Spring CEO@Smith Launches with ATK Defense President
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:
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.
About the Robert H. Smith School of Business
The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader
in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the
University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate,
full-time and part-time MBA, executive MBA, MS in business, PhD and executive
education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The
school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning
locations in North America and Asia.