Marillyn Hewson had a problem. A $13 billion problem.
Four years earlier, euphoria reigned at Lockheed Martin’s Systems Integration business unit in Owego, New York, a small town in the state’s Southern Tier adjoining Pennsylvania. The division had won the contract to build the next fleet of Marine Ones, the helicopters used by the president of the United States. Apart from the monetary and employment value, the contract conferred a healthy dose of prestige upon the world’s largest defense contractor. Now, in the spring of 2009, prestige, money and employment value were in ashes: The $13 billion contract had abruptly been canceled.
As president of the unit, the town’s largest employer, Hewson now faced the biggest crisis of her 26-year tenure at the company. Nearly 1,000 jobs would be lost—about one-quarter of the workforce at Systems Integration. It fell to Hewson to deliver the blow.
But this was fire-walking for a manager: Employees were confused and upset, full of questions, yet frightened by the answers. “Morale was about as low as it could go,” says Jeff Brown, a communications officer who worked there. “But Marillyn was adamant about being transparent.”
Hewson’s priority was to ensure that employees remained informed, and she accomplished that by meeting with them face-to-face.
According to Brown and published accounts, she held all-staff sessions and other meetings in the auditorium to talk with employees and answer their questions. The news was difficult to deliver and even harder to hear, but employees told Hewson they appreciated how she openly communicated the situation and gave them straight answers, rather than sending out a memorandum or talking to them via email.
“We had a lot of challenges to overcome, but what was important was to also recognize that it wasn’t the end of the business,” Hewson later told The Washington Post. Setbacks are inevitable, she explained. “It’s necessary that a leader assess the situation, take the appropriate action…and then reset and rebuild.”
Monitoring from headquarters in Bethesda was Lockheed Chairman and CEO Robert Stevens, who had put Hewson in Owego to run that division. “Marillyn was tireless and fearless in treating the team like adults—not sugarcoating matters, but not yielding to a sense of hopelessness, either,” Stevens says. “She asked anyone who wanted to continue employment to tell her their needs. She reached out to community leaders. I watched her navigate a set of customer, congressional and employee issues in a caring and competent way…going the extra mile to minimize the dislocation and disruption that flows from such a circumstance. It was an impressive performance.”
It was a performance that helped pave Hewson’s way to the rarefied air of Lockheed’s executive suite.