A Balance of Power: Louise Francesconi ‘75

by Pam Hale Trachta

You might expect a woman who is on Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list and a Raytheon Company vice president to be a bit intimidating. Not Louise Francesconi.

Walking out of her office to greet me in the reception area of Raytheon, where she refills her own coffee cup, she carries herself with ease, offering a firm hand and a warm, husky voice. Right away I sense this is a woman who has learned to balance softness and power, masculine and feminine, right and left brain.

At 49. Louise is president of Raytheon’s $3 billion Missile Systems business, consisting of more than 16 production programs, 18 development programs and a workforce of more than 10,000 employees.

She earned her title after working for 24 years at Hughes Aircraft Company, where she rose to a vice-president slot and served as president of Hughes Missile Systems Company. She joined Raytheon in 1998, when the company merged with Hughes, and by the following year was elected a Raytheon vice president and general manager of Missile Systems. She became president of that business last month (September 2002).

I want to know how it’s been, sitting on the Fortune 50 list.

“It’s been an honor and I’ve really enjoyed it.” She describes her highlight, a two-day event for women with high profile jobs from fields like entertainment, journalism, and the semi-conductor business. “I thought people wouldn’t be interested in the missile business…but they were fascinated with what I did, and I was fascinated to learn what they do,” she says.

Fascinated myself, I asked Louise what exactly she loves about what she does.

“I love to learn. And I learn every day. There’s never been a day that I don’t get home tickled by broadening in some way. I love the concept of large organizational management, and the concept of leadership that it takes. I’ve been involved in leadership since I was a pint-sized kid. When you combine those things, I wake up in the morning and love coming to work.”

As for Louise’s style of leadership, it’s “very engaged, very active. I believe in team behavior. That doesn’t mean soft, consensus handholding. I have a lot of strong people in this organization. But I believe we have to work together with respect and dignity, solving problems. You have to have clear vision, communicate it clearly, and then be pleased as heck when people pick it up and start running with it.”

A typical day involves, being “totally booked” from 7 to 7, with meetings through lunch. Louise mentors, focuses on strategies and customers’ needs, and of course, making some tough decisions. She admits to “running all the time” and yet Colleen Niccum, her senior manager of external communications, tells me Louise always makes time for her family.

Louise credits two personal strengths for getting her where she is today. “I am blessed with a gift of being able to sort through a lot of information, paring it down to what is important,” she admits. “That helped me through the educational process, and it’s a tremendous skill in industry.”

Second, she knows she has an ability to communicate clearly and simply. “You combine that with the fact the leadership is something I really love, and that has really propelled me through the organization.”

I wondered what kind of role model for the masculine brand of power Louise’s father might have been. In the defense business for over 40 years, he was at Hughes at the same time his daughter was hired for a summer job there, almost 28 years ago.

“He prepared me to be in a defense industry, which can be a controversial business to be involved in. Whether you’re in peacetime or wartime, many people have very strong opinions around defense. You couple that with being female, you have to be very proud that we are doing something for the national defense of this country. And what we really do is bring men and women home when we have to go in harm’s way.”

Her voice turns soft and her eyes misty. “And my dad was very proud of being in the defense industry through the Vietnam war and through all kinds of very tough conflicts. I was a teenager and watched that and was embarrassed sometimes, but eventually just developed the same tremendous pride for being a part of this country. So, it’s an important part of what I do.”

Even though Louise doesn’t strike me as an engineer type, she likes and understands them. “Engineers are very ethical, moral people. Very committed. That’s how I was raised.”

As for being in a male environment, she admits. “It’s very much a male industry. We deal a lot with the military, and the military, has been historically very male in its leadership roles. I think they are trying to branch out, and in some cases they’ve done it better than industry.”

She is optimistic about gender issues. “We have a very strong growth of women in leadership roles, it feels good. Could there be a lot more of us? Oh, my gosh, yes. Would the organization be richer if there were more of us? Yes, I have an opportunity to make that happen, because I have a lot of men who work for me who eventually do not see gender. That is the best thing I can do.”

I am curious about a woman who went to a women’s college being at such ease in the male world. It turns out she majored in economics at Claremont Mckenna (then Claremont Men’s College) taking her major classes there before it was co-ed. “It was the coupling …I went to an all-women’s high school, and than an all-women’s college. That developed me tremendously in leadership. Just the ability to be comfortable with who I am without worrying about the male/female issue at all. And yet, I was the only woman in all my major classes at CMC. So I had such a unique blend of the liberal arts, freethinking, problem-solving, artistic community at Scripps, coupled with a very analytical all-male environment at CMC. You put those two together, and it prepared me for what I do big time.”

“Does your mind have to go in both those directions in your work?” I want to know.

“Yes. I have the ability to think left/right brain pretty quick.” I believe her. She probably could have been successful in a number of different industries. So I ask her to describe the advantages of having stayed in one place to grow, as opposed to all the job-switching going on today. She pauses to think.

“Part of the strength of what I believe I bring to this job is that it’s almost like family. I have incredible loyalty to this business. That’s what kept me here—the love of what I do, and the fact that I feel loyalty from the folks who work for me, and I feel a tremendous loyalty to them.”

Thinking that loyalty is getting scarce these days, I wonder what Lousie does with our rapidly changing world.

Louise admits that engineers—and for that matter most of us—sometimes resist change. “People need to look at where you really resist it, and where you resist it is where you need to let go. Your mind is like a muscle. When you’re working out and it starts to hurt, you’re trained to keep going because you know it’s helping. We’re not as well trained when it starts to press on us from our mind and it feels uncomfortable. We’re not trained to push through that, but that’s the breakthrough to something better. And that’s what change is. I don’t think we teach that enough in schools.”

So how does she work through that as a manager?

“You have to set the pace as a leader. You change a focus, change the direction and say, ‘You can do it.’ The trick is, all people want to succeed in it. And that means with engineers that you use a little more structure, a little more balance, a little more information, a little more coaching. But they change.”

Asked for her closing comments, Louise turns back to Scripps. “It’s such a marvelous place still, within the world that’s changed so much to coed. If I had to talk to the women of Scripps, I would be so strong on the power around what you get in a broad education and the beauty of developing in those four years. It’s so powerful. And I don’t think you see that when you are 18! I deal with a lot of universities that don’t have the curriculum that Scripps has. They say, ‘We’ve done our major classes and now what should we be taking—advanced math?’ And I say, let’s not be taking any more of those classes. Let’s take literature, fine arts—Scripps forces learning in that direction.”

There is power in that balance. And Louise Francesconi lives it.