Profile: Engineering a First-Rate Club

Profile: Engineering a First-Rate Club

Northrop Grumman corporate club consistently produces leaders and results.

By Paul Sterman

Photo Caption: Northrop Grumman Toastmasters enjoy a holiday party at Deluca Trattoria Restaurant in El Segundo, Calif. Michael Jue (far left) is a 32-year club member.

By nature, engineers tend to be highly disciplined and task- oriented individuals, and those who work for Northrop Grumman Corporation – the second-largest defense contractor in the United States – are among the most accomplished in their industry. It should come as no surprise, then, that the Northrop Grumman Toastmasters has been extremely successful in achieving its goals and producing leaders.

The club is located at Northrop’s aerospace-systems facility in El Segundo, California. The defense contractor sponsors 20 corporate clubs in the United States, but the El Segundo club stands out in many ways. It is 57 years old and has produced numerous district leaders over the years, including six district governors. One, Marsha James Davis, also served on Toastmasters’ International Board of Directors from 1999 to 2001.

In addition, the 45-member club has earned President’s Distinguished status four of the past six years and Select Distinguished the other two.

“Its part of the aerospace culture to plan things out and set goals,” says Michael Jue, DTM, a past district governor and member of the El Segundo club. “The thing about our club being made up largely of aerospace engineers is that there’s a certain amount of stability.”

Jue is a prime example: He’s been a member for 32 years. Davis also points to the club’s culture: “The majority of members are very structured individuals, so that lends itself to a tremendous amount of consistency – people you can count on.”

Davis worked at Northrop from 1985 to 2000, primarily as a budget analyst. When she started, she was admittedly shy and hesitant in group settings. A senior member in her department once told Davis: “You know what you’re doing – why don’t you speak up more?” After joining the corporate club, her confidence improved markedly.

“When I started taking on leadership roles, like club officer positions, area, division and district governor, that’s when [my confidence] really kicked in,” she says. “I found myself speaking up more in business meetings. Then I got a promotion and started making more presentations to management and customers.”

Davis is a Distinguished Toastmaster and now works for Tecolote Research, Inc., as a principal analyst and earned-value management specialist, but she still attends occasional Northrop Grumman club meetings to stay connected. She says her time in the group changed her life – not only professionally, but personally as well: It was a fellow Northrop club member who introduced Davis to her husband, Glen Davis, DTM. 

Why Club Membership Pays Off
Northrop Grumman was founded in 1939, and now employs about 120,000 people worldwide. Headquartered in Los Angeles, it has government and commercial clients, and develops military tools, including unmanned aircraft, satellites and nuclear submarines. Its aerospace division alone is a $10 billion business.

Corporate club members pay their own dues, but Northrop offers financial assistance for Toastmasters-related items. “Toastmasters clubs offer employees a way to develop communication and organizational skills, which we see as useful in the workplace,” says Jim Hart, manager of external affairs for Northrop’s aerospace division.

Club members agree that such participation pays dividends in their careers. Many kinds of engineers work at the aerospace plant, and they grapple with complex technical issues: aging aircraft, flight software, spacecraft designs and hydraulic systems, for example. When talking to managers, colleagues or clients, they need to express themselves effectively. Yet club president Mayur Patel notes that engineers are often so deeply immersed in their technical training and research that they overlook developing clear-communication skills.

“Toastmasters helps bridge that gap by providing opportunities to speak and to experience leadership,” says Patel, who started as an engineer at Northrop but is now a project manager. “If you have a great solution to a technical problem but you don’t have the communication skills to get it across, you’re going to be at a loss.”

“The reason many people join is because they need to make technical presentations at work and have difficulties,” adds Jue, who retired from Northrop last year after a 35-year career.

Patel says Toastmasters training gave him the confidence to deliver speeches outside of work, as well. Earlier this year, he gave a presentation on risk-management processes to a local branch of the National Sojourners (a Masonic Veterans group).

“It felt great – that feeling of satisfaction from being able to provide value and benefit to others,” says Patel. 

Speaking at the Shipyard
Wade Miner, DTM, is a Computational Fluid Dynamics engineer for Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding, which employs 20,000 people, in Newport News, Virginia. He says the skills that shipyard engineers hone in Toastmasters are vital in their work designing ships for the U.S. Navy, the unit’s main client.

“When there’s a meeting between our people and one of the Navy organizations, our engineers need to be able to communicate competently and clearly,” says Miner, president of the corporate club At The Helm. “They need to be able to communicate with confidence. Some future decisions can easily depend on how well they communicate.”

Miner’s own Toastmasters story is particularly powerful. As a young man, he had a severe stuttering problem. In 1977, when Miner started working for the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., he joined an in-house Toastmasters club: the now-defunct Thomas Edison Toastmasters.

“Over 20 years’ experience in Toastmasters, I gradually gained a fluency that, back in high school, I could only dream about,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “Before I joined Toastmasters, I could not have held a conversation like the one we are having now.”

Miner eventually moved to Virginia and started working at Northrop Shipbuilding. In 2004 he helped start its first Toastmasters club, called Spear and Gear. The following year, he was instrumental in chartering the At the Helm club. 

More Job Benefits
Engineers aren’t the only employees who benefit from the Northrop Toastmasters groups. Hoa Hoang, who handles applications support and training in the business development department, joined the Northrop Grumman club in El Segundo club two years ago, after attending its annual Speechcraft program.

“The club has helped me be more comfortable when I do the training and give presentations,” she notes.

This corporate club is open to the public, with almost half its members coming from outside the company. Northrop employees say it’s great to have such diverse perspectives brought in by members such as Darrell Winfrey, the host of a jazz radio show, and Nate Chittick, a former National Football League player who now works as a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley Smith Barney.

“In the business world, communication is such a big part of everything,” says Chittick, who played for the Super Bowl-winning St. Louis Rams in 1999. When he was a pro athlete, he adds, he sometimes gave speeches to community organizations. Now the Northrop club helps keep the former football champ in speaking shape: “public speaking is like a muscle – you have to keep using it.”

As for Patel, he says serving as a club officer taught him a great deal about leadership, which helps him as a project manager. “It’s taught me a lot about how to relate to people of different age groups and backgrounds,” he says. “In a volunteer organization, you also learn about what gets people motivated.” 

Paul Sterman is a Toastmaster in Orange, California, and an associate editor of the Toastmaster magazine.