It is my privilege to introduce you to today’s guest, and one of my favorite clients – Kurtis Jetsel of Lockheed Martin’s Missiles and Fire Control division. One of his self-professed hobbies is Leadership, and he’s had a tremendous impact on his organization as their unofficial leadership and culture guru. Today, Kurtis shares how he gets left-brained engineers and rocket scientists to embrace “soft stuff”, the fantastic cultural impacts of having a female CEO in Marillyn Hewson, and other innovative ideas that could spark a shift in your organization!


Episode 35: Leadershifting in a highly structured, left-brained culture with Kurtis Jetsel

Shani Magosky: Welcome Leadershifters to another episode of The Leadership Show with Shani and today you are going to hear from an impactful leader in one of the coolest divisions of the coolest companies in America. We have on the show today Kurtis Jetsel who is a director of program management at Lockheed Martin in the Missiles and Fire Control division. Yup, the people who make the rockets and all the cool stuff, the missiles and needless things that protect our country and keep us safe. Welcome to the show, Kurtis.

Kurtis Jetsel: Right it’s so great to be with you, Shani. Thanks for having me.

Shani: It’s my pleasure, you have always been one of my favorite clients to keep in touch with because I think your passion about leadership rivals mine. Kurtis is a leader in action and he’s a leader in voice too. He’s an average student of leadership, he voraciously reads anything about great leadership and I will ask him about the leadership newsletter that he started at Lockheed many years back as the question further into the show.

Kurtis: All right, fine.

Shani: You are joining us from Dallas today, right?

Kurtis: I am, yes.

Shani: Missiles and Fire Control, you two main offices are Dallas and Orlando and it’s been my privilege to come in and work with your teams mainly teaching some of you people leaders how to be more coach-like in their approach and I know that’s something you share and interested as well.

Kurtis: Absolutely.

Shani: When and why did you become so passionate about leadership?

Kurtis: Okay, I’ll share a story with you. The story goes back 20+ years ago. I have been with Lockheed Martin for 35 years.

Shani: Because you started when you were in like the seventh grade.

Kurtis: Right, that’s it, yes. It’s just been an incredible journey. I will tell you what happened, I was working actually in Grand Prairie at the Missile and Fire Control division on a product that was going to be tested and I had been working on it for almost two years and they said, “Hey, would you go to a remote location and share with the team how to put the product together, and then, by the way, you can stay there for the test.” As you can imagine and you’ve been part of a team before that is very high-performing and has a lot of stress and has a deadline and has to work long hours and the experience is a very bonding experience, right?

Shani: Right.

Kurtis: We did that for about a three-month period. We had a great test. I get a call from my leader the day of the testing he says, “Will you stay? The next product is on its way out there. They want you to stay for another three months and show them how to do it again, and by the way, you can stay for another test.” Okay, sure great and about halfway through that second series of tests that we were working there, we came to work on a Monday morning to find that the leader and the deputy of the team lost their job over the weekend. They’ve been fired over the weekend due to somethings that had happened and the response of the team was really wild the first day, so on Monday about half the team left. There was all kinds of emotions from anger to sadness, even people crying, things being thrown around and I’m thinking, “Wow, we’ve got this test we are preparing for, how am I going to get this done? Half the team just left.” That day was wasted.

Shani: It went from high to in the sewer.

Kurtis: It did. Absolutely. Over one weekend. The next day, the team shows up and extensionally we have a stand-up meeting and I don’t know if you can see but they are standing around with there arms crossed and they are look at me and say, “What do we do, Kurtis?” Lockheed Martin has a tagline that says “We never forget who we’re working for.” We were in a place were there were a lot of our customers around and so, me trying to think quick, “Let’s not forget who we’re working for guys, let’s go get with this product and get the test going.” Their response was, “Yes, who we were working for got fired over the weekend and we are not buying into your tootsie little tagline. Thank you very much.”

It was this moment, this epiphany that, “Wow, I am wholly unprepared. I don’t know what to do to guide or lead this team through this tragedy.” For them, it was seriously a tragedy and at that point, I did something that’s some people find a little bit bizarre, and that was I made leadership a hobby. If you think about hobbies, its something that we like to do, that we want to get better at, that we spend money on, that we practice and really what that has done for me since the late ’90s is just as you mentioned before, it just created this very intensely curious student of leadership and learning and I committed at that time and it was really because of the pain and the struggle that I saw in this peoples faces from this experience.

I committed at that time, I’m not ever going to be in a position where I don’t know what to do to help a team navigate and get through a situation like this. That second three months turned into six years. I was transferred to this location and ended up working for six years and so I had about six years to practice. if you will, to practice my new hobby of leadership. I would go every day into the library. The internet was around in the late ’90s and the location we were in, it wasn’t very fast so I actually found myself in the library.

Shani: It was still in the “You got mail” days where it was kind of up all.

Kurtis: Yes, exactly. I just started studying on what can I do to and what do these people need and how can I respond and serve them in a way that would allow them to get back to the high engagement and the excitement that they had before their leaders lost their jobs. It’s just been a huge experiment if you will. It’s fun to think about the last 20 plus years being as just this experiment where I have had some really great result and then I’ve had some really bad results, rather some really lousy results from my experiments that haven’t gone from a leadership perspective haven’t gone so well right. That’s really what has caused me to have the passion and excitement and then just seeing the influence that leaders can have on individual lives. People’s lives and be able to change them for the better is just so exciting for me. Then seeing people grow and develop has just been such as a passion for me.

Shani: Right. Well, you obviously have had more successes in your leadership experiment than failures because I know that Lockheed has continued to send you to different units, different projects, different locations to clean up some cultural messes. I don’t want to cross any boundaries but are there any sort of generic stories that you could speak through around that subject?

Kurtis: Sure, it was funny when I committed that I was never going to be in a position where I would allow this to happen again, right? Really, I read another quote by the way that I would share with you, and it was something by Jim Rohn and the quote was something like, “Success is not something we must pursue its something we attract by the person we become.”

Shani: Yes, nice.

Kurtis: I decided what kind of a leader do I want to become, right? Then just set out to become that leader. That allowed me, I think to attract, if you will, these opportunities then to practice at a different level at a different side, in different situation the hobby that I had and the skills that I had developed through my hobby. One of them I will tell you an interesting experience, I got a phone call that said, “We would like for you to apply for this job.” By the way, this has become a pattern over my career since then. We’d like for you to apply for a job, and when I ask about the conditions or situations then my typical response is, if you get the job we’ll share this with you, we’ll share these kinds of things with you. Right?

Shani: Which is the first sign of trouble.

Kurtis: [laughs] Right.

Shani: Because if everything was great, they would just tell you. [laughs]

Kurtis: Right, yes. After I had a position in a new role I met with an organizational development specialist and the first words out of her mouth were, “Kurtis, this team is so messed up it can’t be fixed. Good luck.”

Shani: You’re like, game on, challenge accepted.

Kurtis: [laughs] Right, right, yes. Over the next three years, then I was able to take- and really, part of the issue was a leadership issue, right? It seems to me that’s a recurring theme as well. We have leaders that are not bad people. They’re just not effective leaders and those leaders create havoc and discontent and disengagement and those kinds of things, and so I’ve had a number of opportunities then to come in and help change and change the culture and turn things around.

This particular team I was able over about a three-year period to increase engagement scores. An interesting thing about the company is about every three years we go through some pretty serious surveys where we measure engagement and we measure leadership scores. I’ve had at least two opportunities where I’ve come into a situation where I’ve had recent scores that have been in the tank, right? Pretty red, if you will. Then three years later, scores that can show some improvement and I’ve had a number of those kinds of opportunities to do that.

Shani: Okay, let’s actually talk about some of the ways that you have shared this hobby with your colleague informally, because obviously, you’ve had many opportunities to formally do it as part of your role but you also and this is where we’ll diverge into talking about the iggles, which for those of you who have ever been parents of young children, which I haven’t, but from my nephews, I know the other wiggles is with like some Australian TV show for children. This is not that wiggles. Wiggles stands for what good leadership looks like.

Kurtis: Right, yes.

Shani: Tell us a little bit about why you decided to- it’s a little vulnerable to share some of your experiences and tips in an organization that’s large and bureaucratic, go for it, so.

Kurtis: Okay, sure. I’ll tell you how that got started. I was reporting to a leader and we had gotten some survey results back for the entire organization, and it said that our leadership scores from the previous survey were in decline, and so the leader pulled the staff together and said, what can we do to improve our scores, essentially. Immediately, there were suggestions like, bring Shani in and have her teach us how to be better coaches, right? Which are great, great suggestions particularly when we want our leaders to be better coaches. Right?

Shani: Right.

Kurtis: There were other more generic type. Well, we need to send them to this training or this or we need to do the things that we’ve done in the past, right? We know that someone had a definition of insanity and that was to continue to do what you’ve done in the past and expect different results. Right?

Shani: Yes, exactly.

Kurtis: When I brought that up, of course, the leader pointed at me and said, “Okay, Mr. Smart Man, tell us what we want to do different. Tell us what you’re going to do different.”

Shani: Right.

Kurtis: [laughs] I was challenged and said, okay, yes, we’re open to something different. Go figure out what that is. I pulled my staff together and we did some brainstorming and for my own development, I’ll tell you what was funny when I started making leadership a hobby, I was overwhelmed at the amount of leadership material that’s out there and it was almost to the point where I thought there’s this is so overwhelming, I don’t even know where to start. I’ll never be a great leader. It’s just too much, right? I came across another quote and I think this one was by Robin Sharma. And he talks about these little incremental daily practices and improvements that when you aggregate those over a period of time you can be some changes, right?

Shani: Yes.

Kurtis: I decided that that would be my, my leadership development. My own personal leadership development strategy. I would pick something- a way of being if you will. Let’s just say I wanted to be more authentic, I would study how to be more authentic and then pick little things that I could do each day to try to evolve that and be better at demonstrating authenticity. That was the concept behind this idea of what good leadership looked like which was a concept that we picked for one week and we sent it out to the leadership team, and said, hey, here’s your focus area and we align those areas with what we saw in the survey. As for areas for development and we said this is what we want you to do this week and we gave them two or three simple suggestions for what they could do that week to apply that particular skill or behavior.

Shani: Great.

Kurtis: That started out in a small organization and then it was popular. It seemed to be very popular, lots of very positive feedback and now it goes to 4,000 I think leaders across Missile and Fire control and even other business areas in Lockheed Martin. It’s been fun to see that.

Shani: I think that’s wonderful. Honestly, that is what good leadership looks like, which is being out of your comfort zone to influence other people. I’m sure you didn’t get paid more for doing wiggles, right? It was just something that you felt passionate enough that you wanted to share some of the research and experiments that you were doing with other people and challenge others to be an even better version of themselves. That is exemplary leadership. Showing up and doing your job, that’s just part of what you do to earn your paycheck.

Kurtis: Right.

Shani: That goes above and beyond.

Kurtis: Right.

Shani: Sometimes I always am curious about and always pleasantly surprised whenever I come work with Lockheed and other organizations that I’ll just describe are left brain, right? When I’m working with your leaders they’re mostly engineers and legit rocket scientists. Right?

Kurtis: Yes.

Shani: How does the touchy-feely soft stuff go over with that population?

Kurtis: Yes, that’s a great question and as you can imagine, it’s uncomfortable. Right? For the most part, it’s uncomfortable. In fact, when we came back when the team came back with the idea that we wanted to do this weekly distribution to the leadership team, the first response from the leader was, “I don’t know how that’s going to go over.” What I said is, okay, how about this? What if we do a small experiment with a small group of left-brain leaders for six months and let’s get feedback from these left-brain leaders on what they think about this idea, right? That’s really what we did. We picked a small group and we started sending them to this leadership looks like.

They came back in six months and said, “We love it. We’re getting great value out of this. Yes, it’s having results.” See that was really what enabled the larger application of this was those left-brain engineering leaders came back and said, “Wow, these things are actually working. They’re working with people and so help us learn more of this.” We had a part of a campaign called Lead Like an Engineer. We actually leveraged their left brain thinking to a degree in the application of some of these softer skills, and these people skills to help them be more effective leaders. It was very well-received.

Shani: That’s great. Well, that helps fight the good fight of convincing people that that stuff it’s not actually tough. First of all, they’re hard to do but also when we do them, it’s what makes the difference in commitment instead of compliance from our people, right?

Kurtis: Yes.

Shani: Even left-brain engineering types needs to connect with other human beings on another level in order to develop trust and respect and commitment and what I say all the time to people is get it out of your head that things like coaching and vulnerability and transparency are soft skills, because when you do them I’m telling you what you’re going to see more hard, cold cash.

Kurtis: Yes. Yes. Absolute evidence, right? By the way, they’re not easy to implement. It takes out of your comfort zone, it takes really pushing into leaning into that discomfort.

Shani: Absolutely. I’m working on that right now with a group of leaders, the activities that we did today. We’re pushing them just a little bit outside their comfort zone and proving to them I didn’t die of embarrassment. No one’s freaking out because it wasn’t perfect, which aligns with what you were just talking about in terms of small achievable steps, get one step at a time and when you look back you realize how much progress and growth has been made.

Kurtis: Absolutely.

Shani: Another question I have for you is what work do effect cultural chain in an organization which is more let’s call it old-school, a structured command-and-control. You guys your biggest client is the U.S. government and military and so forth. It might seem counterintuitive to have that kind of a regimented type of organization be open to cultural change and so forth. What are some of the messaging techniques that you’ve noticed have worked that other folks who work in similar industries can learn from you?

Kurtis: That’s a great question. Each one of the business areas in Lockheed Martin has embarked on some sort of a culture transformation or change type of learning very much for the reason that you stated. Our culture typically was very hierarchical command-and-control. There was a realization a number of years ago and it very likely started with our CEO Bob Stevens who started what he called full-spectrum leadership and was a focus on changing leadership behaviors. Then certainly Marillyn Hewson today just absolutely embodies what great leadership looks like and expects–

Shani: We’re coming back to her. I got questions for you about Marillyn.

Kurtis: Specifically our business area of Lockheed Martin Missle and Fire control is on a journey that we call culture optimization. Those words were picked specifically because there was a sense that part of the culture was very good. There’s an execution piece of the culture that was very good that we didn’t want to lose.

Shani: Right!

Kurtis: Yet, we realized that there were- if we continued in the same hierarchical, very top-down type culture, we were not going to be agile, we were not going to be able to attract the best and brightest especially as the great tsunami as our baby boomer generation starts to retire, we were not going to be able to attract the right people.

There was a definite realization in the senior leadership level that we needed to do something to change the pieces of the culture that we could change. About eight years ago we started down this journey of this culture optimization and it’s been something that we talk about we meet on we have leaders that go to seminars, it’s part of our surveys now. How is this culture optimization journey impacting your employee experience, for example. We ask those questions to get feedback and then we do things to respond into change. I’ll give you one quick example of something that we’ve done.

A number of years ago we had feedback that our culture was just very uptight and it was very consistent with command and control uniform kind of. At one point in our culture there was a need for that. What we do was very serious and so we have to take it seriously we have a great purpose and yet there was an opportunity to relax that if you will and still maintain the seriousness and the interest and the execution piece of it and so we started a jeans day. Every Friday or every Thursday before an off Friday was jeans day allowed us to wear jeans.

That was a big hit that was about three years ago. Wow, we don’t have to wear slacks and tie. We relaxed the dress code and then just this year we implemented a dress code called dress for your day. Essentially every employee if you are in a position where you are just working your job you’re not going to be meeting with customers or anybody any kind of an important meeting you can wear jeans every day of the week.

Shani: Basically saying you’re adults, dress appropriately for what you got going on.

Kurtis: Exactly.

Shani: Wasn’t that nice.

Kurtis: A novel idea right?

Shani: Yes. Treating people with respect that they actually have some common sense. Great.

Kurtis: Right. It’s just been a huge hit. It’s gone over very well. Of course, as you can imagine we had leaders that worried about it. They didn’t think it was going to be successful that were concerned and all those concerns were just not founded. It’s just been a great a great success. That’s just one example of some feedback that the company used in the surveys to help start to change the culture and help and show employees demonstrate that no kidding we trust you to make decisions about what you wear to work.

Shani: Yes, no kidding. I love that you called it culture optimization because you were speaking their language. What’s more engineering geek-speak than optimization. Meeting people where they are and making them feel like this is doable and then it’s not antithetical to how we work.

Kurtis: That as you can imagine very much resonated with to optimize something. We’re optimizing our designs we’re optimizing our processes now we’re optimizing our culture. Very much worthy.

Shani: Well, you know that’s music to my ears because the leadership tagline is culture and strategy have to meet. I love that culture has really been elevated to a strategic level in your organization. I want to spend our last little bit of time. You previewed it talking about your amazing female CEO Marillyn Hewson who was named CEO in 2013. Since that time, because you know me once an investment banker, not always an investment banker but I can’t stop myself. I look at the stock price for Lockheed, and it’s about slightly more than tripled since she took the helm. Is it economic or is it attributable to her? Tell us about how her leadership has changed the company.

Kurtis: My experience, of course, I would want to attribute it to her. I’m sure there are lots of factors that go into stock price. Clearly, she’s been a leader that’s just been just cutting-edge that has done so much for diversity and inclusion that has done so much for advancing women and minorities in senior leadership roles. If you go back 10 or 15 years and look at the board of directors in the senior leadership of Lockheed Martin and you look at it today you see a very different makeup of that senior leadership.

She has brought women into the senior leadership roles that are just absolutely phenomenal that demonstrate that the aspects and the nature that women bring into the world are extremely effective in leadership roles. Having that at the top then just permeates down through the organization. She has an expectation that leaders will create an inclusive environment. In fact I was sent to training that absolutely changed my life.

Shani: Oh! Good job!

Kurtis: It was diversity and inclusion training, it was by white men as full diversity partners and it was called the White Men’s Caucus.

It was four days of this extremely immersive into how I see myself in my own biases, in my own upbringing and how that impacts how I see the world. Literally for me, that training, and I kid you not, I don’t say this lightly– and it was probably a situation where the student was ready. Me as the student, I was ready, and so that showed up for me in a way that really sent me on just another level of a journey of self-understanding and reflection and awareness so that I could make better decisions so that I could create a more inclusive environment. When I saw a situation, I’ll share it with you a quick story that I saw shortly after this training I went to, I was in a meeting and it was a brainstorming meeting and I was not leading, I was participating in the meeting. We were going around the table offering ideas and a female at the table offered an idea and the leader said okay, yes, thank you for that and went around.

Then one of the friends of the leader offered an idea that was almost, it wasn’t word for word with what the female had said but it was almost identical and you would’ve thought that this idea was sent down from the heavens. I saw the female actually have, you could see the disappointment, the discouragement just come over her physically. After the meeting, I got the leader aside and I said, can I share with you an observation that I had in this in this meeting. I shared with him what had happened and the leader was absolutely horrified. They had no idea that they had done that, and the impact that it had.

The leader ultimately went back and had a conversation with a female apologize profusely. Then came back in a public setting and said, I want this team to know that this was brought to my attention, and I want you to help me, not ever let that happen again. I’m making it safe for you to bring it up. It was things like that that I started to notice, and it really had a big impact. Frankly, I was horrified thinking, oh my gosh, how many times have I done that? A lot of that I think, in a lot of this journey that we’ve gone through from a diversity inclusion perspective has been with Marilllyn at the helm there and leading and demonstrating the behavior and helping us understand how we can create an environment and a culture that that allows all our voices to be heard. It’s really been phenomenal.

Shani: Marillyn with two Ls.

Kurtis: That’s right.

Shani: It reinforces how strong she is. She’s got two Ls in her name. God, thank you for sharing that story. I’m pleased to hear that the leader was receptive with the feedback and horrified and immediately went to clean it up because that ain’t easy either. To be like, oh my god, I screwed up. I’m horrified and just be open about it. I think that’s best practice because we can’t help our filters. We had the life we have, and we can’t help but bring them into every purview of our life, but we can be more self-aware and make some behavioral changes. Even just small, nuanced one to compensate for our biases. Even if the biases aren’t necessarily coming from a negative place.

Just because we have the bias is causing us to see or not see certain things. I think that’s the key is to make it safe for people to speak up and notice it. Then to own it and discuss it and ask for support around it and just like making a safe to have the conversation is such a big stride. Because diversity inclusion just used to be, all right, let’s look at a scoreboard. How many women did we hire? how many people of color do we hire? How many people with different sexual orientation did we hire? That’s not diversity, that’s a cop out. Diversity is like, do we really listen? that’s where the inclusion comes into. Do we really listen to all the valuable different points of view that diversity affords that?

Kurtis: Do we value their contribution? Do we value their voice? What was shocking to me was that leader totally had no idea that he had done that. It was clearly a blind spot that the leader had and when I pointed it out, it was this revelation that was just like I said, just really bothered him. To the point where he said, I need help. I have to create a place where if that occurs, people stand up right at that moment and let me know that.

Shani: By the way, the roles can be reversed too. Women are also going to have some missteps like that. We’re going to make some assumptions about men that are untrue or behave a certain way that in a defensive way that isn’t necessary. I think it’s everybody increasing their awareness is super important. Speaking of super important, I think that this conversation has yielded a lot of great lessons that I just want to recap for the Leadershifters who have been watching and listening. First of all, is the importance of remembering your mission, and this comes from the story you told me.

Even though in the moment, it didn’t resonate, but ultimately, that’s why people line up committed to their job, is understanding how what they do ties into a greater mission that aligns with the values. Certainly, there’s no better mission than then keeping the residents of the United States and others of our friends safe, and being able to protect ourselves. Whatever your company mission, and vision and values are, folks, don’t forget them. They’re so important. It’s like the default place to go when you’re feeling a little lost.

Kurtis: Leaders tie what people do what can seem like a very mundane task, a very unimportant task. It’s the leaders job to tie that back to the purpose, to the mission.

Shani: Because it’s easy feel like in your silo and not remember how this little job or that other job is connected, making the whole system work. Some of the other really great nuggets I thought came out today are it’s not impossible, culture and softer leadership skills with companies who are highly populated with left-brain types, whether it be the engineers or finance or lawyers or whatever. It’s not impossible to change the culture of a command-and-control historically organized company into one that is a little more agile and as you said. I think the key is, meet people where they are. Speak their language, explain to them what’s in it for them.

Don’t just make it radical like let’s shift on a dime because that’s never going to work. We need to take it one step at a time and enroll everybody in the success as it sounds like has happened with you guys. Not to belabor the point about what you experienced. After going through that intensive diversity inclusion workshop, but we have to end for these micro, I don’t want to call them aggressions, but micro mistakes. That cumulatively can build up to bigger biases and so forth. If you see something, say something. The TSA says that, if you see even a minor thing, professionally and politely and respectfully bring it to somebody’s attention so they can make it right, and they don’t repeat that in cycles.

Kurtis: Right, and make it safe for that to occur.

Shani: Anything else would you add as part of summary and wrap up here, Kurtis?

Kurtis: I would just say that, it’s really up to leaders to model that kind of behavior. In my experience has been, it’s not comfortable modeling that kind of behavior. I had an employee recently tell me I was wrong in a very public setting. My first thought was, oh no, that’s just making me look horrible, right? And then I caught myself and thanked the employee in a public setting, and said that that kind of behavior is what we want to encourage. We want this team to be able to call out the leader or anybody else and say, hey, I either disagree or I have an opposable opinion. You may not be correct on that. That’s the kind of behavior that we want to encourage.

I didn’t look bad. In my own head, I might have looked bad, but the reality was that team walked away thinking, “Wow, he’s human. We like this guy because he wants us to call him out. He wants us to question what he’s doing. He wants us to push back. He wants us to have opposable, he’s interested in hearing our voice.”

Shani: Absolutely, brilliant. I love it. Thank you for being you, and modeling what other people can be doing, could be doing and much-continued success to you and MFC and Lockheed and Marillyn with two Ls and all that.

Kurtis: Thank you so much.

Shani: Thank you for being on the show. It’s always a pleasure. Leadershifters, you know how to reach me-, and of course on every social media that exists. Until next time, and thanks again, Kurtis.

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