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The thrill of watching the team

To lead well, one must first be able to motivate others

Alton D. Romig Jr. is vice president and general manager of Advanced Development Programs, also known as Skunk Works®, at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics. The Lehigh alumnus (B.S., M.S. and Ph.D. in materials science and engineering in 1975, 1977 and 1979) sets strategic direction for the capture of new business at Skunk Works®, which has been the preeminent seat of aerospace innovation for more than 65 years. Romig spent more than 30 years with Sandia National Laboratories, operated by Sandia Corp., a Lockheed Martin company, where he led the development and engineering activities providing science, technology and systems support for U.S. programs in military technology, nuclear deterrence and proliferation prevention, technology assessments, intelligence and counterintelligence, homeland security, and energy programs.

Q:The world is a vastly different than it was when Lockheed’s legendary Skunk Works® group was founded to support the Allied effort in World War II. How has the organization evolved?

A: Many people think Kelly Johnson’s (the first Skunk Works® leader) legacy was the aircraft he created. I believe his legacy is the culture you find at Skunk Works®. It’s a culture of innovation that understands failure as the critical element leading to a breakthrough technology. We’ve had our highs and lows at Lockheed but one constant is that Lockheed Martin has never failed to support this organization in all aspects ranging from financial support to embracing our passion to attempt the seemingly impossible. The customer requirements and mission goals have changed: there’s a lot more bureaucracy and oversight with more focus on affordability today, but the basic ethos remains unchanged.

Q:Both Sandia and Skunk Works® help meet needs in critical areas of national security. Why are engineers uniquely suited to contribute in these areas?

A: As engineers we must have a spark inside of us that goes beyond our discipline. That spark to create or innovate must also extend to serving our country. That’s what’s most important at the end of the day, that we are passionate about providing our military and our government administrators with what is needed to make our country safe and prosperous. Engineers must also be excited about a challenge. In the national security industry we have the opportunity to solve some of the most difficult and complex challenges ever faced.

Q: Where is Skunk Works® headed in the future?

A: We expect to continue to meet the needs of our country and its allies. The focus on affordability is more important than ever. I think we can address some of the cost issues by looking at the processes by which we take on incredibly complex projects. Years ago, an engineer would work on 20 different aircraft in a career. Today’s projects are so complex and costly that an engineer might only work on one aircraft program in an entire career. We must find ways to shorten those project cycles while continuing to produce the most astonishing aircraft the world has ever seen.

We tackle problems that no one thinks can be solved. Years ago, you would have said it’s impossible to build an aircraft that can’t be seen on radar or that can fly from the West Coast to the East Coast in 67 minutes, but we have successfully produced the stealthy F-117 and the Mach 3+ SR-71.

Q: How has your engineering background prepared you for leadership roles among diverse constituents?

A: My career is technical in nature and for me a technical degree is absolutely essential to the performance of my job with Skunk Works®.

My technical degree is the foundation that makes it possible for me to manage multiple complex programs. In a high-tech corporation like Lockheed Martin, high-tech skills are vital to earn the respect you need to lead a team. Whatever your career path, a degree from Lehigh, combined with an ability to develop a broad network of professional relationships across your industry, will help prepare you to become a successful leader.

Q: What are the qualities of effective leadership?

A: Certain characteristics of leadership are internally focused; others are externally focused. From an internally focused perspective, a clear vision for the future is critical. It’s also necessary to have the ability to make well-informed and well-thought-out decisions. The most important thing is the ability to motivate a team. If you can do that, you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve. As a leader, I realize that the diverse knowledge and talent of my team far exceeds that of me as an individual.

From an externally focused perspective, the ability to develop meaningful relationships within and outside your industry is very impactful.

A professional network composed of customers and partners from academia, industry and government is an intangible resource that helps a leader be more effective and connected to the business and the environment in which it functions.

Q: What stories from Sandia or Lockheed exemplify the learning you experienced at your alma mater?

A: At Lehigh, there’s a strong sense of teamwork, just as I’ve found at Sandia and Lockheed Martin. If you’re a student at Lehigh you’re also a Mountain Hawk for life. People here have that same sense of camaraderie. I guess we’d call it institutional spirit or Skunk Works® pride. Once you spend time working here you become a “Skunk” and that pride of having been part of this team never really leaves you. You don’t find that in a lot of corporations. It’s reflected in how long people stay here. I recently pinned a 60-year medal on an employee. I think people like the unique technical challenges and the strong sense of “Skunk” spirit. The result is a turnover rate that is very low.

Q: Tell us about one of your greatest challenges and how Lehigh’s education helped you meet it.

A: One of the greatest challenges for me over the last few decades has been participating in the national effort to increase the flow of science, technology, engineering and math talent. We need to produce more engineers with strong people skills and business acumen. Many engineering schools are good at training engineers, but Lehigh graduates engineers with strong business and communications skills. The skills I learned at Lehigh have served me well and set me apart from my peers.

Q: What are the qualities you look for in a researcher?

A: There are two kinds of intelligence I think you need beyond the traditional measure of I.Q. One is emotional intelligence – the ability to interact with other people. The other is cognitive intelligence – the ability to take input and information from a wide variety of sources and integrate them. The balance required between the two depends on what kind of researcher you are.

For a theoretical physicist, math and science intelligence is most important. If you tend toward engineering, emotional intelligence becomes important, because engineering involves teamwork. And cognitive intelligence is important because these teams require a vast range of disciplines – engineering, business, legal and social science.

Q: In the 1960s, science enjoyed great public support. What could renew popular interest today in science and technology?

A: I think our culture tends to react to acute problems but not to chronic problems. In 1957, when the Soviets launched Sputnik, people began to fear an immediate and existential threat to the United States. That concern triggered huge investments in science and technology, including the race to the moon. Most of the leaders of technical teams today are children of Sputnik. I had hoped that energy would create that spark today. But energy is not an acute problem, it’s a chronic problem. Maybe the environment or climate will hit a chord with kids the way that Sputnik did with my generation.

Interview by William Tavani
Photo by Randy Montoya