Mike Petters MBA '93 tells Flex MBA students to 'be passionate'

Metaphors are a powerful way to make a point and Mike Petters is a master of the technique.  When asked how a leader can control what frontline managers do, he answers:  Some people think a company is like a symphony and the president is the conductor, strictly controlling what all the instruments do.  Not so.  The larger the organization, the more like a jazz band it has to be.  If you have a great horn blower, you have to let him do improvisational solos.  You as the band director manage the rhythm of the band and the broad themes - and let the instruments talk to each other.  Create the framework and let good people get good results within that framework.

Mike Petters, President of Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding.Mike Petters  MBA '93  is currently Vice President of Northrop Grumman, and President of Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding.  This leader shared his perspective with a standing-room-only group at the W&M Peninsula Center in Newport News, where Flex MBA Program classes are held.  The audience included Larry Pulley, Dean of the Mason School of Business.

What commonalities unite true leaders?  According to Petters, they have a vision; focus on ethics and fairness; and value truth, integrity, and core values.  They understand the importance of people, of training, and of doing things right the first time.  A corporate leader's job is to make sure employees know what a good job is, how to do a good job, and how to do it even better. 

Advocating a "Put Your Hands in Your Pockets" style, Petters says leaders know when to stay out of situations to give people the chance to do the work for you and grow themselves in the process.

Petters also emphasizes being able to see the organization as a whole and how your part of it integrates with all the other parts - leaders do not get stuck in their corner of the universe and miss out on how they fit into the bigger picture.

How do you pick good leaders?  Mike Petters thinks much of corporate America has no idea and offers a swimming analogy.  What happens if you get thrown in the water? You sink or swim, but with no training, you are much more likely to sink.  To properly learn to swim, you start off in shallow water, learn the strokes, learn how to coordinate your breathing, and so on.  But most corporations don't train leaders - they throw people in the water by picking the best engineer and making her the manager.  The only problem is, engineering and leadership have very different skill sets.  This gives short shrift to the craft of leadership as well as hurting the corporation.

A firm believer that leadership can be taught, Mike Petters feels many people have some innate leadership qualities, but it is rare to be born a natural leader.  Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding invests significantly in leadership training, and a number of Flex MBA students are Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding employees.

On the true value of an MBA, Mike Petters cites learning the language of business.  MBAs are trained to have a new understanding of what they see, hear and experience.  Employers are looking for sound judgment and business acumen: does the employee understand not only how to fix a problem, but also ensure it doesn't again?  Petters believes that what MBAs learn is much bigger than the content of any course - it is taking the combined learning into account as you make decisions.

What does Mike Petters look for when hiring an MBA?  You must be passionate about what you are doing right now.  He will not hire you unless you are excelling in your current job, using your full energy and creativity.  If you do this, you will stand out.

How does Mike Petters define a good job?  One that gives you the chance to grow every day; participate in something bigger than yourself; and wake up looking forward to going to work.  If you have these three components, you will perform better than 90 percent of the workforce and you will get noticed.

A final piece of advice for would-be leaders: You must believe that your people want to do a good job and you must understand their motivations.  Another story illustrates his point: When Petters was in the Navy, sailors in the operations room would write backwards on clear plexiglass boards with grease pencils.  Officers outside based decisions on this information.

One day, a supply officer complained that sailors were stealing grease pencils, because they were never there when he went around to collect them.  A senior officer told him to order 10,000 grease pencils immediately and store them by the plexiglass boards.  Overnight, not only were the grease pencils not missing, but the number of pencils near the board almost doubled.  The reality was that the sailors wanted to do a good job, but could never find a grease pencil when they needed one.  Therefore, they had taken grease pencils with them when they left their shift, to be sure of having one at the next shift.  Once assured of having the tools they needed, they no longer had to take the pencils with them.

Good stories and great lessons from a true leader.