“Excellence can overcome a lot of prejudice,” says Linda Hudson, CEO of BAE Systems and the first woman to head a major Pentagon contractor. After graduating as one of two women in her class at the University of Florida’s College of Engineering, Hudson faced hostility when she went to work in the defense industry. She was often asked to get coffee. Hudson didn’t get mad—she got motivated.
Moving up in the industry meant changing jobs, companies, and cities. She took each promotion that came her way, becoming the first female corporate officer and company president at General Dynamics, the first female VP of an operating company at Martin Marietta, and the first female manager at Ford Aerospace.
Learning to be a manager wasn’t a skill she learned in school—when she became supervisor of 250 people early in her career at Ford Aerospace, she broke out in hives. But she found that figuring out how things work in an organization had nothing to do with an org chart: “I got good at establishing coalitions.” She joined BAE Systems as president of its land-and-armaments operating group in 2007 and was named CEO in 2009. She’ll retire next year but remain on the BAE board as an outside director.
Hudson doesn’t believe you can plan a career and says she succeeded by volunteering for high-risk assignments, adding: “A couple of men took big chances and promoted me when promoting women wasn’t done.”
What does she tell young people? “Leadership is more than nuts and bolts. You have to have a public presence, involve yourself in the community, and develop future leaders.”