The Leadership Wisdom of Larry Lawson


What do those who work for Larry Lawson say about him?

"He encourages people to set a high bar so that when they clear the bar, they've really accomplished something and made an impact on the business."


Larry Lawson assumed his current leadership role of Chief Executive Officer and President for Spirit AeroSystems, Inc. in 2013. In this role, Mr. Lawson leads an organization of roughly 15,000 employees across the globe through his eight direct-reports. His job is to develop a strategy, communicate with shareholders, build a team, solve some tough problems, and drive detailed hands-on management.

Mr. Lawson is known to be a highly-engaged, data-driven leader who spends a lot of time and effort communicating: Communicating about "the strategy," providing feedback, and creating what he calls "a collective learning environment." Like so many of the best leaders, Mr. Lawson has a well-developed sense of urgency, especially when it comes to learning from mistakes. He describes himself as "impatient" when it comes to making the same mistake twice. "Some mistakes are part of learning," he says, "but making the same error would imply we are not learning."

That intense focus on learning and continuous improvement is a big part of what makes Mr. Lawson so committed to dynamic talent-management: "We have changed executive talent in 89 of 98 positions in the last three years by either reassigning individuals or bringing in new hires... We are very comfortable taking someone that might not be a fit in one role and putting them in the right job. When we discover a gap, we go out and find the best talent."

Mr. Lawson emphasizes that his approach to leadership is very much a "team approach": He works closely with his team of leaders to "set the strategy, standards and focus," and then "adjust as necessary" in response to "perpetual change." He has very high standards for himself and his team. He is unabashed about wanting his team to be the best. That means "finding the right person" for each role, who may not always be "the best athlete," but rather the person with "experience, passion, and integrity."

The Leadership Wisdom of Larry Lawson

Start by showing them what is possible. It is amazing that the world record for the 100 meter sprint continues to be broken. Once you show them what is possible, then the next step is discussing the how. Define the standard, and develop a plan to achieve it. Use metrics to measure; improve to the best in your business, then move to be the best in the industry.

Frame the "why" of any pursuit. People can better relate to a mission if it's properly defined. Of course it is important to recognize, reward and celebrate along the way. It is equally important to discuss the lessons learned. Our employees are better when they understand and relate to their roles and believe in the vision for the team and themselves.

Continual and frank communication is required to ensure everyone is on the same page. Setting the right goals and the bar in the right place is extremely important. Performance calibration is sometimes difficult for people to grasp. Sticking to the facts or data takes the emotion out of situations. Coaches focus on the individual's needs to improve to be successful in their role. Coaches push team members to continuously better themselves and their performance. The coaching relationship evolves and all the hard work and extra practices pay off when you win the championship.

Continuous improvement in response to perpetual change is essential to success. We face a challenge in folks doing things the same way as they have always done, without questioning why or how it can be done better. It's important to take time to really understand what's going on and how things work before jumping to a conditioned response. Ensure a future focus - what are we going to do from this point.

On interdependency... Most people in today's workplace regularly depend upon ---and must respond to requests from--- a wide range of people outside their immediate team or department -- people in lateral roles or other teams or departments or divisions. A well-defined organizational tempo with a structured method for decision-making puts the right people in the room to drive the integration needed. You also have to lay out a timely path to allow difficult issues or confusion to be elevated for resolution, when needed.

On the emerging young workforce... Younger technical talent expects to be working on more complex issues than their more tenured colleagues are willing to assign to them. The more tenured talent believes the younger talent has to experience less challenging issues for longer. My biggest concern is a shortage of skilled labor, not just in aerospace but across industries. We just don't have enough young people choosing skilled trades as a career. While I am concerned about the supply of talent, I am optimistic about the quality of young people coming into the workforce. They bring creativity, innovation and different approaches to problem solving. We had one of our best intern classes ever at Spirit in 2015 - really bright, articulate students with great attitudes and a willingness to tackle real world problems.

On high-potential talent... It is important to have an identified group of high potential employees. If that group varies substantially year to year then your method should be tested. Early career identification is difficult and I believe, often incorrect since Intangibles are so much of an individual's development. I do believe that educational investments are incredibly powerful tools in executive development.

On retention... When individuals are growing, learning and feeling like they are being rewarded for their contribution they are more likely to stay. Additionally, being part of a great team is a hard prospect to leave.


About Bruce Tulgan's "Profiles in Strong Leadership" Series

Since 1993, Bruce Tulgan has worked with hundreds of thousands of leaders/managers in hundreds of organizations. Over more than two decades of research, training, and consulting, Bruce has encountered many, many truly great leaders: Strong, highly-engaged, rigorous, and steeped in proven best-practices. All of the best practices in Bruce's books and articles come from these real strong leaders in the real world. This series is a tribute to the wisdom of some of the very best of the best of those real strong leaders.

About Bruce Tulgan
Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), , and It's Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, and Training Magazine. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, Facebook, LinkedIn, or visit his website