Woman in charge of Lockheed’s F-35 program succeeds by being authentic

Posted Sunday, Sep. 29, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The massive hulk of a F-35 joint strike fighter sits inside a hangar at the west-side factory of Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.

About a half dozen mechanics and engineers stand by and admire the jet until a demure woman in a pants suit and flats emerges from behind the tail of the plane.

The attention shifts to her. It is all smiles and handshakes, but the body language says she’s the boss: Lorraine Martin, who was appointed in April as general manager of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 joint strike fighter Lightning II program, the costliest defense program in U.S. history.

“I help other people do their excellent work,” she said. “My job is really to clear out obstacles for the engineers, the software designers, the folks building the aircraft.”

Martin, 51, is part of a growing trend of U.S. business leaders who exemplify “authenticity” and are able motivate multi-generational employees of diverse backgrounds, North Texas business school professors say.

Standing just five-feet tall, she is a wisp of a woman in charge of a bear of a program that has been rocked by cost overruns and technical failures almost since it began in 2001. After a year as the program’s deputy manager, Martin was named general manager as part of a broad leadership shakeup at the defense giant. Orlando Carvalho replaced Larry Lawson as top executive of the aeronautics division. Lawson departed in March for another firm.

Martin has entered an arena fraught with complexity. She is leading an F-35 workforce of 6,000 at the Fort Worth plant during an uncertain period in the jet’s development, when even small mistakes are amplified and Pentagon leaders are apt to express dissatisfaction at any moment.

“Any weakness she may have had or demonstrated, she’d probably be the 90-day wonder,’’ said Billy Johnson, executive director of the professional leadership program at the College of Business, University of North Texas. “She’d been out pretty quick.”

A few months shy of her promotion, the Pentagon suspended test flights of the aircraft because cracks were discovered in the engine blades. At the time, the Pentagon’s F-35 program executive, Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, accused Lockheed Martin of “trying to squeeze every nickel” out of the Pentagon and said the company needed to be doing more to cut costs. Bogdan told reporters, “I want them [Lockheed Martin] … to do the things that will build a better relationship. I’m not getting all that love yet.”

Martin builds credibility by acknowledging the company’s previous errors, including “overly optimistic” production schedules. “We misjudged some of the planning.”

She has supported a concept that requires Lockheed to include in its contracts incentives that require the company to assume additional costs for the aircraft. If the company finds a way to build the aircraft for less money, that’s better for Lockheed.

“Lockheed now has more skin in the game,” she said.

The government in recent months has been toning down its criticism of the program.

Bogdan stated at the annual Air Force Association conference on Sept. 17 in Washington, D.C., that he would like to be “further along” on the program. But he acknowledged that relationships had improved over the last several months. The last round of contract negotiations for two additional orders of aircraft took half as long as previous talks for a single lot, he said. In July, the Pentagon agreed to terms on the purchase of 71 additional F-35 fighter jets. Lockheed this year is expected to deliver 36 aircraft to the government.

“It tells you that you have got to be communicating a little bit better,” Bogdan said. “I can tell you when you start communicating and you start listening to each other, you start finding solutions to problems instead of finding blame. So that is part of what I’m very happy about.”

In 2010, the F-35 program was rebaselined and cost projections and schedules were revamped, Martin said. The effort has enabled the program to be closer to meeting its goals, aerospace industry officials have said.

Martin says she’s going to do “what I have to do to deliver aircraft on time and with the necessary capabilities.

“And the employees of this organization have been doing that — not without hard work and not without sacrifices,” she said.

Martin was born in Stillwater, Okla., to a father with a doctorate in electrical engineering. Her mother was pursuing a biology degree in college until she began having children.

Both parents “never placed any boundaries on anything for what we could do,” Martin said. “It was really unlimited. It was about what is your interest and what were your aptitudes.

“It didn’t matter if you were male or female,” she said. “It was about how can you go and impact the world. That really helped set a perspective early on.”

Martin’s father ran a business that required the family to often move to different cities across the nation. She attended numerous grammar schools, and was enrolled in a different school for each of her junior high years.

In all, Martin’s family grew to 12 children. She had three biological siblings. After her parents divorced and her mother remarried, she got introduced to five step-siblings. In addition, her mother and stepfather adopted two more children, and her father had another child from another marriage.

“We were kind of like a Brady Bunch,’’ she said.

Martin’s stepdad, a retired Air Force mechanic, was influential in her decision to join the Air Force. She applied for a scholarship and got it. She has degrees in computational mathematics and computer science.

Her career at Lockheed spans 25 years. Prior to coming to Fort Worth, she ran the company’s C-130 program in Marrietta, Ga.

She has climbed to a position of power because of her leadership traits and broad-based technical knowledge, said Carvalho, the aeronautics division chief who recommended her promotion. Martin is “masterful” in developing business relationships, “highly intelligent” and a proven leader, Carvalho said.

Past female leaders in top positions have said that their success occurred as a result of working harder than everyone else in the organization.

Martin doesn’t see it that way.

“I set my expectations for myself and my performance,’’ she said. “I’m not sure I would say I worked any harder than anyone else. I’m in there to contribute.”

The woman is a model of cool restraint. She doesn’t exude flash or exhibit the need to bark out orders. She can “dial up” with poise when she meets with employees, but her manner is calm and soft-spoken. Nor is she an ice queen. She is affable and infinitely polite.

She scores well on “authenticity” — the business buzzword of the day that demands that leaders be genuine and sincere, business professors say.

“What you are seeing with her is she’s being authentic, she’s being who she is but still delivering a clear direction and a sense of empowerment to her employees,” said Miguel Quinones, the O. Paul Corley distinguished chair in organizational behavior at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University.

“If she positions herself by talking loudly and forcefully, that wouldn’t be who she was, and it would come across as disingenuous and people wouldn’t respond to it as well,” Quinones said. “When people get in trouble is when they try to be something that they are not.’’

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705 Twitter: @yberard

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