Linda Mills, President of Northrop Grumman IT, on what it takes to succeed in uncertain times

Linda Mills, President of Northrop Grumman IT, on what it takes to succeed in uncertain times - top government contractors - best government contracting event

Linda Mills, President of Northrop Grumman IT, on what it takes to succeed in uncertain times - top government contractors - best government contracting eventLinda Mills has an impressive track record with Northrop Grumman. These days, as Corporate Vice President and President of Northrop Grumman IT, Mills oversees the company’s $4.5 billion information technology unit in McLean, Va. While times are uncertain for many in the government contracting space “” due, in large part, to shrinking federal budgets and a looming presidential election “” Mills is successfully leading the IT services component of the largest, fastest-growing division of the company. In an exclusive interview with ExecutiveBiz, Mills shares some key strengths that have helped her navigate her past and current roles, and how she’s making sure her unit’s technological initiatives stay relevant “” and meet the challenges “” in areas such intelligence, military, health care, and homeland security.

Your background speaks to a diverse array of business and management accomplishments “” can you share a few highlights of your career before you joined Northrop Grumman in 2002?

Linda Mills: I have been fortunate to have held a variety of positions at Northrop Grumman “” in both staff and operational roles “” at corporate and sector levels, and on the east and west coast. This experience gave me an understanding of the breadth and depth of the capabilities of Northrop Grumman and its predecessor companies. One of the early development programs was a Navy Command and Control program which although bid out of our Space Park facility in California, was performed here on the east coast. Subsequent to this program, we established our sector headquarters for a sister sector that we now call Mission Systems, here in Virginia. It was exciting to be a part of seeing the whole company blossom and grow from its heritage and roots on the west coast to the east coast. It was history in the making.

You’ve been praised for effectively overseeing Northrop Grumman’s pursuits in the non-traditional defense market, including health IT and homeland security initiatives “” what are some of the keys to winning these non-traditional markets?

Linda Mills: Well, our objective is to be the most trusted provider of systems and technologies that ensure the security of our nation and its allies. One of our corporate strategic thrusts is “Securing the Commons.“ What “Securing the Commons“ really means is that we expect healthcare, homeland security, energy, public safety and all other dimensions “” all elements of “Securing the Commons“ “” to be areas of greater emphasis and stronger growth. Safeguarding populations, critical infrastructures lines of communication, and the environment will all be important and significant priorities for growth. As a result, understanding our customer's requirements and mission, building upon our success as a national security provider and leveraging the significant reachback of Northrop Grumman technology and capabilities has allowed us to provide the best value solutions to our customers.

For instance, when we look at homeland security as a market, it's not just the DHS, it's also the state and local market, which includes public safety, wireless for first responders, and more. In the health arena, another national priority, Northrop Grumman has been working with the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and with the DoD, providing the largest military health electronic medical record system. These are all issues that are both timely and significant not only to us as a company, but also to our children and country. These are the kinds of issues that Northrop Grumman has always worked on whether they are traditional markets or markets that may seem less traditional but nationally important, like health.

How did your previous role, as vice president of operations and processes for Northrop Grumman IT, prepare you for your current role?

Linda Mills: The role gave me great visibility across the sector and a chance to work very closely with the sector president on a day-to-day basis. The role also included strategy, which allowed me to create the long-term strategic view of the businesses as well as an immediate tactical view of the business. In 2007 we reported double digit growth, making the IT sector the company's fastest growing sector. It was very exciting to help position the business for this growth.

Now more recently you are Corporate Vice President and President of Northrop Grumman IT, how is that going so far?

Linda Mills: Now, as sector president, it is thrilling to take the helm of such a fantastic and successful organization. It feels like coming home because in my previous role, I learned about the sector and built upon that. Many parts of the sector actually came from the previous sector I was with, which was Mission Systems so it was an opportunity to become re-acquainted with these parts of the business. I'm impressed with the breadth of products and services that we are providing to our customers, our employees' commitment to their customer's mission and to excellence. I am very optimistic about the opportunities that we have ahead of us. They span a very diverse customer base: defense, intelligence, commercial, state and local, civilian agencies, and international. It is very clear to me that we are poised to continue the growth that we have had in the past. Our potential is yet to be truly tapped.

What would you say are your top goals in 2008?

Linda Mills: Our focus in 2008 and beyond is profitable growth, which means we have to continually improve our competitive posture and business efficiency. There are really three elements to that; one is to aggressively grow our business by investing in our existing pipeline. Second is to grow into newer markets by leveraging some of our core competencies such as wireless, identity management, and security services. Third, as you might guess, is cost competitiveness, while investing in key technologies for the future.

What are some of the hot trends you are tracking that will impact your customer base?

Linda Mills: There are several critical national priorities, such as health care reform, global warming, education, and others, that we are tracking. It doesn't really matter who is elected, these issues are critical and need to be addressed. Technology is key to reducing cost and improving quality.

Another trend is government transformation. Agencies are seeking ways to become more efficient, secure and agile to meet changing missions and priorities, as well as shifting budgets and demographics. IT enables them to do this effectively.

Procurement policy is another trend we are looking at. Government and industry have worked well together in the past and we must continue working together in the future on the challenges that face our nation.
Another trend is budget pressures and political priorities. Northrop Grumman IT has the most diverse customer base in the company and we are prepared to serve customers across defense, intelligence, civilian federal, state and local, and international markets.

How do you stay passionate about what you do?

Linda Mills: In this new age, advanced nations are are addressing all of their challenges through information whether it is defending their nation, serving their citizens or changing their position on the world stage. Sometimes IT is central to the solution and sometimes it simply enables more conventional technologies. But in almost every case, it is indispensable to the solutions we seek.

This explains why the people I work with are, and why I am, so excited about being a part of IT: the foundation of our current age is technology, a critical building block of technology “” now and in the future “” is IT.

Since we have low asset intensity and are in a market where technology changes quickly, we must remain agile. Agile means making investments in future technologies; taking actions that shape tomorrow's market; and deepening relationships with vendors, customers and competitors. We have 10,000 active contracts, 3,300 proposals a year “” and a high win rate on competitive proposals “” that's agility. Some of those proposals are the more traditional lengthy ones that require months and some literally require days to turnaround. Our people have to be able to be versatile both in terms of anticipating and responding to that kind of volume. When you look at IT, it is a very dynamic place to be and it is everywhere. So that is what makes us passionate about what we do.

What does the future look like for IT say in a couple of years from a broader macro perspective?

Linda Mills: I think the need for IT is increasing, not decreasing. If you think back to where the industry has been with IT there have been some breakaway technologies to note. Wireless is an example of a breakaway technology and, the internet is another example. In the future there will be more breakaway technologies, and some of them may focus on national priorities. Again, if you think back to some of the things the industry was hoping to accomplish nationally; the drive towards the moon, space explorations, the need to better understand weather causes, breakaway technologies were involved. In looking at the national priorities that we've identified “” health reform, global warming, education “” these are major concerns, not just for this nation but for the world. My guess is that there are going to be breakaway IT technologies that will enable us to do things better. Very likely technologies that we can't even imagine today.

What are some of your favorite things you like to do beyond the office?

Linda Mills: My husband and I love to travel, seeing and meeting people. While the sight-seeing is always beautiful, the travel gives us a greater appreciation for diversity, art, history and a better understanding of people's heritage, their backgrounds and values. We always try, generally, not very successfully, to learn a few words in whatever country that we are visiting. Everyone is always so gracious to visitors in their country and proud to discuss their heritage. This adds to the richness that you bring back to your work and to your life as you understand what makes other parts of the world tick.

You have served on the board of the Fairfax (Va.) Symphony Orchestra “” can you tell us more about the community causes you are passionate about supporting?

Linda Mills: Northrop Grumman is focused on several critical community initiatives, such as the Fairfax Symphony. I am also supportive of educational causes, particularly increasing the number of students selecting science and technology as a career. For me, personally, increasing the number of women that choose science and technology as a career is a priority.

We also support our warriors and have many employees that are former military, reservists, or serving our country in many capacities. At Northrop Grumman, we take special interest in our Wounded Warriors both due to the work we do and our wish to honor their sacrifice for this country. They are truly unbelievable and true patriots. We all owe them a debt of deep gratitude.

What is something most people don't know about you?

Linda Mills: The U.S. and its strength come from being a melting pot of many cultures. What most people don't know about me, and are generally surprised to hear, is that neither one of my parents spoke English as their first language. My dad's first language was Italian and my mom's was Hungarian. I don't speak either language, but between travel and my own personal background, I visited Hungary and Italy many times. These visits have given me an appreciation of what it truly means to be an American.

You are responsible for one the largest P&Ls for a female executive in the DC area. Is there any advice you would give women who look to you as a role model?

Linda Mills: You need to be passionate about what you do because you will spend a lot of time at work. My dad gave me that advice when I was in junior high. Second, you shouldn't be afraid of taking risks. You will never have a crystal ball that will tell you where something is going to lead, and what is it that you're going to do. And by not being willing to take risks sometimes you block options that may seem less desirable in the short run. These risks might actually turn out to build relationships or give you greater skills that you can use later in your career. Being truly passionate about the work that you do, wanting to excel, and a willingness to take risks is important.

Interview with Linda Mills conducted by JD Kathuria

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