Cultivating Female Leadership to Spark Innovation in the Defense Community

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female leadership

Heather Robertson sees a bright and exciting future ahead in the defense community and many opportunities for female leadership to spark innovation. Robertson leads Integrated Solutions for Mission Systems at Collins Aerospace, a business of Raytheon Technologies. She runs a large and diverse portfolio that enables technology innovation today and into the future in everything from flight simulation to ejection seats, energetics, to live virtual constructive training, advanced autonomous systems, joint fires, and strategic command, control and communication.

female leadership

Robertson didn’t always know that technology was in her future. When she joined Rockwell Collins in 2001, before it became Collins Aerospace, she started in the Office of the General Counsel. “It definitely wasn’t a traditional career path,” Robertson commented. After working for the company for several years, Robertson was a part of one of the first diversity initiatives to increase female leadership. “One of the leaders at that time saw something in me and encouraged me to go down the path of leading a business portfolio.” Since then, Robertson has held various management positions within the company across several business areas.

What drives Robertson is her passion for the mission at hand. “Quite frankly, I’m passionate about making the world a safer and more connected place for those who wear the military uniform and their families,” she shared. “It’s important to me that we do our part so that our warfighters are prepared for their toughest missions and they come home safely every time.”

To create an environment that enables innovation, Robertson told us that there are three areas in leadership that she relies upon.  The first is to create a culture of functional excellence, where each function (Engineering, Business Development, Strategy, Finance, Operations, etc.) has a voice at the table. Creating this type of culture “allows people to speak up as they recognize a potential issue so that the team can rally around that issue and quickly move forward.” That type of collaboration is critical, Robertson pointed out, and it helps in attracting new talent to the team.

The second area is around resilience and learning from mistakes. “I call this extreme ownership. It is where we learn from our mistakes and examine ourselves first to see what we could have done differently to change the outcome, and then learn from it and move on.”

Finally, Robertson believes firmly in creating strong relationships with trust as the foundation. “Not only is our network critical to our career success, it’s also critical to our program success. These relationships help us reach our ultimate goal – to deliver differentiating technology to our men and women in uniform.”

Robertson has seen a change in the relationship between industry and the defense acquisition community, which will enable an acceleration of innovation for the warfighter. “The speed of the defense acquisition process has shifted, and now we get our discriminating technology into our warfighters’ hands much more quickly.”

This acceleration and innovation are based on an open systems approach that Collins Aerospace is a leader in, Robertson explained, which allows for quick iterations. “We are able to demo a capability, get real-time user feedback, and adjust to get the technology to our users faster. It’s a win-win for all; when I started 20 years ago, most acquisition cycles were long and the speed of innovation was very different.”

Robertson knows that representation and diversity matter when building and growing teams that are focused on innovation. She  joined the board of the Women In Line Leadership (WILL) Rise program at Raytheon Technologies in 2020 to encourage other women to take leadership roles. Robertson told us that the WILL Rise program is designed to help women understand that there is no one straight path to leadership. It can be cultivated in many ways with mentors along the way. Robertson’s own leadership skills have been recognized – she was named to the Women Worth Watching list in 2018 and Women of Achievement in Leadership in 2017.

“The opportunities are limitless for women,” Robertson told us. She noted that during her career she has seen a significant change in diversity with the first female and African American Admiral, and with female leadership at four of the five largest defense contractors in the industry. “We still have work to do, but it encourages the next generation to see themselves at the highest level.”

With a strong path forward in place to encourage diversity, Robertson believes, “the atmosphere is right for innovation.”