March-April 2015 | Featured Article

Flying High

In 2013, Marillyn Hewson became the first woman CEO in Lockheed Martin's history, making her one of the most powerful women in the world. Here's the story of the Potomac resident's unlikely rise to power.

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Junction City is a small town in the Flint Hills of Kansas, a company town joined at the hip to the Fort Riley Army base, where Warren Adams met his future wife. Marillyn, who was born on Dec. 27, 1953, the first girl after two boys, was raised in a family and an environment where country and service were bedrock values. Her mother gave up a nursing career to serve in the Women’s Army Corps while her father, a farm boy, worked for the Department of the Army during World War II, according to Hewson’s published accounts. A severe injury sustained when he was trampled by a horse ruled Warren out of active duty, but he rose from a mail room job at Fort Riley to civilian personnel officer, the top non-uniformed job at the base, and then was detailed to the Army’s top civilian job in Alaska. His star was rising, but a heart attack killed him at age 41, shortly before he was to be transferred from Alaska to a new assignment at the Pentagon.

His widow had five children to raise, ages 5 to 15. Hewson, the middle child and the oldest girl, was 9. Mary Adams had wanted her daughter to be different, so she added the extra “L” to her name. Perhaps teachers would notice the difference when they called the roll, or maybe employers would pause long enough to give her résumé a second look.

Hewson immediately assumed responsibility for the care of her younger sisters. In a note she wrote that year, which her mother kept, Hewson asked to be awakened at 6 a.m. because she had a lot to do that day. Soon after her husband’s death, Mary Adams moved the family to Alabama to be closer to relatives, cashed in her war bonds and bought a building with four small apartments that she rented out, and took a second job in the elementary school cafeteria. “We cleaned, painted and did odd jobs in the apartment building,” Hewson recalled in an essay written for Politico. “I was in charge of the family groceries.”

Hewson’s mother would hand her a $5 bill—and a $7 shopping list. “You’ll make the right decisions,” she told her daughter.

In high school, her older brother went off to serve in Vietnam, and Hewson helped pay the family bills by working at a Dairy Queen, making a new treat—banana splits. She worked as a nighttime switchboard operator to put herself through the University of Alabama, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration and a Master of Arts degree in economics. At Alabama, she met and married James Hewson and, as graduate students, they bought and remodeled a house next to campus and played on the faculty-student softball team. (Today, James Hewson is self-employed in nonprofit management.)

Her economics background led to a position in Washington, D.C., at the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Four years later, the couple decided to return to the South, so in 1983 Hewson found a position as a senior industrial engineer at Lockheed in Marietta, Georgia. She wasn’t trained as an engineer, but she talked her way into the job, convincing her future bosses that a willingness to learn was all she needed to meet any daunting job requirements.

In Marietta, she fell in love for a second time—this time with the gleaming new C-130s and C-141 aircraft on the production line in the Lockheed factory. “After that,” she told Aviation Week, “I never really wanted to work anywhere else.”

Hewson was placed in Lockheed’s general manager development program in 1985, and soon advanced to an industrial engineering manager. Following a maternity leave after her first son was born, she returned to find herself in a bigger job after her department and another merged. From there it was a steady climb: 19 different leadership positions, working in three of the four Lockheed business areas and six years at the corporate office in Bethesda. Before she became CEO, Hewson was the head of Electronic Systems, the corporation’s largest business area. With the exception of actually running a public company, the job came with all the elements a chief executive would encounter.

Trice, who worked with Hewson at various times over 14 years, says Lockheed repeatedly moved her into more challenging jobs to “hone her leadership skills.”

Hewson has said she learned quickly never to turn down a promotion, even if it meant another moving van, a new community. “When an opportunity comes along, if it makes sense for you to take it, don’t hold yourself back,” she said on CBS This Morning.

Hewson retains strong ties to the University of Alabama and has served on the Culverhouse College of Commerce and Business Administration Board of Visitors since 2006. The board is composed of prominent business leaders, mostly male, and Hewson was so understated and deferential to others’ opinions that her colleagues were surprised when she was named CEO, recalls Culverhouse Dean Michael Hardin.

Two years ago, Hardin was contemplating a different venue for the annual meeting of the Board of Visitors, and some of the board members pushed back, resisting change. The dean sought out Hewson. “Look, Mike, you’re the leader,” she told him. “You need to make a decision and be confident you’re doing the right thing, regardless of what the others say.” Hardin did what she suggested. “It forced me to re-examine my own decision-making,” he says.

Hewson is a passionate Crimson Tide football fan and occasionally attends games and visits her mom, now in her mid-90s. Says Hardin: “I wouldn’t want to bet against her on football trivia questions.”

Though Hewson has transcended gender, she is acutely aware of being a role model for young women. At Lockheed, she helped found the Women’s Leadership Forum in 2001, an internal career development event that attracts more than 300 participants annually. Hewson also makes time to address women’s groups on the rewards of careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Mindful of the gender bias that still reigns in corporate America, she told Reuters that her advice to women is: “Do your best and don’t set limits on what you think you can do. One of the best things you can do for yourself is to learn to forgive yourself for not knowing all the answers when you’re knee-deep in new territory.”

In the Politico essay about her career, Hewson cited her own role model—her mother—to underscore the importance of turning challenges into opportunities. “My mother understood that great leaders are driven by purpose, and the impact they leave must be larger than their own footprints,” she wrote. “To this day, no matter how tough things get, [my mother’s] unflagging optimism is an inspiration to me. Leaders have to see past problems to solutions, and my mother excelled at just that.”

Mary Adams wanted her daughter to be different. And so she is.

Steve Goldstein is a freelance writer and editor. To comment on this story, email comments@bethesdamagazine.com.