Mike Kahn said he’s never seen an organization so concerned and caring toward its students as the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, and knew he wanted to be a part of that. He was happy to share some of the wisdom he’s gleaned from his years in the aerospace and defense industry with business and engineering students as the first speaker in the spring line-up of the CEO@Smith speaker series, Feb. 5, 2013. As president of ATK Defense and senior vice president for parent ATK, Kahn heads up the defense industry business of the world’s largest producer of rocket engines and ammunitions.
He joked that he would have been a College Park student himself, if he could have figured out an easier commute from his home in Southern California, where he started his career in aerospace and earned his MBA at Pepperdine University. But he’s happy to recruit students from the Smith School and A. James Clark School of Engineering to work at the Baltimore-headquartered ATK Defense. The company also worked with undergraduates in the Smith School’s QUEST program and has been a good partner in philanthropic efforts for the university.
Kahn regaled students with videos of rocket launches and Mars landings, and details of his unexpected journey to head one of the top defense contractors. He said it’s impossible to chart your career because you never know what will happen in life. Kahn didn’t dream he’d be where he is today. “If you would have asked me in 1981, I would have never said this.”
Back then, Kahn was just about to graduate with an engineering degree when saw TV coverage of the first space shuttle launch. He was hooked and decided that’s what he wanted to do with his life.
After nearly settling for a job in the steel industry after graduation, Kahn landed a position with shuttle-maker Rockwell International. With the help of a great boss who opened the door to opportunities, Kahn worked his way up through the company and eventually to leadership ranks in the industry. He joined ATK in 1988, and in 2010, he landed in the top spot at ATK Defense.
Throughout the journey, Kahn said has come to realize how complex the business world really is, especially the complexity of large organizations. But he offered some word of wisdom to excel in complex organizations:
- Stay focused on your objective. It’s easy to get hung up on an objective that’s not important. Don’t suboptimize your job.
- Ask questions. Speak up. Keep asking questions until you understand. Don’t settle for answers that are incomplete.
- Value other people’s point of view. There is always disagreement. And you will always learn something if you value other people’s points of view.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for data.
- Relationships you build with other people are really important.
- Always do good work, even when you think people aren’t looking, because someone is always looking.
Kahn talked about the leadership lessons he has learned along the way: clarify expectations, encourage good staff relationships, simplify things, let workers make improvements. And he gave many examples of how these key ideas have helped his organization innovate and excel in an industry that must be constantly ahead of the needs of its main client – the U.S. government.
He also gave students insights on career success and what ATK looks for in employees. Because despite the current sequestration threats his industry faces, with Congress questioning defense spending in the federal budget, Kahn said the ups and downs are nothing new. “We have needs 24/7 for people with good business sense,” he said.