Rockwell Collins CEO Clay Jones’ Diversity-Leadership Journey

November 5, 2012 9:22 am

Clay Jones, CEO, RockwellCollinsHis childhood, his career and his company location should make Rockwell Collins’ Clay Jones anything but a diversity supporter. (Rockwell Collins is No. 43 in the 2012 DiversityInc Top 50.)

Barbara Frankel: For the several years that we’ve known you, you have been a very proactive diversity leader. You chair the diversity council. You visibly support diversity and you hold your executives accountable for results. On both a business and a personal level, why is this important to you?

Clay Jones: First on the business side, we’ve been involved in and around diversity in our company for decades. Unfortunately, we weren’t making the progress we wanted to make and we had to examine why that was the case.

As a government contractor, we realized we had gotten into a mentality that dealt with diversity as a requirement or as something to avoid bad things happening, as opposed to it being a good business strategy. It was only when we changed our thought process and realized that diversity can be a proactive, constructive business strategy to help advance our business that we started thinking about it correctly.

Once we had established that, we put a diversity business strategy together that we could communicate to our employees. From that came the strategies that not only talked about accountabilities and incentives to do this but also focused on outcomes that would allow us to build those diverse teams, which we felt inherently outperform non-diverse teams. There was data we found that we could support that with. Since we actually put those teams in place, they do in fact outperform teams, and we’re reminded of that importance to our business.

The first thing we realized we had to do when we changed our strategy was to change our thinking. We work and have lived in pretty much a male, white-dominated industry. So we had to bring in outside thoughts to educate us on how other people think to focus on the value of our differences as opposed to accentuating them for all the wrong reasons. It was through that training that my own thinking and the thinking of our leadership team really changed.

Like so many other things in life, if you haven’t experienced it, you have to become more aware of it. We became more aware, not only of the microinequities that we know exist in every organization but also the condition that we had to put in place to not only be attractive to people from different backgrounds but also to allow them to be successful once they got here and to be able to move through organizations. While I think we made a lot of progress, we still have, as always, a long way to go.

Overcoming What You Heard as a Kid

Frankel: How do you think it has changed you personally?

Jones: I’m a son of the South. I experienced firsthand the civil-rights movement in the South. I can say I’ve seen it from both sides. My relatives and my friends at that time were very racially bigoted. I grew up in a period when that was normal and expected behavior. It wasn’t until I got in college that I knew that thinking was not correct and appropriate. My thinking evolved all the time I was in the military—my eight years in the Air Force and all the time I’ve been in business. But I don’t think I had seen an acceleration of my thinking until we began to do this diversity journey here.

It’s our ability to be open to thoughts and ideas. The idea of not just diversity but inclusiveness is something we added to how we think. That understanding of being accepting is one thing and being welcoming is another. When you marry inclusiveness with diversity, for me, that really was another plateau on my own personal thinking.

Not only has it made us a more diverse company, it has made me a better leader. The way I deal with all our employees is more respectful; I think it’s more open. I personally listen better, not one of my great strengths over a long time.

Frankel: The defense-contracting industry has become increasingly competitive in diversity. Why do you think that is, and how are you facing the ability to compete for talent?

Jones: One of the reasons our industry is becoming much more involved in this is for the very terms that we put our business case together. We realized that if we were a more diverse company, we would come up with more innovative solutions. We realized that we would tap into the best talent available, no matter where it was.

But the other thing we realized is our customers are becoming increasingly as diverse as our country is, and our worldwide markets have become more diverse. To be able to craft the kind of solutions that we need for that diverse set of customers, we had to think more as they think. We had to bring more perspectives to the table.

All the other companies in the defense environment are dealing in this exact same area. There’s not a defense company in the United States that’s not focusing a lot of its attention on moving offshore and exporting more. That requires it to be more culturally diverse.

Bringing Diversity to Iowa

Frankel: You’re challenged in some ways, more than your competitors, because you’re headquartered here in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where there is not a lot of racial diversity. What are you doing to overcome that and to get talented people who are Black, Latino and Asian to come here?

Jones: You’re right. The hill’s just little bit steeper for our company. If you look at our demographics, we have about 20,000 people in the corporation, 10,000 of them in the state of Iowa.

If you look at the minority population in Iowa, it’s about 6 percent, compared with about 25 percent in the nation. So we’re well below that in terms of the immediate talent pool. And so, to become more diverse, we have to try harder.

So here’s what we do. First of all, we recruit from outside the state. The largest population we have (at Rockwell Collins) is our engineering population, about 7,000 of those 20,000. We look at sources of engineering talent, both colleges and also existing experienced professionals that are outside the state. We go fish where fish are to bring that talent in.

We have set up excellent relationships with historically Black colleges and universities, for example, for African-American talent. We have focused a great deal of effort on bringing women into engineering and have established strong relationships with the Society of Women Engineers, for example, to help us.

This helps identify them, and another strategy is to get them here. Once they are here, we’ve got to keep them here, and so now they are working in a company hopefully that will be open and welcoming to them. That’s something we control. But they also live in a community where we have less control that is also perhaps not as racially diverse as the people who we would like to see come here. So we established what I think is a national first, working with other employers in this immediate area, which includes the University of Iowa, both utility and industrial employers, to form Diversity Focus, which is an organization whose mission is to increase awareness in the community, benchmark what everyone else is doing so we can share ideas and resources, and then think of new programs that we can do to make this a more welcoming and inclusive community.

They’ve done an outstanding job of all three of those missions that have helped people as they come here not only make Rockwell Collins a comfortable place to work but also make this community a comfortable place to live.

Frankel: How do you encourage people in your corporation, especially your senior executives, to get involved in the community and with multicultural organizations?

Jones: Well, first of all, we all live here too. We all understand that part of our corporate responsibility is to be a good corporate citizen. So the idea of outreaching to the community is not new to this company, nor is it new to the executives here.

In this case, the focus is to understand that when we have multicultural organizations that are springing up as our community gets more diverse, we need to play a role in that.

So just as I participate in a number of specific activities, I ask each of my direct reports to also select an organization that they can uniquely contribute to in the community. We often go out and speak to these organizations. We provide mentorship to these organizations from an executive level. We invite these organizations into our company to kind of see what we do.

As a highly secure facility, we can be very cloistered, so bringing everyone in here, including elementary- and high-school students, opens the company up to the community. Every year, I evaluate senior executives’ progress not only in the community but in our diversity goals for the company, and part of their compensation is tied to that evaluation.

Sustainable Results

Frankel: What are you doing to ensure that the efforts you’re putting in place will outlive your tenure as CEO?

Jones: I am a firm believer that no organization can sustain itself for very long by being a cult of personality. You’re very kind to give me some of the credit for doing this. But I can assure you that there are a host of people around me who feel as I do.

This is not a battle of “do what I say” but a battle for hearts and minds of agreeing that what I am suggesting is the right thing to do. I go back to that business case we built. Everyone in my leadership team buys into that business case that this is the right thing to do for the business. So if you care about the business and our business success, this is an important strategy for the next piece of avionics, for the next radio that we build as a solution for our end customers.

I have every confidence that when I am gone, the spirit of what we have created here has been infused in the company enough that it will carry on without me. In many ways, you can say it could carry on better without me because now we will have a new set of eyes with a new agenda for the company and a new way to advance it leading at the top.

But the foundation of what we’ve established will be here in the infrastructure that they can build upon; as we know in our industry, everything can be made better, everything can be more efficient, everything can be more effective in its outcomes. I know that both our board of directors and I are committed to this enough that we will select someone who has this as a passion as well.

Frankel: What would you like as your legacy to Rockwell Collins?

Jones: I spend zero time thinking about my legacy at Rockwell Collins. This company has been around for 78 years. It was here long before I came and it will be here long after I am here. I view myself as a steward of this company, that I am basically a leader servant of the shareowners, of the board of directors and, of course, the employees and our customers. My measure of merit will be that I leave the company in better shape than I came to it. When I look back over my shoulder, if I can look at that body of work and feel personally convinced that there are certain things that I did, that I champion, that I had an idea for, that made it a better company, then I will feel that I’ve had a successful tenure, that now someone else can build on after that.

Obviously, one of those things I hope to be most proud of is changing the shape, the look and the thinking of this company to be more inclusive and to be ready to move into the 21st century and do business successfully in the United States and around the world.

That’s why this specific diversity and inclusion initiative is so important to me as a quality initiative, as a globalization initiative and as an effort to serve our customers more effectively. So I hope I’ve done a good job with that, but we’ll have to wait until I get there to see if I have.

Success has many parents. If we’ve been successful in this journey, then we deserve recognition in your DiversityInc Top 50. If that success has happened, it’s because a number of people have contributed to it, bringing the ideas forward, nurturing the strategies, being thoughtful in offering new suggestions, and I won’t even begin to list all the people in our company who have helped me and our company advance.

But I do want to cite DiversityInc because your organization has taken an interest in this relatively smaller company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, that was eager to do better. I believe we did better because we had your help. We had your thoughtful recommendations and advice, many of which we’ve adopted.

We want to thank you and your organization for the work you do and for the way that you help shape a lot of my thinking and our company’s thinking around what we believe is a very important dimension of business.

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