Though she is proud of her Iowa Hawkeyes, Lisa Steffen has adapted well to our warm winters since assuming her role as general manager, Communications, Navigation & Surveillance Programs / Melbourne site leader at Collins Aerospace in 2019. The company has deep roots in the community, with over 1,500 employees and a history going back almost a half century.
Now part of United Technologies through an acquisition in 2018, the Melbourne operation manufactures some of the most sophisticated aviation guidance, radar and communications systems in the world.
“Until we came to Melbourne, I never lived more than 30 miles from where I grew up,” Steffan said of her home state of Iowa. She completed under-graduate work at the University of Iowa in electrical engineering, then went to work in Cedar Rapids as a co-op student for Rockwell Collins.
“I didn’t even consider engineering right out of high school,” she said, “I was good in math and science and started out as an accounting major.”
When a friend recommended that she consider engineering, she leaned in and quickly realized that electrical engineering was what connected for her.
Eventually, she led the engineering team that designed the cockpit displays for Boeing aircraft and continued to rise quickly through the ranks at Rockwell Collins, while also earning a MS in Computer Engineering (from the cross-state rival Iowa State University) and an MBA (from the University of Iowa).
“Regardless of which discipline of engineering you are in, what engineers really love and gravitate towards is problem solving,” she said. “So, whether it is about a computer chip, avionics display or project management, what we do is solve problems.”
Though she admits problems may vary greatly and usually require different skill sets to resolve, the analytical approach has commonalities that Steffen is able to identify and utilize.
“I’ve always enjoyed human interaction, which is true of some, but not all, engineers. My time managing the customer interaction with Boeing was especially fulfilling for that very reason,” she said.
Those skills certainly have been stress-tested: as she was celebrating her first anniversary as the site leader in Melbourne earlier this year, the pandemic hit.
Airlines around the world have been grounded, which has had a domino effect for Collins Aerospace’s customers — the aircraft manufacturers. “It has been challenging for us, as it has been for everyone,” she said.
“We have our manufacturing employees, who have to be on site to do their jobs. Yet, they must work with all the health and safety gear, along with the protocols that are essential for their protection. It is a whole new set of processes and spacing requirements that our facility was not initially designed for.” Masks and protective wear can certainly be cumbersome, but most of us don’t have to deal with it for eight hours straight.
“Let’s face it, keeping everyone safe and (at the same time) motivated hasn’t been easy. In addition, there is a certain amount of uncertainty about the industry, which is common knowledge. So being clear with our people and laying out what our plans moving forward are, has been crucial,” she said.
On the flip side, employees who were able to transition to work from home did so, and almost overnight.
Steffen, the mother of four, was keenly aware of the challenges her staff was facing with new work requirements, changing school protocols, restrictions on close contact with friends and family and isolation issues. Lives at every level, and for every employee, have remained in flux.
Adapting, Not Reacting
Like many other companies facing these same challenges, a new way of thinking was essential to continue. “It takes a new set of skills to make sure all your people feel positive, connected and engaged,” Steffen said.
“I’ve always been a take-charge-let’s-get-this- done type of person,” she said. “Though I didn’t equate that with being a leader early in my career.”
Possessing that authentic, straightforward approach that is so characteristic of people in the Midwest, Steffen said, “I have always tried to be a, “what-you-see-is-what-you-get”, type of person. Just genuine and who I am, regardless of who I am dealing with.”
She is quick to acknowledge she has learned valuable lessons from amazing leaders along the path of her career. But she realized that it would be disingenuous to try to copy another’s style in an effort to lead.
“I realized I have to lead using my style, because I’ve learned you can only be successful if you are true to who you really are. Otherwise, you stray from your own natural sweet spot,” she said.
The Right Stuff
Steffen believes that trust (and a bit of faith) are vital to an effective team. “If I empower someone to make a decision, then I have to be willing to support their decisions, even if it is not necessarily the decision I would make,” she said.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t change or adjust if we need to, but I want to understand the ‘why’ of their decisions… and if we take a different course, I want them to know the ‘why’ as well.”
There were only three women that graduated with her in her electrical engineering class at the University of Iowa. And, for the first five or six years at Rockwell Collins, she remembers being the only female in the room, most of the time.
“On the engineering and the business side, that is changing dramatically,” she said. “But being a mom and a professional, I think is different than being a father [and a professional].
“However, I remind younger women I am mentoring that it is just different, not better or worse. Actually, being the only woman puts a kind of spotlight on you, therefore you should embrace it as an opportunity, not be intimidated by it.”