Northrop Grumman mentoring advanced Lauras STEM career

Northrop Grumman mentoring advanced Laura's STEM career

 August 25, 2021

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A successful career rarely follows a straight path. It usually takes a winding road, with plenty of learning curves, ups and downs. One of the best things an employee can do to stay on course is to find a mentor.

At Northrop Grumman, mentorships are encouraged through several programs and are seen as valuable interactions that help people broaden their experience, expose them to different career possibilities and point them to educational opportunities.

Although it’s smart to find a mentor in any industry, it can be particularly helpful to have one in a STEM career.

Laura Scott, a quality program manager at Northrop Grumman, explains why she thinks it’s important to find a mentor.

Seeking advice from colleagues 

Laura began her career at Northrop Grumman in November 2009, freshly graduated from Villanova University with a degree in mechanical engineering. She came in as part of the quality engineering group, specifically in process control and testing material properties. In the early days, Laura sought out advice informally from Northrop Grumman employees she admired.

After a couple of years, Laura felt as though she had learned as much as she could on her own and wanted to gain a deeper knowledge of the company from others. She knew it was time to find a mentor.

Connecting with Northrop Grumman leaders

Through a Northrop Grumman program called Women In Leadership, Laura connected with Art Lofton, who was vice president of Global Mission Excellence for the company’s Aerospace Systems sector at the time. Art, who had started with the company in 1990 and is now retired, had held several positions over his tenure, including deputy program manager of Long Range Strikes for Integrated Systems. That gave him a good perspective on what it took to excel at the company.

About once a month, Laura and Art would meet to talk about her career goals and get his insight. In one case, Laura was contemplating a move from her job as a Material Review Board quality engineer to Sector Material Review Board chair. Although it was a lateral move, the chairperson role had a much higher level of responsibility. Laura would need to maintain quality processes and interact with customers to ensure consistency across all programs in the sector.

She went to Art as a sounding board. They discussed the pros and cons of the move, whether it was a good fit for her current skills and development and what would it look like as part of her career path, she said.

“A mentor can motivate you to go out there and take some risks,” said Laura. Ultimately, she decided to make the move, and she’s glad she did.

Meeting women engineers in leadership roles

After Art retired, Laura was paired with Chris Hernandez, vice president of engineering for Aerospace Systems, through the company’s VP mentoring program. Because Chris worked outside the quality and mission excellence function, he was able to connect Laura with senior people she hadn’t met before, in particular women engineers in leadership roles. Laura said she appreciated the opportunity to network with women who were already forging a path in a male-dominated industry.

Considering the entire sector

Chris also offered advice that helped Laura think more strategically about her role at Northrop Grumman. In previous positions, for instance, Laura would be tasked with finding solutions to individual problems. But as she progressed through the ranks from contributor to manager, she had to consider an entire sector.

Chris encouraged her to tweak otherwise single-problem solutions in a way that would make them apply across the board. He challenged her to think not just about putting out a single fire, but about how a solution could work universally, for the whole sector. With Chris' help, Laura's perspective began to shift from one of meeting day-to-day goals to one of considering long-term strategic outcomes.

Learning to overcome leadership challenges

Those outcomes generally revolved around technical issues. But as Laura took on more responsibility, she found herself encountering managerial challenges, too. Addressing those issues wasn’t something she learned as part of her STEM education; she was trained as an engineer and, like many engineers, tended to focus on the technical.

“That can absorb you completely,” Laura said. Those who do not look up from their work often may not get out of their niche, she said. They may not know anyone outside their group and or understand how to deal effectively with interpersonal situations when they arise. Chris helped introduce Laura to people outside her domain and gave her valuable advice for dealing with a variety of people.

“If you want to develop in a career or go into management, mentoring really helps with those interpersonal managerial issues that aren’t taught much in STEM fields,” says Laura.

A symbiotic relationship 

For Laura, mentoring always went both ways. As she reflected on her experience during National Mentoring Month, she said she never saw herself as merely the recipient of advice but as an active participant in a mutually respectful relationship. Because she was of a different generation than her mentors, Laura often shared the perspective of her peers with them.

She briefed her mentors on the latest technology she and her friends used, for instance, or shared their philosophical perspective. That kind of information can be valuable to those in leadership roles, who are typically managing hundreds, even thousands, of people of different ages and backgrounds.

Giving back via mentoring

Ten years into her career at Northrop Grumman, Laura is now giving back by mentoring junior-level employees. She says she’s impressed with how honest recent college graduates are and how much they know about technology coming into the job. She hopes to pass on what she’s gleaned from the formal and informal mentorships she formed over the last decade. And although she’s on the other side of the conversation — giving advice, rather than accepting it — she continues to learn.

“Even if you don’t have a lot work experience, those life experiences can be just as helpful at providing a different point of view to problems,” she adds.

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