Meet the Man Trying to Change the Culture of Boeing Defense
CEO Ted Colbert says reducing groupthink is part of the path to a nimbler, networked weapons company.
NEW YORK — Ted Colbert, the CEO of Boeing Defense, Space, and Security, finds himself navigating two cultural changes.
The first is reshaping his division of the 100-year-old planemaker into a more agile builder of networked and AI-assisted weapons. The second is much more personal.
Colbert is one of only a few people of color on Boeing’s executive council, much as he was at the head table in a late-September luncheon in the 20th-floor ballroom of the Yale Club in midtown Manhattan. He is one of vanishingly few Black executives to rise to positions of prominence in the defense industry.
“You carry responsibility, at least from my perspective, to help people make their way to whatever dream they have,” said the Boeing exec, the featured guest of a Wings Club event.
Every day, Colbert said, he works to help his peers “become better allies” for people of color, women, and other underrepresented groups of employees.
Boeing’s overall workforce is about 67 percent white, according to 2021 company figures, and the defense and space business is the whitest of the company’s three business units, at 74 percent. Just 6.8 percent of Boeing employees identified as Black; the company aims to boost that 20 percent by 2025.
Colbert says hiring more workers of color should be viewed “as a growth strategy” for Boeing.
“By acknowledging the importance of having a diverse, inclusive and equitable organization, you essentially attract more people to your organization and company,” he said. “As competitive as things are today, both in the industry, in our country, and frankly in the world with our largest adversaries, why wouldn't we want to attract a broader swath of capability?
“And then once we do that, if you're sitting at the table, then we create an environment where we can actually take advantage of all of the diversity at the table, it creates better innovation, and better productivity,” he continued.
When he meets with employees in his 15,000-person division, Colbert said, “I'm most concerned about” the least diverse teams “because they tend to suffer from a little bit of groupthink."
Colbert grew up in Baltimore. A three-sport athlete in high school, he aspired to be a lawyer or politician, but his teachers persuaded him to study engineering because of his high math and science scores. He attended Morehouse, the historically Black college in Atlanta, whose alumni include Martin Luther King, Spike Lee, and Samuel L. Jackson. Colbert said he chose Morehouse, in part, because he was a fan of the 1980s sitcom “A Different World,” which was set at a fictional historically Black college. The other reason: Morehouse had an attractive engineering program connected with Georgia Tech.
“I definitely didn't think, as a young man growing up in Baltimore, that I would be running a defense business, in the middle of war,” he said.
After graduating college with an industrial-engineering degree, Colbert spent a year at AT&T Bell Labs, then went to work for Ford. During 10-plus years with the automaker, Colbert helped develop technologies that enabled engineers to design new cars and trucks using computers, and played an instrumental role in integrating mobile phones into vehicles. Colbert then spent three years at Citigroup in New York “redesigning how consumer banking and technology work around the world.”
Colbert joined Boeing in 2009. He held a number of information technology positions before being promoted to chief information officer, and then president and CEO of Boeing’s Global Services division, which he ran for more than two and half years.
All this uniquely positions him at a time when the Pentagon wants to better connect all of its weapons, many with bespoke designs that were never intended to talk to one another.
But Colbert is taking over Boeing’s defense and space business at a trying time. The company is working to rebuild its culture in the wake of two deadly 737 Max crashes and the discovery of parts and debris left inside brand-new Air Force tankers. A strategy of low bids on big Pentagon contracts has backfired; last week, the company reported losing $2.8 billion in the third quarter on KC-46 tankers and a new Air Force One. Over the past eight years, the defense and space business has lost more than $11 billion on five key projects. Boeing is still recovering from the pandemic, which brought air travel to a virtual halt, disrupted supply lines, boosted inflation, and made it harder to hire workers. All this has driven the company into the red two of the past three years.
Colbert notes that it’s not the first time he has been at a business during challenging periods. He was at Ford during the Firestone tire crisis of the 1990s and the high gasoline prices of the early 2000s and at Citi during the 2008 financial crisis.
“The thing that is consistent, across all the things that I've experienced in my career, is you have to focus on the people first,” he said.
“Our people are tired in a lot of ways—they've been through a lot,” Colbert said. “My learning is, we have to continue to meet our people where they are, we have to continue to keep a focus on the mission, and you have to make sure that that is done by leadership every single day. All the other things will come together if our people are inspired to do the work that we need to do every day and we get them the tools they need to do the work.”
Chief among these “other things” is shifting Boeing’s defense and space business’ culture from one largely focused on building individual combat fighters, tankers, helicopters, and cargo planes to one that makes next-generation military machines powered by artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies.
“The future will be about doing autonomy at scale,” he said. “The future manned-and-unmanned teaming will be tremendously important to our warfighters domestically and around the world. We are in the process of approving all that technology out.”