Phebe Novakovic offers career, leadership advice in rare interview
General Dynamics CEO Phebe Novakovic is famously reticent about talking to media. She answers questions from financial analysts representing institutional investors during GD’s quarterly calls and will occasionally speak with certain national business outlets — the operative word there is “occasionally.”
But she recently spoke with Carlyle Group founder David Rubenstein for an episode of his Peer-to-Peer Conversations show on Bloomberg Television that aired this past weekend. The full interview is embedded below this article.
I watched for couple reasons. First, she so rarely gives interviews that the show is almost must-see TV for anyone in the government market.
Second, I wanted to hear what she said about the two parts of GD we pay the most attention to: the Information Technology services business and Mission Systems, which makes IT hardware.
At round the 12:48 mark, Rubenstein asks about the “information business” as he calls it. He sets the question up by wondering if the information business is the biggest driver of growth for defense companies because of the cyber work they do.
She tells us nothing beyond the nugget that there is “cyber in all we do,” including the massive Abrams Main Battle Tank that serves as the backdrop for the interview.
She also said submarines are what is driving GD’s growth. But that’s it.
As a colleague said, it was an inartful question. There was no probing about why nearly all the other large defense hardware companies have jettisoned their IT services businesses, while GD invested with the CSRA acquisition three years ago. Why does being in that market make sense for GD when it didn’t make sense for its peers?
That was a disappointment when I have my narrow IT-focused goggles on.
Otherwise, I thought the interview offered some nice highlights even if it retreaded some familiar storylines such as her time working as a case officer for the CIA. She actually admitted to being a spy but declined to share any of her cover stories.
Rubenstein asked a couple questions around whether she knew early on that she could be the CEO of General Dynamics. She dismissed that kind of thinking as hubris.
Novakovic praised former CEO Nicholas Chabraja, who led GD from 1997 to 2009. She worked as his chief of staff, which gave her an up close look at how a strong and intelligent CEO operates.
“I was the beneficiary of a lot of learning,” she said.
Her advice for women looking to rise in the corporate ranks:
“Be part of a team and do the job in front of you as best as you possibly can. In a functional organization, the rest will take care of itself,” she said. “If it is a dysfunctional organization, all bets are off. Get out of there.”
She gives the same advice to men.
Novakovic also offered some insights on the qualities necessary for a successful CEO.
“A good leader needs good character,” she said. You also need a smattering of capabilities — finance, problem solving, and thinking strategically.
“And you need perseverance. Sometimes you just have to never stop. Never quit.”
A good leader also needs a strong moral compass.
“You have to constantly question, Am I doing the right thing? If you aren’t asking yourself that regularly, you run the risk of failing to see potential errors,” Novakovic said.
She also talked about the need to “see around square corners” by questioning your decisions and your strategy.
“Why are we doing this? Why aren’t we doing that?’ she said. “Teasing out those answers is where you find opportunity.”
Posted by Nick Wakeman on Aug 30, 2021 at 11:11 AM