SHE-E-O FEATURE OF THE WEEK: Phebe Novakovic

How have female CEO’s risen to the top? What was their journey? Let’s explore…

I’m empowered. I have the skills. I’m ready to take on the world. Now, if I could just figure out tangible steps to get there. This series has two purposes: to celebrate women’s accomplishments in business, and to research their path to success.

Notable things you should know about Phebe Novakovic:
1) CEO of General Dynamics, the largest defense company in the world and leading maker of business jets.
2) Novakovic started her career at the CIA. She moved to General Dynamics in 2001 landing herself several leadership roles before becoming CEO.
3) She has maintained strong profit during a time of financial turbulence for government contracted defense companies. Her strategy for leading the company is extremely focused on shareholder returns. Defense vehicle portfolio decisions are largely driven by return on shareholder value.
4) During her tenure she has consolidated IT and combat system segments and helped lead a 9.8 billion acquisition of CSRA, a contractor that provided IT services to the government
5) She is known for flying under the media's radar and declining public interviews.

Phebe Novakovic was born to a Serbian immigrant father, who came to America with $50 and did not speak any English. The U.S. Air Force gave him an opportunity as an intelligence officer and the patriotic streak began for the Novakovic’s.

Phebe saw the opportunity America provided for her father who came from humble beginnings so she followed in his footsteps. She graduated from a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts with a Bachelor’s in Government and German.

After undergrad, she went on to work for the CIA. About 10 years later she graduated from Wharton School of Business with an MBA.

She went on to land a job at the Office of Management and Budget under George Bush’s administration and quickly became the top official overseeing the defense and intelligence budgets. 5 years later she took a position in the Pentagon as a special assistant to the Defense Secretary. Between these 2 positions she held tremendous authority with contract budgets.

From there, she went on into the private sector at General Dynamics in 2001. From 2001 to 2009 she was being groomed by the current CEO to take over the company. She did not get the position when he retired in 2009 and instead became head of Marine Systems.

However the successor, Johnson, was pushed out by 2012, and Novakovic took over as CEO in 2013.

My takeaways from Phebe Novakovic’s story 1) The strategy of going from purchaser of defense products within the government to seller of those products at General Dynamics, positioned her with strong leverage to land a high valued job at General Dynamics. 2) Serving as special assistant to the Defense Secretary lead to higher visibility within the company. 3) She was not a lifer at the company like some of our previous female CEOs, she jumped around, but she made smart strategic decisions in the order in which she moved.

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