Northrop Grumman
Sara Simser Northrop Grumman2

Generation Now Leadership: Career Advancement by Design at Northrop Grumman

May 12, 2023
Sara Simser plots a course to manufacturing leadership. Two keys: Always be learning and don’t fear failure.

Name: Sara Simser

Age: 34

Company: Northrop Grumman Corp.

Education: Bachelor of Arts, Communication Studies, University of Minnesota Twin Cities; Master of Business Administration, Hamline University

Position: Senior Mission Assurance and Quality Manager

The Sara Simser story is one of hard work, focus, ability, opportunity and, occasionally, failure. Each input has played a role in her achieving a career target she set long ago: leadership. 

In March 2022, Simser was named senior mission assurance and quality manager for Northrop Grumman’s Armament Systems Business Unit. She leads a team of more than 90 individuals who support six locations across Minnesota, Arizona and Missouri. Her team’s responsibilities include program and supplier quality, inspection and calibration, and mission assurance.

What’s important, she says, is “at the end of the day, we’re delivering quality products to our customers.”

Simser has moved steadily up the leadership ranks before and since joining Northrop Grumman via its acquisition of Orbital ATK. Much of that growth has been by design.

“I knew I wanted to get into leadership. I made that clear,” she says. Moreover, Simser voiced her wishes during the hiring process. “I needed to know that I was joining … an organization that had growth and development opportunities. And that they took them seriously.”

She was equally serious on her side of the leadership equation. Simser created a development plan, got mentors, constantly learned about the products and processes, and engaged with customers. “It was very focused,” Simser says.

Generation Now stories focus on challenges and opportunities facing industry as multiple generations of leaders take on responsible roles in manufacturing. The first piece ran in the spring of 2022 and won a national award for manufacturing business writing.

Stories include:

Even more, that focus remains. “I’m constantly working on honing in on those ‘flat’ areas—those areas that I need to be more well-rounded in,” she says. “I encourage people to reach out for that feedback. We only see so much of ourselves. And I continuously do that: I ask for that feedback in my one-on-ones, with my managers, with my peers.”  

She’s constantly growing her network, which in turn has driven increased career opportunities. “The bigger your network is, the more people who know about you, and the stronger your mentorships can be, your sponsorships can be, the more opportunity you’re going to get,” she says.

Earlier in her career, Simser chased stretch assignments to grow her network, to show her ability. If something came up, “I would raise my hand.”

And while she was confident in her ability to execute, “it was also scary,” Simser says. “And I had to be okay with being afraid of failing. There are so many lessons that I learned from failing that have helped me grow as a leader and in this organization.”

One of those lessons was understanding that the people she worked with wanted her to succeed. “When you first start out doing [stretch assignments], you want to do it all on your own. ‘I want to show how awesome I am, how talented I can be, how much I can accomplish,’ and at the end of the day, you’re spinning your wheels,” she says. “You just need to raise your hand” and ask for help.

Simser is less apt to chase assignments today. Not because she lacks interest, but Simser says now projects come her way because of the network of people she has built. They have seen what she can do.

“But I still do reach out, especially in areas that people don’t know who I am. I think it’s important in our organization or industry to stretch outside of your swim lane,” she says. “To continue to grow in leadership, you have to expand, you have to expand the things that you are working on.”

Despite her early career success, Simser did not make a deliberate choice to pursue manufacturing as her livelihood. Simser received her undergraduate degree in Communication Studies, which she described as a “business degree without the numbers.” While on the job hunt, it just so happened she landed a project management role at a small aerospace manufacturing company.

“And it was amazing,” she says. “I got to learn our industry pretty quickly in a smaller capacity, but I loved our customer base. I love the rigor around manufacturing.”

Simser, nevertheless, stepped away from manufacturing for a few years before it lured her back—and where she has remained. Outside of manufacturing, “I was bored. I was [thinking] I miss going to suppliers. I miss seeing things be made. There is always something happening, good or bad, on a manufacturing floor,” she says.

Her lack of a manufacturing-related degree (she does have an MBA) has not deterred career advancement, Simser says.

“There are instances where, when we’re getting really technical, I may need a few more minutes. But to be completely honest from a leadership perspective, I have incredibly talented people on my team that I work with. I have the subject matter experts,” she says. “I also believe my background has given me the ability to dig in and what to pull on to get an understanding, versus having all of the technical expertise.”

Likewise, her youth has presented Simser with both challenges and opportunities as a leader. Building respect and rapport may be a more drawn-out process than for someone older, for example. On the flip side, Simser says her age provides the opportunity to question why things are done a certain way and to make changes.

“That’s a great advantage for younger managers, and anybody just young in an organization—to be able to speak up and ask the questions,” she says. “We’ve got people that we work with who have been here for 40 years, and they’re excellent, amazing coworkers. But we all get stuck in the day-to-day, and it’s hard to see things from a different perspective.”

Being the youngest person in a room can be intimidating. “One thing that I do have to tell myself often is that my age doesn’t matter. My talent and my abilities are what show through and what matters,” Simser says.

“A lot of young people need to hear that you deserve to be there. But take advantage of the fact that you’re young. Learn as much as you can and be proud of it and [don’t] be afraid to be the youngest person in the room.”

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