Leadership Lessons from the Bridge to the Board Room
“A leader is a leader. There are certain things that are foundational for any leader to be respected by their peers, superiors, and subordinates. The one quality I would put first is integrity. No matter what you’re doing or where you are, you need to do the right thing even when nobody’s looking.” —Maureen Cragin
Veterans of the U.S. Military often find success in the business world thanks to qualities mastered during their service, including leadership skills, discipline, risk assessment abilities, and adaptability to change. Female veterans are no exception, and many women with decorated military careers have also gone on to excel as chief communications officers in the fast-paced corporate world. Following seven years of active military service with the U.S. Navy, as well as multi-year stints in the Naval Reserves and the government, Maureen Cragin joined Boeing as the head of communications for the aerospace company’s Washington, DC office in 2002.
The road that Cragin took to Boeing, which ultimately led her to specialize in Communications for Defense, Space & Security (BDS) in 2009, contains valuable leadership lessons applicable to civilian and military communicators seeking to advance in their career field. “It was an interesting path and not a path I planned,” Cragin says. “One of the things about my career is that I have been at the right place at the right time when the call came in.”
After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy, Cragin served on active duty with the Pacific Fleet. She was stationed aboard the USS Lexington (CV-16), an Essex-class aircraft carrier built during World War II and commissioned in February 1943. Beginning in August 1980, the Lexington became the first aircraft carrier in United States naval history to have women stationed aboard as crew members. “Diversity and inclusion in its broadest sense,” Cragin notes, “is an integral component of effective leadership, whether in the military or in business. Male, female, racial, religious, geographic, business diversity, you name it. You want to be able to accept and encourage the widest range of ideas. Robust conversation offers the most creative ideas.”
Cragin honed her skills as a public affairs officer and frequently interacted with legislative affairs staff—experiences that often left her inspired to pursue future employment within the federal government. “I thought to myself: I’d like to work in Washington, but that’s a tough world to crack into without prior connections or government experience,” Cragin says. “Sometimes you have to pursue the direction of your interest when the opportunity isn’t directly in front of you.”
Cragin’s first job in Washington, DC ended up being as a spokesperson for the Women’s Bureau and Glass Ceiling Commission at the U.S. Department of Labor. “When I entered the Naval Academy, only nine percent of the enrollees were female—today that stands at closer to 30 percent. With such an incredible and positive transformation occurring with gender roles in education, the military, government, and corporate sectors—all across the board—more and more people feel comfortable adhering to their core set of values. A leader is a leader. There are certain things that are foundational for any leader to be respected by their peers, superiors and subordinates.” Cragin does believe, however, that there is one attribute that comes before any other. “The one quality I would put first is integrity. No matter what you’re doing or where you are, you need to do the right thing even when nobody’s looking.”
Cragin also strongly believes that perseverance to pursue your career goals is firmly rooted in passion and objectivity. “You have got to be really passionate because you have to believe in what you’re doing; but at the same time, you can’t blindly believe, so you have to have candor and confidence, and speak up, and the ability to question—it’s particularly important to let go and lead in communications.” Lastly, Cragin cites the values of trust and respect as prerequisites for broader career success. “You have to respect yourself before you can respect others.”
After a six-year stint on Capitol Hill as press secretary and communications director for the House Armed Services Committee, Cragin was appointed by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the U.S. Senate as Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2001. “I had the real honor and privilege to serve in the Administration in such a great role, something clearly near and dear to my heart because I am a veteran,” said Cragin. While serving under Secretary Anthony Principi at Veterans Affairs, Cragin directed policies governing public and internal communications programs as well as intergovernmental and consumer affairs activities.
It was during her time heading up communications for Veterans Affairs that Cragin’s qualifications and leadership potential was noticed by Boeing. In 2002, the world’s largest aerospace company and a leading manufacturer of commercial jetliners and defense, space, and security systems called on Cragin to join its Washington, DC headquarters as the lead communications specialist. “I thought: what are the chances this opportunity would come along again? You have to go when the call comes,” said Cragin.
In 2016, Boeing recorded $94.6 billion in sales, ranked 24th on Fortune 500 list, and ranked 30th on the “World’s Most Admired Companies” list. Cragin notes that it is the company’s human capital and understanding about who they endeavor to serve that stands at the heart of Boeing’s success. “Boeing is a place where you really feel like you’re a part of something bigger. What you do makes a difference in the world. Whether it’s getting people on a commercial airplane so they can connect with friends and loved ones…or the products and services we give to the military so they can do their jobs and come home; or go to space and come home—we make a difference.” Cragin says keeping these objectives in mind maintains a sense of humility and orientation to strive for success.
Cragin has witnessed rapid change in effective communications management at Boeing since she joined the team 15 years ago, but one value is notable above the rest: its desire to adhere to a strong internal communications system. “Boeing strongly believes in employee-centric communications,” says Cragin. “Whatever we think will make news outside of the company, we tell employees first. Setting aside legal restrictions, we strive to tell employees first, because we believe they deserve to know first.”
Veteran entrepreneurs possess traits that make them ideal C-suite executives, especially when it comes to effective communications. Due to military training and knowledge, veterans are dependable, conditioned to make hard decisions, have integrity, take initiative, and can adapt easily to challenging and evolving situations. Maureen Cragin characterizes these lessons and traits as indispensable qualities of leaders in both the U.S. Military and the private sector.