Linda Hudson spent much of her time as head of the Arlington-based U.S. unit of BAE Systems cutting employees, consolidating business units and streamlining processes.
With her departure at the end of the month, she’ll no longer be running the company. But Hudson will get a chance to continue another mission that marked her tenure — her efforts to make the defense industry and the broader corporate world more diverse.
After a career of more than 40 years in a male-dominated industry, she has been determined to make it a little easier for others who are different.
What struck her early on about the industry, she said, was “how inflexible [it] was, and how intolerant it was of difference.”
“I’ve just come to believe over time, not only is it the right thing to do to treat everybody fairly and equitably, it’s also really good for business to have a diversity of thought,” said Hudson, who in 2009 became the first woman chief executive of a major U.S. defense contractor, in an interview from BAE’s Rosslyn office.
She acknowledged that trying to reshape BAE’s culture wasn’t always easy. She recalled that a blog post she wrote for the contractor’s Web site about diversity received an employee comment that she should ask for their input, rather than just sharing her own thoughts.
“That was kind of an aha moment about expanding the dialogue and engaging employees, rather than thinking I had all the good ideas,” she said.
She’s also had to get past her unfamiliarity with telecommuting. Flexibility to work elsewhere, she said, is employees’ most requested perk.
Hudson said she realized BAE has to stay current, such as by offering employees iPhones or Androids, rather than BlackBerrys. “I have worked very, very hard not to become a technical dinosaur,” she said.
Her experience trying to transform BAE will become the basis for her next gig. After stepping down from the CEO job later this month, Hudson plans to return to her home in Charlotte and open a consulting shop.
“I have become fascinated with the whole process of leadership development ... and would very much like to work with up and coming executives — particularly women, but not exclusively,” she said.
Hudson, who is on the Bank of America board, said she plans to join more corporate boards. Though she doesn’t intend to run for public office, she said she’d like to support Hillary Clinton if she runs for president in 2016.
Hudson departs at the same time as many other contracting chief executives, and she said that timing makes sense, given that defense contractors are preparing new strategies for tougher times.
She predicted another round of significant consolidation, even among the largest contractors — something that many analysts view as difficult given how few remain. “There’s just not enough work to go around,” Hudson said.
Gerard J. DeMuro, a former General Dynamics executive, has been tapped to succeed Hudson. She said that if she were still running BAE, she’d want it to take an active role in reviewing possible mergers or acquisitions. “You have two choices in a situation like that: You either try to help shape the way it plays out, or it happens to you.
“It would be my expectation that BAE would be a player in helping shape the way that plays out,” she added. “If I were here, that would be what I would want to do.”
But make no mistake, Hudson said she’s leaving at the right time.
“Frankly, it’s hard for me to get excited about going through another defense downturn,” Hudson said. “It’s not a whole lot of fun.”