Rockwell Collins' New CEO: Building on Disciplined Diversity Approach

Rockwell Collins’ emergence as a diversity leader in the past five years was because of a focused, disciplined approach to creating an inclusive workplace. Kelly Ortberg, who took over as President in 2012 and CEO last July, has been a leader in the company for decades. He plans to build on the diversity success of his predecessor, Clay Jones, to use D&I to achieve his three business goals: global expansion, focus on core values and innovation.


DiversityInc Senior Vice President and Executive Editor Barbara Frankel interviewed Ortberg at corporate headquarters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, this fall. A transcript of the interview is below the video.

Barbara Frankel: Rockwell Collins has established itself as a diversity leader through a disciplined approach to creating an inclusive corporate culture and increasing diversity of its talent pool. How will you build on that progress to make diversity even more of a competitive business advantage

Kelly Ortberg: I’ve billed our CEO transition as really a full-speed-ahead transition. So we’re not going to see a course correction in the strategic direction of our company. I think that applies to our diversity initiative as well. The fundamentals of our diversity activities are very sound. We’re focused on our people, we’re focused on our work environment, and the end markets that we serve. Right now, what we need to do is to accelerate the implementation of those strategies and continue to enhance the diverse nature of our company.

As I look forward, we’re going to need to continue to attract more diverse people from different backgrounds, particularly as we look to the international market. That’s going to require our company to look a little bit different, and we’ve got to cultivate the environment where those voices are heard, so that we’ve got an open and inclusive environment going forward. I don’t think that you’re going to see a shift in strategy, but more an acceleration of our focus.

Frankel: Are there any particular means or mechanisms that you’ve thought about putting in place to accelerate that focus

Ortberg: One of the things that we’re seeing great success with is our mentoring program. We’re doing speed mentoring, we’re doing targeted mentoring, and we’re finding a lot of good value coming from mentoring activities. We’re also seeing some really good results associated with moving people back and forth out of different environments—particularly that of international coming domestically, or moving some of our domestic people into international locations. And we’re using those international people to do cultural-awareness training within the organization. We’re seeing really good results. In the end, we have to immerse these people into these new cultures and new environments for them to really understand and learn.

Frankel: How does your increasing emphasis on global cultural competence help improve your business efforts

Ortberg: We have an overall globalization strategy, and if you look at our business over the next five years, we expect our global business to grow faster than our domestic business. So it’s really, really important to us. As a part of that strategy, we have a component that we call ‘gaining privileged insight,’ which is our ability to go into those markets and understand what the customers’ needs and desires really are, and to understand the processes and how things get done.

Much of that growth that we see is in markets that are not traditional to us. We’re going to have to move people that are domestically based into those new marketplaces. We’re going to need employees who are much more willing to take on an international assignment in their careers, but also bringing more boots on the ground and hiring more people in the regions. In some cases, we’ll bring those people into our company to help them better understand our culture within the company, and then redeploy them back into the field to help us really interface with those customers. I believe the only way we’re going to get that customer affinity is to really have people aligned with them who are similar to the customers, and who understand their cultures.

Frankel: As you move into different markets, like Brazil, how do you ensure that the company’s intrinsic values of inclusion are carried forward on a local level

Ortberg: That’s part of our strategy, to bring people into the company. When we’re hiring from Brazil, for example, we want to bring that Brazilian into the company for a while to get them immersed in our corporate culture, make sure they understand the core values of the company, and diversity and inclusion. An inclusive communication environment is fundamental to that, so they’ll get that understanding, and then we can move them back into the region where they can carry that forward.

Frankel: What about doing business in countries where there are issues with gay people, with women

Ortberg: There are challenges, there’s no question. Depending on what culture you’re in, diversity and inclusion means different things in those cultures. The best thing we can do is to make sure we understand that and deploy the resources in an appropriate way.

Frankel: The main pillar that you’ve discussed is innovation. How do you see diversity and inclusion both globally and domestically helping you to innovate

Ortberg: I’ve always talked about innovation really being the life blood of Rockwell Collins. The fundamental part of innovation is that it comes from novel thinking, and sometimes radical thinking. You have to have an inclusive environment, where people feel comfortable about thinking differently, taking ideas from different people and integrating those. We have this thing that we call ‘making a safe environment’ so people can actually fail. They can try an innovative idea and have failure. We like to call it ‘fail fast,’ where they can fail and the ramifications of that failure aren’t so great. They are more willing to bring forward innovative ideas.

A lot of people think of innovation just as building an innovative product, but it’s just as applicable in our core business processes. If we are to find ways to do things more efficiently and more effectively, we have to be open to new ideas and different ideas, particularly as technology evolves.

Frankel: On a personal note, you’re from Iowa and you’ve worked for this company most of your career. Why is diversity important to you

Ortberg: I grew up in Dubuque, Iowa. While it was a great place to grow up, it certainly wasn’t a diverse environment. I would say diversity wasn’t a part of my equation until I got into the workforce. Luckily enough, early on in my career, I had to do a lot of international travel.

When I got out of high school, I had no desire to travel the world. I was perfectly happy to stay here in the U.S. It’s amazing, once I got out into the world, I saw what I was missing by not having a more diverse background. So it’s been very, very beneficial to me to be able to get out and understand the cultures. I love to go into the international marketplace and understand and learn the different cultures. There is a lot we can take from those cultures and bring back into our company to make us even better.

Frankel: Any last thoughts

Ortberg: We’re going to continue to focus on diversity and inclusion within Rockwell Collins. We’re very pleased to be recognized as one of the leaders in the diversity-inclusion activity, but we’ve got a lot more to do as a company, and we see the opportunity.

The neat thing that I see now is that people aren’t asking the question about why. Why should we do this They are more focused on, how can we accelerate our diversity-inclusion activity within the company So that’s making me feel really comfortable about the direction that we’re headed in.

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