Exelis is a big company with approximately 10,000 people specializing in communications, electronic warfare, imaging and image processing, radar and sonar systems, space systems, and aerostructures for government and commercial customers around the world. We also provide a broad range of systems integration, network design, and development support solutions for a wide variety of US military and government agency customers. But the company hadn’t had a chief diversity officer since it spun off from ITT Corporation in 2011, and it needed a fresh approach to doing diversity.
I was chosen for the role because I have a diverse background. I wasn’t brought up in the human capital world. My first career was in the US Army, where I served as a Blackhawk helicopter pilot. Afterward, I spent several years as a consultant specializing in defense policy and national security strategy at Booz Allen Hamilton. After that, I was a White House fellow working at the Environmental Protection Agency. It wasn’t until 2013—one year after I joined Exelis on a rotational assignment—that I took on the chief diversity and inclusion officer role.
The role is important, and I was given the opportunity to own it. I also feel that I have strong support from my leadership. Dave Melcher, my CEO, is very serious about diversity and is committed to fostering a diverse and inclusive environment. Knowing that made me feel like I could actually have an impact. One person in a role won’t make a difference, but strong leadership support can allow it to happen.
When I came into the role I purposely decided to broaden the company’s definition of diversity. Historically, the aerospace and defense industry has struggled with diversity of race and gender, and Exelis is no exception. But, while we need better gender and race representation, we also need people who have varying backgrounds and levels of education, people who have lived abroad, speak different languages, and people who are different ages.
I came into the role using my consulting experience—as a team builder, a strategic thinker, a creator of innovative solutions. Consultants go into an organization in observe mode; they listen to stakeholders, identify gaps, and form teams to help come up with solutions. That’s what I’ve done in this role.
My Army background has also helped. If I learned anything in the Army, it’s to stick with it. In the military, you always run into conflict, and you have to learn fortitude. At Exelis, the biggest challenge I face is the same that all diversity officers face—you can’t please all of the people all of the time. But I continue to persevere. I see that as part of the adjustment of changing culture. Things that weren’t talked about before are being talked about now. I see that as a positive thing, because the conversation has started.
Everything we do, we tie back to the business. We want employees to make a clear connection: we’re not doing this because someone told us to—we’re doing it because it’s the right thing to do and it improves business results. We’ve done several “lunch and learns,” for example. At one, we brought in food from around world and had people with international backgrounds talk about their cultures. But we aligned it to our business practices in those countries.
Last fall, I started “I Am Exelis,” a campaign that celebrates our individuality while recognizing we’re collectively Exelis. The concept is a hybrid between Facebook and LinkedIn. We give employees the opportunity to talk about personal hobbies and interests while providing a medium for them to create business teams and collaborate across divisions. It gives employees a new way to look at diversity. Instead of saying, “I am an African American female in my thirties,” which touches on race, gender, and age, you can say, “I am a veteran, I’m a daughter, and I’m a systems engineer.” Talking about the things that are important to you—and listening to the things that are important to others—helps foster understanding among employees. And when you better understand each other, you can work better together.