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7 Questions with MIKE SMITH
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7 Questions with MIKE SMITH
Name: MIKE SMITH
Current title: Vice President, CANADIAN SURFACE COMBATANT PROGRAM
Current organisation: Lockheed Martin Corporation
Michael (Mike) S. Smith is Vice President of the Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC) Program where he is responsible for the overall leadership, strategy and execution of the most advanced and modern warship design as a partner of Canada’s Combat Ship Team for the Royal Canadian Navy’s future fleet. This includes overseeing all activities through the design phase, construction period, sustainment and modernization, working with key partners and suppliers in Canada and Scotland. In addition, Mike is responsible for setting and executing the strategy for the creation of economic value for Canada under Lockheed Martin’s Value Proposition commitments. This critical effort has total potential value of over $7B.
Previously, Mr. Smith served as Vice President of Corporate Strategy at Lockheed Martin Corporation where he was responsible for enterprise strategy development, market analysis, and strategy deployment across the entire $65B company and its 60-plus market segments.
Prior to joining Lockheed Martin, Mike served as President, HII Nuclear LLC - a wholly owned subsidiary of Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII), an $8B company and America’s largest military shipbuilder and a provider of technical services to partners in government and industry. In this capacity, he was accountable for the growth and profitability of the company’s Department of Energy portfolio with a focus on National Nuclear Security Administration programs. For four years prior to that position, Mike served as Executive Vice President, Strategy and Development, for the company. In this role, he was responsible for strategy and development activities at Huntington Ingalls, including the development and integration of strategic planning efforts as well as the analysis and entrance into new markets which included autonomous systems and data analytics services.
Prior to Huntington Ingalls, Mike had worked at BAE Systems for 10 years where he held numerous leadership positions in business development, operations, international development, and strategic planning. His platform experience ranged from combat vehicles to naval weapons to precision munitions. Mike also worked in defense services with a focus on protection systems and electronic systems sustainment. His last role at BAE Systems was Sector Vice President, Business Development, Strategy and Planning, for the Support Solutions sector.
Over his 20-year career, Mike has overseen several acquisitions (totaling over $5B in aggregate value) and evaluated over $150B in potential deals. His recognized proclivity for strategic insight and market dynamics has led to his selection to serve as a corporate representative on the boards of dozens of legal entities over the last 15 years at each of his employers. Additionally, Mike has served as the lead strategist on major councils and committees – most recently on Lockheed Martin’s Global Supply Chain Executive Steering Committee, the company’s six-person Artificial Intelligence Executive Steering Committee, and the founding member of the enterprise-wide Strategic Technology Investment Review Board.
Smith earned two degrees at Stanford University: a bachelor’s in Industrial Engineering in 1995 and a master’s in Engineering Management in 1996. He has completed executive leadership programs at Harvard Business School, The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, and Said Business School at Oxford University, He also served five years as a nuclear-trained Surface Warfare Officer in the US Navy specializing in reactor controls, undersea warfare, and communications security.
Mike has served on several non-profit boards to include Sentara Healthcare System (Norfolk, VA), the Cape Henry Collegiate School (Virginia Beach, VA), DC Metro United Service Organizations (USO), National Defense Industrial Association, and now currently the National Brain Tumor Society (Boston, MA), and an inaugural member of the Center for Ethics, Diversity, and Workplace Culture (CEDWC) at Temple University’s Fox School of Business.
Mike, his wife, Annie, and their three sons reside in Bethesda, MD.
1. What have you found most challenging as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise?
The biggest challenge I've found in executive roles at large companies is maintaining deep, personal, and meaningful connections with employees. I'm very much an extrovert (ENTJ through and through), and I'm energized by human interaction. However, as I've advanced up the corporate ladder, I have found it increasingly difficult to maintain that human touch. And to be perfectly blunt, as a Black executive, I needed all of the energy and support I could get. To address this, I have become extremely purposeful in creating the time and space to not only satisfy this personal need, but also contribute to the culture of the company in a deliberate yet authentic way. After all, isn’t that the role of the leader – to motivate through deep human connections? I get frustrated with myself when I allow the day-to-day job to get in the way of my actual role - to preserve and deliver the “human mission.”
2. How did you become a CEO or executive of a large enterprise? Can you please briefly tell the story?
When I rewind the tape, it seems to start with my time as an officer in the U.S. Navy (USN). The military dedicates near boundless resources in training its people how to lead. However, I felt that when I reported to my first ship, I had arrived with a box of tools that I really didn't know how to use. I figured out ways to take advantage of that and tested out what tool worked for which scenario. I observed and tested, incorporated or discarded techniques as I progressed through what turned out to be an abbreviated career (spouses get 51% of the vote). During that time, I completed the USN's rigorous Nuclear Power School (which is where I learned that I wasn't as smart as I thought I was). Those five years in the Navy, however, set the tone for the next two decades as an executive in the defense industry. Looking back, there were two times in my career where unforeseen circumstances forced me to accelerate my learning as a budding executive.
The first came right after I left the Navy in 2001. I had interviewed with a company called Marsh & McLennan (NYSE: MMC) in their NYC Operations office. Marsh had a Nuclear Risk Practice as part of a broader Power & Utility Practice. This practice was largely comprised of former Navy Nukes. I felt it would ease my transition into the civilian world and it felt just right. I would spend three or four years learning the nuclear risk business under the Managing Director of the practice. None of this played out as planned.
Marsh's Power & Utility Practice was located on the 89th floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center. I had been asked to attend a planning session where I would meet the remaining members of the practice. My would-be boss was going to connect with me on Friday (September 7th) to iron out the final logistics. I never received that phone call (perhaps a case of his day-to-day job getting in the way). Nearly the entire practice was killed that morning. The following week, when U.S. airspace reopened, I was invited to return to NY where I was offered the somber challenge of rebuilding the practice and trying to replace the 150 years of corporate knowledge that was instantly erased on that tragic day - September 11th, 2001.
The second event, fortunately, did not involve tragedy. Rather it involved career acceleration through upheaval and change. In March of 2005, I left Marsh and joined a company called United Defense (UDI) where I was brought on as a junior manager focused on financial analysis of potential mergers & acquisitions (M&A). In June, we were acquired by BAE Systems (LON: BA) out of the UK. As these things sometimes go, the entire chain of command - four layers!) between me and the BAE CEO in London left the business over a fairly short period. Though the former UDI CEO and my division president left and were replaced, I was asked to perform the duties of the Director and Vice President within my functional chain of command - Corporate Development (strategic planning, business development, new ventures, M&A, and technology investment). The Director title followed roughly six months later as did the Vice President title several more months down the road. From there, I took on increasingly senior and diverse roles spanning international development, P&L leadership, strategy, operations, and business development.
In May of 2014, I carried that experience into the C-suite as Chief Strategy Officer at Huntington Ingalls Industries (NYSE: HII) and later on as the Vice President of Corporate Strategy at Lockheed Martin (NYSE: LMC). I have taken these experiences back into a P&L role and am now leading the Canadian Surface Combatant Program up in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Patience and performance are absolutely critical to career advancement. But there are times when elements beyond your control will either slow or accelerate your career. My advice is to (1) overcome your fear and take advantage of the chaos organizational change often brings, and (2) be fearless (yet judicious) in stepping up to a challenge you believe to be just beyond reach. For me, it’s been a wild ride full of plenty of gold stars and deep scars. And just like in life, the glue dries, and the gold stars fall off. Similarly, the pain of your failures will dissipate in time, but the scars will be life-long reminders of your miscalculations.
3. How do you structure your workdays from waking up to going to sleep?
I'll admit up front that I am NOT a morning person. Recognizing this, I start my day the night before. Let me explain.
I spend the final 30 minutes of each day (at whatever time that happens to be) reviewing what I accomplished that day and what my plan is for tomorrow. I go to bed with a clean inbox and make sure there are no emails "hiding" in my outbox. Like most folks, I start the day reviewing and clearing any emails that came in overnight (a big deal when leading international operations). Like you, COVID has forced me to change how I carry out my day. However, I still try to maintain a level of "touch" that is consistent with in-person office life.
I will typically reach out and call several of my direct reports to discuss what's important to them for the day and how I might earn my paycheck as the "un-blocker." I try to take short 10 to 15-minute walks three times per day - 10am, 12:30pm, and 3pm, but sometimes this devolves into mere coffee breaks (similar to Swedish "Fika" - a social tradition I learned during my three years as a Managing Director in Karlskoga). I try to rope off at least one hour per day to just think. We don't get enough time to do that. We have to force it. I've found that meetings, like vapor, will take the space available - ALL of it.
4. What's the most recent significant leadership lesson you've learned?
You can delegate authority, but you CANNOT delegate accountability. The commanding officer of a ship may not be on the bridge during a collision but is accountable for every soul onboard - no matter the circumstances. Bottom line. Period. I have friends who have learned this hard lesson. I've learned it too, not while at sea, but at the desk.
That said, you still must grant your teams the authority to make decisions, and then trust in their ability to execute. Another Swedish-ism I picked up was the word "tillit." While its literal English translation is "trust," it means so much more to the Swedes. First, you'll not that the word is a palindrome. This signifies that trust runs both ways. I trust you to do the right thing and you trust me to provide all the support you need. It's a great concept and one that has stuck me over the last ten years.
5. What's one book that has had a profound impact on your leadership so far? Can you please briefly tell the story of how that book impacted your leadership?
This is easy. "The First 90 Days," by Michael Watkins. It's the only book (apart from Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man") that I've read more than once (four times in fact). It is THE quintessential guide to making transitions and it's in these "seams" in ones career where most executives stumble. If you read the inner sleeve, Watkins reminds us that the President of the United States gets 100 days to set the tone. You (only) get 90. Transitions - whether they be a move to a new country, a new function, a new project, a new company, or a new business area - remind me of a sofa. Yep, you read that right. No matter what, you will ALWAYS find little items in between the cushions. In my house it's LEGO's and TV remotes.
There are a lot of important things that matter that somehow drop into the cracks when making the move from one cushion to the next. It is important that we remind ourselves of those things that tend to get overlooked when literally moving seats in an organization. They may even be insignificant at the time but can become real derailers down the line. Consider this - if your child is missing that ONE piece necessary to finish a set or your spouse wants to turn off the game in favor of a sitcom – that missing item becomes an instant crisis. However, in that latter case, I’ve probably hidden the remote!
6. How do you build leadership capacity in a large enterprise?
Share what you have learned as if it were your job - because it is.
7. What is one meaningful story that comes to mind from your time as a CEO or executive of a large enterprise so far?
One of the most important roles of a leader in a large organization is to provide clarity of the team's mission and authentic compassion for its members. I remember a particularly harrowing day as a Practice Leader at my first civilian employer. We were a large publicly traded company and the leader in our industry. Like employees at most public companies, many on my team had invested heavily in company stock. Some of the more senior team members were Vice Presidents and Assistant Vice Presidents who had done well supplementing their incomes through these investments as well as taking full advantage of the employer-sponsored stock investment program.
Then tragedy struck. A scandal led to the company losing over 35% of its value before lunchtime. My office was filled with angry, befuddled employees - many of whom were in tears. There was a married couple who had lost their down payment on what would have been their first home. Another lost the resources she had planned to tap in order to fund her daughter's wedding the coming summer (a mere nine months away). A third lost his saving for his son's college. I was emotionally shaken. What made things worse is that I was so new to the company that I had very little at stake. It was hard to say, "we're all in this together," when it was known that it wasn't really true - at least in the sense that mattered to them that day.
Several months later, after the turn of the year, the overhang of our financial losses continued to take its toll. I had to do my part and lay off roughly one-fourth of my team. Keep in mind that these were those same people who, by no fault of their own, had just lost tens of thousands of their savings during those three fateful days in October 2004. Most of these employees were rated as having achieved their objectives in the preceding year. I was emotionally exhausted, and, on that day, I ended up losing my stomach for the job. I resigned two months later.
So what's the lesson here? I guess it taught me that leadership is hard, and that accountability is even harder. I wasn't the one who steered us headlong into the iceberg, but my team was looking to me for some answers – fast. Answers to why this was happening to them. I had to own the mistakes of a handful of bad actors way up the ranks – so I did. But when I was no longer comfortable doing that, I recognized that it was time to leave.