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How diverse leadership helped Northrop Grumman navigate the coronavirus crisis

September 29, 2020, 9:40 PM UTC

Northrop Grumman CEO Kathy Warden exercised restraint when describing this March as “a really interesting time” during Fortune’s Most Powerful Women virtual summit Tuesday.

As the coronavirus spread across the U.S., the defense contractor that has built everything from lunar landers to nuclear missiles was deemed an essential business. That meant its factories stayed in operation—and that workers in factories and elsewhere had to confront anxious uncertainty about their safety.

When it came to handling the crisis, Warden says she discovered diversity was a major edge for Northrop Grumman.

“I was so pleased that we have a diverse leadership team,” she told Fortune’s Pattie Sellers. “It really reflected what our organization needed to hear from us, because different people around the table had different perceptions of what is important. It highlighted for me that if you don’t have a leadership team that reflects the population, then you’re missing out on being able to lead all people within the organization.”

What she heard from that team was that it would take more than masks, social distancing, and disinfecting wipes to support the company’s workers and to make sure everyone was rowing together during the crisis. The company offered workers extra leave and provided eldercare and childcare for those who needed it, perks that Warden says “helped to alleviate the burden outside of the workplace.”

Warden herself had a good sense of the complex burdens faced by workers during the pandemic; she had her first child just after she began working in national security after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Warden also realized communication would be essential, and she says that for five months she wrote a weekly update to the entire company, covering what it was doing, specifically in response to the coronavirus.

“We needed to build people’s confidence…that they were going to be safe in the workplace,” she said.

That sort of direct communication between a CEO and her 90,000 workers is part of a larger effort at Northrop Grumman to create an inclusive environment. That involves not just seeking regular feedback, but establishing employee resource groups to bring together employees of particular backgrounds and empower them to push diversity efforts forward.

“It’s not enough to just have diversity around the table,” Warden says. “We want to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.”

It must be said that despite Warden’s upbeat rhetoric, the company’s diversity numbers are, on their face, nothing to write home about. As of the most recent 2018 data, 70% of its senior leadership is male, and only just over 15% is nonwhite—neither number anywhere close to Warden’s goal of a team that reflects the population. The company’s professional and technical ranks are somewhat more racially diverse, but just as male-dominated.

But context also matters: The company is doing as well or better by some measures than Google, which despite its progressive veneer and years of highly publicized efforts to change, has a dramatically lower proportion of Black and Latino workers and executives than Grumman.

Warden acknowledges Northrop Grumman has a long way to go to create a representative team. To keep pushing forward, she says the defense contractor has taken a step many companies don’t dare: setting specific diversity goals, and tying them to executive incentives.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” Warden said. “But I’ll tell you, we’re not done.”