Ambassador Barbara Barrett Featured at Aerospace

by Gail Kellner
posted December 26, 2013

It is not often that one has the privilege of sitting down with a former ambassador, or an executive of two global Fortune 500 companies before the age of 30, or an advisor to four American presidents on trade and defense policy. Not only were these the accomplishments of one individual, but they are just the tip of the iceberg.

Ambassador Barbara Barrett was introduced to Aerospace employees on Dec. 11 via a Corporate Colloquium with President and CEO Dr. Wanda Austin, during which they discussed leadership and many other topics before Barrett’s election as board chairman on Dec. 12. She served the board as vice chairman prior to the election.

Earlier in the morning she addressed a group of early-career employees at a breakfast meeting to discuss the roles of the board of trustees and to get to know what this vital group values about working at Aerospace and what they would like to bring to the equation in the form of change. She discussed the key role of talent at the corporation and encouraged early-career staff to dialogue, to learn from, and to network with one another.

Austin said she was impressed with Barrett’s “can-do” attitude, and her introduction of Barrett at the colloquium — sponsored by The Aerospace Institute and Aerospace Diversity Action Committee — revealed a biography so impressive that it begs for an explanation as to how one person could pack so many experiences into one lifetime.

In addition to the Aerospace board, she serves on the boards of the RAND Corporation, Sally Ride Science, the Space Foundation, the Lasker Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution. She is a former U.S. ambassador to Finland and has trained at the Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center in Star City, Russia, and Kazakhstan, culminating in certification as an astronaut.

She is also the president and chief executive officer of Triple Creek Guest Ranch, an award-winning Montana retreat.

Barrett shares a humorous moment with Devon Feaster during the morning session. (Photo: Elisa Haber/The Aerospace Corporation)

Barrett shares a humorous moment with Aerospace employee Devon Feaster during the morning session. (Photo: Elisa Haber/The Aerospace Corporation)

Barrett briefly discussed the role of the board and identified two paramount roles: to hire the leadership and to set the strategy. She described the board as “phenomenal,” praised Chairman Peter B. Teets, and said that the board cares deeply about the organization and the mission.

She said that the success of Aerospace is dictated by its talent, explaining the importance of senior talent passing on their knowledge to early-career talent.

Barrett fielded questions from Austin and the audience. One topic was how to make decisions in a crisis. She said that the most important thing is to be prepared as much as possible. Anticipate, build a good reputation, and know what resources you can draw in when you need them. In addition, she suggested that leaders make a list of predictable challenges.  Then address those challenges with an action plan including potential advisors for that issue, and understand that no plan will ever go exactly as planned.

She was forthright and transparent about her personal story and credits her father for changing her life when she was just four years old.

“I was on the family farm, sitting on a tractor with my dad, and a neighbor asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up,” she said. “I knew I had three options: teacher, secretary, or nurse. I said, ‘I think I’ll be a nurse,’ and my dad said, ‘why not a doctor?’”

Barrett said that she was stunned when she realized that she could aspire to other careers and to think outside of the box.  Her childhood, however, was not an easy one. She was just 13 when her father died, and she became the sole source of support for her mother and her five siblings.

The audience was intrigued with insights into how she manages to prioritize her goals. Toward the end of each year she creates a “life list” with her husband. They look at what were highlights of the past year and note what was truly meaningful. They create categories that include family, career, spiritual, educational, financial, community involvement, etc. and evaluate them to determine whether they are leading the full life that they intend to live.

Fun fits into the equation, too. Her family takes one exertive vacation every year, which requires them to stay in shape. She has hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim and back, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and bicycled across Finland while she was the U.S. ambassador to that country.

“I hope to be similarly fully engaged at Aerospace,” she said.