US allies in combating threats, and we have to talk about Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The firm has been supplying arms to the Ukrainians, largely through the US and European allies. This is done through contracts with those governments, not directly with Ukraine. This practice explains why the company doesn’t engage in business with Russia or is banned from operating in Russia.

Indeed, until very recently, the company still bought rocket engines from Russia. And this was an agreed upon relationship between the US and Russian governments through NASA. And they did just break that relationship and have put in place an alternative source for supplying those rocket engines to allow them to still provide resupply to the International Space Station.

And so now Northrop Grumman, no longer have any reliance on Russian supply. And that is a place that they wanted to be in working with the US government, but wanted to do in a way that all parties were involved in a smooth transition. And that’s what they were able to accomplish.

Kathy notes that establishing a U.S.-based supply of rocket engines for space propulsion has been a longstanding goal. The recent shift away from the Russian-sourced engines, expedited by the conflict in Ukraine, aligns with this broader objective, emphasizing the ongoing commitment to achieve this goal.

Talking about getting banned from the Russia, Kathy Warden expressed her surprise, but this circumstance can’t upset her at all.

She said, “It hasn’t upset me; as a matter of fact, it’s made me proud. The reason I am banned from travel to Russia is because of the work Northrop Grumman does. We are providing capabilities that the U.S. and our allies use to deter conflict. And when that’s not successful, as it hasn’t been in Ukraine, to protect people’s human rights and their freedoms and way of life. So, that’s something to be very proud of.”

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