What Does It Take To Be A Top Operative For The Defense Industry In Washington?
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The defense business is the only major sector of U.S. industry that depends exclusively on the federal government for its sales. Even when the prospective customer is a foreign military power, nothing happens without federal approval. So selecting the right person to run the Washington office of a major military contractor has bigger implications for the bottom line than it would if the office represented, say, a financial services firm or a car maker.
There was a time during the early Cold War years when much of the defense industry was run by eccentric “cowboys” — they were all men — and a key part of the WashOps job was carrying bags of money to Capitol Hill. Those days are long gone. Today, every facet of the defense business is continuously scrutinized by oversight bodies and subject to a vast array of rules and regulations. Navigating this minefield to protect a company’s franchises and win new ones requires a certain kind of person.
Having spent most of my adult life interacting with the defense industry, I thought it might be interesting to consider what the characteristics of the top three defense operatives in Washington indicate about the standards for success. Those three operatives are Robert Rangel, head of government affairs at Lockheed Martin; Timothy Keating, executive vice president for government operations at Boeing; and Robert Helm, senior vice president for planning and development at General Dynamics.
These three individuals are the most seasoned and visible of the top executives leading the Washington operations of major defense companies. I know all three, because Lockheed Martin, Boeing and General Dynamics all contribute to my think tank, and Lockheed and GD are consulting clients. However, “knowing” them is a relative thing — all three are exceedingly discreet in discussing their companies’ interests, and thus few people other than their respective CEOs know what’s on their mind at any given time.
Nonetheless, combining what their resumes reflect with what I have observed illuminates some qualities that all three have in common, despite the fact that superficially they seem to have very different personalities. For starters, these are all self-made individuals. They were not born to wealth but had to work hard to get to where they are. It is probably no coincidence that the same is true of the CEOs to whom they report. The defense industry is dominated by executives who struggled for decades to rise through the ranks, rather than exploiting connections to ascend quickly.
A second thing they have in common is that each of them seems to have been attracted to politics at an early age. All three majored in political science at universities close to where they grew up, and then set out for the nation’s capital in search of a career. Washington is such a byzantine place that the earlier you start at studying politics, the more effective you are likely to be in later life. That matters a lot in an industry where the customer itself is, after all, a political system.
A third common trait that stands out is how extensive their political experience was once they arrived in Washington. Rangel worked on the staff of the House Armed Services Committee for 18 years, serving as staff director under three consecutive chairman before being recruited into the executive branch by defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He then went on to be chief of staff under Robert Gates in both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Robert Helm was the senior national security professional staff member on the Senate Budget Committee, served on the staff of the National Security Council, and then became the defense department’s Comptroller, meaning that he managed the sprawling budget of the government’s biggest agency during a period of rapid expansion. Timothy Keating was a special assistant to President Clinton and staff director for White House legislative affairs. He also played a pivotal role in managing three Democratic National Conventions.
The careers of Helm and Keating diverged from that of Rangel in that they both departed government long ago to work in lobbying. Keating chaired the board of Timmons & Company, a famous lobbying firm, and then was senior vice president for global government relations at Honeywell International. Helm led the Washington office of Northrop Grumman Corporation for nearly 20 years, at a time when the company was acquiring numerous other defense contractors to become one of the biggest in the world.
Robert Rangel remained in government for most of that time, electing to leave in 2011 to join Lockheed Martin as the number-two executive in its sprawling Washington office. By that time, Lockheed Martin had been the biggest military contractor for nearly two decades, and it was understood that Rangel was heir apparent to the top government affairs job at the company. He ascended to the top job in 2014, but resisted becoming a lobbyist until last year — probably because he thought he might one day return to government.
By the time that Rangel, Helm and Keating were tapped for their current jobs, they were consummate Washington insiders with extensive connections throughout the political system. One other feature they share is that although each has longstanding ties to one or the other of the national political parties, they avoid partisanship in building coalitions to support their companies’ interests. That is a political necessity in a system where the balance of power has been evenly divided for many years.
One thing that the top three Washington operatives do not have in common is similar personalities. Rangel is discreet to the point of being inscrutable, a quality that confers unusual gravitas on his presence. Helm is exceedingly gregarious in dealing with congressional staffers — some of which he has known for many years — but he generally steers clear of public forums. Keating is almost always open and friendly, although executives of other companies who have gotten crosswise with Boeing describe traumatic encounters in which he proved to be very blunt.
So you don’t need to have a certain type of personality to successfully lead the Washington office of a major defense contractor. Lockheed, Boeing and GD have all fared exceedingly well during the tenures of the three executives discussed here, thanks in some degree to how well they managed relations with the industry’s main customer. What you do need to succeed, though, is long experience with the political system, proven ability to get things done, extensive connections, and the trust of your CEO. Oh yes, and a willingness to work long hours whenever Congress is in session.