It is not unusual for someone to land their first job out of college with the company where they served as an intern. What is almost unheard to today, however, is that same person spending their whole professional career with that company, while rising through the ranks to become a sector president. Such is the case for Kelle Wendling, president of Mission Networks at L3Harris.
As Wendling explained, “Mission Networks is focused on safety critical networks and infrastructure; we’re predominantly focused on air traffic management, although we provide network infrastructure for defense, international countries and for the state of Florida.”
Executive leadership in a Fortune 500 company and seventh largest defense firm in the world, is a long way from the small town in Rhode Island where she grew up and honed her interest in the STEM side of education. Wendling even did a high school senior project on sonar and underwater sound, a subject she became interested in after reading Clancy’s Hunt for Red October.
It was Florida Tech’s reputation in Computer Science, along with a scholarship, that brought her to the Space Coast. Though she admits that proximity to the beach was a factor. She worked for what was then Harris Corp. for two semesters.
“I learned a lot in that time – both about what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do in the future,” she said.
Though she was good at what she did, Wendling discovered she really enjoyed working with a team. “I wanted to understand the context, beyond my scope of the program, and I really liked organizing and leading tasks,” she said. With the company’s broad portfolio, she took on roles of increasing responsibility. “I found being open to the next challenge, in a new industry, new technology or with a new customer, meant I would always be challenged,” she shared.
However, the transition from being a technologist to corporate leader was sometimes formidable. Having led the technical cost and schedule elements of a project, she thought she was well prepared for program management. “I was wrong,” she conceded. “The customer interface, the visibility and the business/financial acumen were things I needed to quickly come up to speed on. While it was difficult initially, I established strong relationships with my finance and contracts teams, to help close the business gaps. I found the visibility a little daunting, but I learned if you took ownership of your project – good or bad – the reporting internally and externally became straightforward.”
Essential in any leadership role is assuming responsibility for the customer relationship. Each customer is different and building trusted relationships is imperative. It takes time to cultivate the right relationship, and I hadn’t had much exposure to this in my technical roles,” she said.
Wendling also pointed out that the company had a culture that ensured her gender was not a limiting factor in her career.
“L3Harris has demonstrated a commitment to recruiting, retaining and advancing women in what is a male dominated defense and aerospace sector,” she said.
Wendling admits to having some great mentors along the way, who provided invaluable guidance and encouragement. “My mentors had common traits. They were supportive. They let me know it was okay to feel overwhelmed, so that I would be comfortable asking questions. They challenged the team to push boundaries and think differently. Most importantly, they encouraged diversity of thought and rugged debate,” she recalled.
“You will learn more from projects that didn’t go well, than from ones that did,” she concluded. “Just because a project doesn’t fit a common description of ‘successful’ does not mean you can’t be successful in seeing it through – and learn a lot in the process.”
It is like the sign she has in her office, “There are no rules here. We are trying to accomplish something.” – Thomas Edison.