In this exclusive Q&A, Brian Bauer, Boeing Commercial Airplane’s product development estimating manager, answers questions about his models for leadership, integrating his faith and vocation, and dealing with conflict. He also tells us what he loves about airplanes.
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The Business of Boeing
Donovan Richards: Let’s begin by exploring your career trajectory, Brian. Could you tell us about your background?
Brian Bauer: Certainly. I graduated from the University of Washington with a business degree in 2001. From there, I began working at Boeing in a rotation program for leadership development. I spent the first two years of my career rotating from job to job every four months. During that time, I picked up different business disciplines, including financial accounting, contracts, financial analysis, cost management, and procurement analysis. You name it. I probably did it within that two-year timeframe.
Then I moved into a financial analysis position at a startup mobile Internet venture called Connexion. For about three years, I worked setting up pricing for new business models we had created for our executive and government services offering. I also helped negotiate contracts with satellite vendors and kept track of budgets and costs.
The business didn't take off like we thought it would, so the company shut it down and I had to look for a new position. One of my mentors said, "Hey, why don't you look at corporate audit?" Boeing wanted analysts who understood finance, liked to travel, and wanted to learn more about how the company operated. I decided to pursue that opportunity. The job kept me learning and tickled my curiosity. Every quarter, you got to learn about a new aspect of the business, which was a lot of fun for me. So I spent about a year-and-a-half in that position, just enough time to realize that I didn't like living on the road as much as I thought I would.
DR: After corporate audit, what was the next step?
BB: After corporate audit I returned to the world of new business and joined Boeing Commercial's Product Development team. Our department essentially looks at any new airplane that might be launched in the next five, 10, or 20 years. My financial analysis group works with the technical team and translates their designs into financial projections. We work with marketing to understand how many aircraft we expect to sell and what the value of the product will be, and we develop estimates of what it costs to bring all that together. All of that data goes into a financial model that measures the cash flow of that particular project. We also run risk analyses for any major project. Since launching a new airplane is such a big bet, we do a lot of analysis based on what we have seen in the past and assess risk for future projects accordingly.
JT: How many years do your projections go?
BB: Quite a few. I mean, we are in a long-term business. As you can imagine, we're not only thinking about what's coming over the next few years, but also much further out. Each product lifecycle extends quite a long way.
DR: How many analysts are on your team?
BB: I have six analysts on the team right now. And it's a great team. Some managers caution against leading the team that you came from, but I've really enjoyed working with them, and I know them well.
It's been a good transition, but also difficult in the ways you might expect. A lot of my job is working to focus our team on the right goals, dealing with challenges as they come up, and stepping into places of tension when I need to. Those situations build your courage and perseverance. You have to be willing to step into a place of confrontation and have a difficult conversation with either an employee or another team that's not providing support that you need.
JT: What do you love about the work you get to do every day?
BB: I love seeing my employees step into their ability and creativity, and do amazing work. I enjoy encouraging them, challenging them, and supporting them. Those are the things that get me excited. It's so gratifying to see people grow into who they are meant to be. And as a manager, you get that chance more often than when you were a coworker.
JT: What do you love about airplanes?
BB: I've loved aviation ever since I was a little kid. I remember going to the Museum of Flight, seeing Wright Brothers replicas and original Boeing airplanes, the machines made of wood and cloth, and I was captivated by the idea of human flight. It's still amazing to me that a couple of hundred years ago what was only a dream is now a daily occurrence. We fly across the world at the drop of the hat and think nothing of it.
As a little kid, astronauts and fighter pilots fascinated me. My walls were covered with airplane posters, and I had books about World War II aircraft. So it's kind of a natural fit that I would go into the aviation industry. I'm filled with pride whenever I see our products, especially new airplanes developed here in the commercial division. Over the last few years, I've seen a couple of airplanes take off from Paine Field for the first time. It’s a thrill to see one of our products take flight and know my team had some small part of making that project happen.
Models for Leadership
JT: You talked, previously, about stepping into tension. You talked about the human heart, the challenge, the opportunity, and the great privilege of working with people.
Who are your models for leadership? How do you think about leadership? Where do you turn to think and learn about leadership? What has sharpened your ability to lead others and to follow as well?
BB: Yeah, there are three main areas of learning and places to which I've turned. The first is previous managers, mentors, and people who have been in leadership positions. They can give me a good perspective on how to deal with difficult situations and conflict. I have also met local leaders through Seattle Pacific University's mentorship program. I've been fortunate enough to meet with a fantastic group of leaders to ask questions like "What do you do when you have an employee who isn't performing?" Having an outside perspective and sounding board for questions has been very helpful for my growth as a leader.
Another avenue for growth is peer and community leadership development networks. The one I'm involved in right now is called Leadership Tomorrow. It's a local leadership development program that selects a diverse and accomplished set of leaders from private, nonprofit, and public sectors. We meet once a month to learn about issues that face the community and work on projects to help local nonprofits. It has been a very valuable experience for me to be part of a group of local leaders who are putting into practice servant-leadership principles while addressing the challenges that face our region.
Also, I look at how Christ led and what he did. He was compassionate but not afraid of conflict. He was willing confront people when he needed to.
DR: Tell me more about Jesus being willing to step into conflict.
BB: I see the earthy, stand-toe-to-toe-with-someone response when Jesus steps into the temple and kicks everyone out who is in the place where the gentiles could come and worship God. He demonstrates how to be a strong and, at the same time, compassionate leader. And that, I'll tell you, is not an easy thing to pull off. It's hard to step into conflict and be thinking about what is best for that person and the community. In our Northwest culture, there's a lot of niceness but not much compassion. You need to be willing to tell someone “You have to do better" or "This isn't right" instead of letting it slide or, worse, talking about someone's performance behind their back. You confront because it's worth risking that relationship, because you know that confrontation is going to pay off for the person and the company later on.
DR: I'm just curious about the results you see from this philosophy. How do you deal with someone who doesn’t want to deal with the conflict directly or honestly?
BB: It's not easy. The hope is that Christians respond in a Christ-like way to conflict. You see pretty clearly in the gospels that Jesus’ enemies are scheming to get rid of him, but he demonstrates courage and compassion in his response. So I don't expect the response to be positive in return, and you can't demand that. I mean, that's an interesting thing. If you are trying to — and I'm not saying I'm perfect to this — but if you are trying to care for someone by entering into a difficult conversation with them, you can't control how that's going to turn out.
I have to think, even if they don't like hearing what I have to say right now, maybe there's something that could help them. I try to demonstrate trustworthiness and not go behind someone’s back. I have found, typically, that people respond pretty well if they know that they are cared for and that you can be trusted. When trust is in place, you can deal with conflict as it comes up. And I am realizing that I can bring issues up more freely now that I'm taking a long view of relationships. Even if someone decides to walk away, that's OK. You can't demand that the other person stays and responds in the same way. That's not a loving response.