The buck stops here

Michael Strianese

The best offense is a good defense

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As chairman, president and CEO of L-3, the ninth largest aerospace and national security contractor in the US, Mike Strianese has a unique perspective on leadership.

For him, the essential aspect of leadership — the trait he most strives to embody and project throughout his organization of some 48,000 people — is that of integrity.

“We’re in the business of helping the US and other countries with their national security,” Strianese explains. “In this industry, if you don’t have your reputation, you don’t have anything.”

For Strianese, who is one of Defense News’ “100 Most Influential People in US Defense,” that means continuously fostering a corporate culture in which “L-3 is a company that does things right and does the right thing.” He notes this philosophy must pervade everything the company does, from the boardroom to the customer to employees.

A passion for ethics

Beyond his enthusiasm for L-3 and its mission as a supplier to the military, Strianese takes pride in the fact that, to the best of his knowledge, he’s the only Fortune 500 CEO who previously served as a corporate ethics officer.

“People may laugh at that, but to me, being a leader is having an extreme passion for what I do, and that includes a passion for the highest ethics.” This passion deepened when Strianese left EY to work for an aerospace and defense (A&D) company.

It was the early 1990s, about the same time the A&D industry was being accused of huge cost overruns and excessive government billings. “Compared to the exemplary ethical behavior I experienced at EY, this was an environment that was completely foreign to me,” recalls Strianese.

As a result, he established L-3’s ethics program when the company was formed in 1997 and took a “keen interest” in helping to improve corporate ethics within the A&D industry. Strianese takes pride in noting that by the time the Sarbanes-Oxley Act passed in 2002, the industry and L-3 were “already way out in front.”

Strianese believes other critical leadership attributes include having a passion for your business, being a good listener and having a vision and the ability to drive others to achieve that vision. Additionally, he affirms that “expertise, intellectual curiosity and drive” translate into charisma and inspiration when talking to employees, and that interpersonal skills are key.

Strianese, who describes himself as a “relationship guy” in business, also accepts that one of the most demanding aspects of leadership is being willing and able to make the final decision. And that, he admits, can sometimes be a solitary job. Despite engineers and skilled managers who can provide him with volumes of data and a knowledgeable and experienced board, at the end of the day, says Strianese, “I must make the call … and I have to adapt and adapt quickly.”

STEM-ing the problem

Looking ahead, Strianese expresses deep concern over a “critical problem” facing his industry: developing its future leaders and attracting and retaining the science and engineering talent needed to “ensure that our troops have the very best technology in their hands to keep them and the US safe.” He notes the majority of the most senior A&D positions are held by baby boomers, many of whom are retiring now or will soon.

Further, Strianese anticipates a growing shortage of qualified people to fill these jobs. It’s an issue he’s making a high priority, both as the newly elected chairman of the Aerospace Industries Association and at L-3. In fact, L-3 recently gained recognition for its executive leadership development program, created with the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Strianese is also helping launch a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) program at his former Brooklyn, New York, high school.

The roots of leadership

Strianese recalls the “amazing and foundational” mentoring he received from EY colleagues such as Lew Kramer (who was asked to join L-3’s board after retiring from EY), John Gray and LeRoy Herbert. “The willingness of these men to invest in me at such a young age truly made a difference in my career and my life.”

More about Michael Strianese

Mike Strianese’s path to the US firm of Ernst & Young LLP in 1978 was atypical.

He was hired between his junior and senior years of college, working full-time by day and finishing college by night. This made him not only one of the youngest EY staffers but also the first member of his St. John’s University graduating class to land a job with a then-Big Eight firm, an achievement he’s still proud of. He served in a number of roles, eventually becoming a senior manager.

In 1991, a defense firm asked Strianese to join the company as director of special projects. In 1996, the company was acquired by Lockheed Martin, which in 1997 spun off L-3, with Strianese serving as the new organization’s first vice president of finance. L-3 went public in 1998 and Strianese was named CFO in 2005. In 2006, Strianese was named company president and CEO, and in 2008 he was elected chairman.

As leader of a company that provides such high-tech equipment as night-vision goggles, extremely realistic flight simulators and other highly classified military gear, Strianese is passionate about supporting the country’s men and women in uniform.

He currently serves as a Chair of the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation’s Leatherneck Ball, an event that raises millions of dollars each year to fund the educations of children of military personnel killed in the line of duty.

In addition, L-3 provides significant support for Homes For Our Troops, a non-profit organization that provides homes specially adapted to the needs of seriously wounded veterans. The homes are provided at no cost to their families.

More about L-3

L-3 is a global aerospace and national security company with 2013 sales of US$12.6 billion that employs approximately 48,000 people worldwide.

Headquartered in New York City, L-3 provides C3ISR (command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) systems, platform and logistics solutions, national security solutions and electronic systems that serve the military, homeland security, aviation and other commercial markets. L-3 customers include the United States Department of Defense, other US government agencies, allied foreign governments and commercial customers.