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WINGS OF GOLD: Leadership and Management

Former Navy vice admiral taps into ground-level, leadership experience for civilian role

Editor's note: In honor of the centennial celebration of naval aviation, The Daily Transcript will be running a series of articles focusing on naval aviators and their leadership and management skills. The following is another article in the series.

“I describe an aircraft carrier as two nuclear reactors surrounded by 3 to 4 million gallons of jet fuel, with several thousand tons of ammunition, then 60 to 70 high-performance airplanes, all on something the size of six or seven city blocks, and run by a crew with the average age of 21. What could possibly go wrong, right?"

James (Jim) Zortman, VADM (Ret.) initially joined the Navy for a short-term adventure. Instead, he spent decades in service and is still providing support to the Navy in his civilian role as sector vice president for Life Cycle and Logistic Support for Northrop Grumman’s Aerospace Systems division.

“I grew up on a farm in Iowa and was one of nine kids. I heard about the opportunity to go to the Naval Academy and that I’d get to be on an ocean someplace, which sounded kind of cool,” Zortman said. “I went there intending to do my service then come back and take over the family farm -- but after flying airplanes off of aircraft carriers and getting to go around the world a few times, I didn’t go back to the farm.”

Zortman retired from the Navy in 2007 with the rank of vice admiral, after posts including executive officer to the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. His final position was commander for Naval Air Forces and CEO for Naval Aviation Enterprise, where he led a combined team of more than 180,000 military, government, civilian and contractor personnel that was collectively responsible for operations, readiness and full life-cycle management of 3,800 aircraft and 12 aircraft carriers.

This large-scale leadership role literally prepared him for his civilian role at Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC), where as sector vice president he runs the part of the business that develops and executes support systems for military airplanes and space systems, and as site manager for the Unmanned Systems Development Center, he oversees about 2,500 people in the creation of the company’s unmanned systems.

Jim Zortman

“For the last three years I was chief of Naval Air Forces, and it was really a combination of running a military organization but also running a big business,” Zortman said. “A lot of what the support of a fleet mirrors is business: industrial depots where airplanes get worked on, supply depots, big training squadron operations, and the complex manpower that goes into it.”

Because of his Navy experience, Zortman believes he’s able to put the designers and builders at Northrop Grumman on a path that can better serve a fleet by directing them on what’s most essential and most efficient.

“We got a lot of smart people who put these things together and produce them, but then out in the field the customer expects things to last 20 to 50 years and that they’ll give it to these 20- to 21-year-olds to not only operate and maintain, but to also fight with at some point. What I’m focused on is making sure that when we design and build, we put things in that allow those operating to use them efficiently,” he said.

“What works good in the lab might not be such a good idea on the flight deck at 2 o’clock in the morning when it’s raining.”

From his Navy roles ranging from ground-level work on aircraft carriers, to mid-level responsibility for mechanics and making sure airplanes were ready when needed, to leading all of Naval forces and making sure the budgets balanced, Zortman credits his broad base of experience with giving him a fine-tuned understanding of how products are used in the field that helps him better perform his private-sector responsibilities.

Zortman flew the A-6 Intruder, shown here, a Grumman-built aircraft. It was the world's first fully all-weather attack bomber capable of detecting and identifying tactical or strategic targets, and delivering both conventional and nuclear ordnance on them under zero-visibility conditions.

“I describe an aircraft carrier as two nuclear reactors surrounded by 3 to 4 million gallons of jet fuel, with several thousand tons of ammunition, then 60 to 70 high-performance airplanes, all on something the size of six or seven city blocks, and run by a crew with the average age of 21,” he said. “What could possibly go wrong, right? Yet there is so much training and support behind it and in the Navy it worked.”

This understanding of the back-end has helped Zortman not only in providing insight on design, but also to personnel. He’s found that he can motivate people at every level, in part because he started from the ground up and also because he has seen first-hand that everyone in an organization can make an impact. Zortman finds it rewarding to share with workers on all levels how their contributions -- no matter how seemingly small -- really do make a difference.

“I think I’m proudest in those instances where I can connect what somebody’s doing in a cubicle in El Segundo, Rancho Bernardo or on the factory floor by saying, ‘Hey, I am one of those guys who flew in an airplane that you built in this facility. Are you the guy or girl who designed it? Wow, I used that and here’s how it worked for me.’ Being able to connect that experience with how something is actually used and give feedback really motivates them.”

Even though Zortman is no longer in uniform himself, he’s happy to still be involved with those who are on a more personal level.

“I continue to support people in uniform, and the company is very encouraging of that. For example, I am on the national board of United Through Reading, which I got involved with when I was still in uniform,” said Zortman.

“They take and provide books and the ability to record people reading those books while they’re deployed so they can send the storytelling back to their kids. It’s a way for a parent who’s deployed to stay connected and to send great stories -- and that’s how they see their dad or mom thousands of miles away.”

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Northrop Grumman

Company Website

9356 Spectrum Center Blvd.
San Diego, CA 92123

Northrop Grumman Executive(s):

John Pettitt

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