Leading one of the most talented teams in the country in supplying products to one of the world’s most discriminating customers, Pat McMahon is the sector vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman’s Military Aircraft Systems Division, headquartered in Melbourne. Premier providers of military aircraft and technology, her portfolio includes such iconic airplanes as the E-2D Hawkeye, F-35 Lightning II Fighter, F/A-18 Super Hornet, and the E-8C Joint STARS, among others. Rounding out her list of responsibilities is overseeing the company’s Directed Energy programs.
Early in her career, and on the advice of a respected teacher, she took a series of tests to work for the Defense Department on Long Island and from there was hired by a contractor and rose through the ranks. Reflecting on her career choice, McMahon says she isn’t sure if she found the industry or the industry found her. But however it happened, “I am and have always been proud to come to work, leading a team that serves our warfighters by providing them the systems needed to fulfill their mission to protect us and to return home safely. I wouldn’t want to do anything else and the same is true for the people on my team,” she said.
Years ago, being the only woman in the room at times was tough. “All I wanted was to be treated fairly and to be rewarded for my performance,” said McMahon. I have been very fortunate to work for leaders throughout my career, and at Northrop Grumman particularly, I have had the opportunity and support that helped me to grow as a leader in our company.”
Sometimes you have to make choices and take calculated risks to get rewarded. She recalls a time when she was at another company and was challenged by a vice president to transfer from program management to a Director’s position in operations. She was taken aback by the recommendation as historically in that company the transition meant failure to perform in program management, but McMahon was quickly assured that she had the leadership skills to straighten out some of the internal issues plaguing the company.
“I was pretty satisfied with where I was, but if I hadn’t taken that job I would never be where I am today. It taught me about going into an uncomfortable place and leading change.”
In this new position she went from having a few people reporting directly to her, to having many people report to her. “That’s when I realized how much I loved leading people, she said. “And leaders know they are only as good as the people they lead, therefore, understanding their abilities, finding where they fit best and being open and accessible to them is the key.”
Leadership is an obvious fit for McMahon, having garnered numerous awards including the 2012 Navy League Chester W. Nimitz Award for Leadership at Northrop Grumman. But it was more than leadership and opportunity that attracted her to the company. “The real connection I made with Northrop Grumman was because the company’s values are aligned with my personal values.”
Her greatest challenge? “I think the greatest challenge we all have as leaders is our ability to adapt to change quickly and to not be satisfied with the status quo. That forces you to always be learning.”
Mentors have also been an important part of her professional development, but she came to understand, “You need different mentors at different stages or junctures in your life and career. Early on they teachou the ropes, then you need to find others that help you with leadership or strategic thought processes as your responsibilities grow. Now as a leader, serving as a mentor is my way of giving back and paying it forward.”
McMahon was privy to valuable lessons along the trajectory upward and some of those have stuck with her.
“I’ll never forget, relatively early in my career, we had a very difficult day and frankly it showed. That night and the next morning I was trying to sort it out. Our general manager came in and sat down in my office, which was unusual and I thought ‘Uh-oh.’ He said, ‘So I understand we didn’t have a great day yesterday?’ Then he asked what happened and what I learned from the experience. I told him and he said, ‘Great, so you learned and it won’t happen again, just keep it in mind.’ Then he walked out.
The experience further helped formulate McMahon’s optimistic outlook and proactive approach towards leadership. “He had given me the time to reflect, learn and then move on. It was an invaluable lesson.”