Ron Sugar on success outside comfort zones, working on what really matters

Jan 19, 2017

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

The defense industry executive spoke to UCLA students as part of the 2017 distinguished speaker series

UCLA Engineering alumnus Ronald Sugar, a retired aerospace and defense industry executive who led Northrop Grumman Corporation from 2003 to 2010, spoke to hundreds of UCLA students Wednesday.

The program, held at the California NanoSystems Institute, was part of the school’s distinguished speaker series. The series was made possible by a gift last year from Sugar and his wife Valerie, both longtime supporters of the school.

In discussing his career trajectory, Sugar ’68, MS ’69, PhD ’71 cited the importance of pushing one’s boundaries.

“My first job I got hired for was in an area that I was not initially trained to do,” Sugar said. “But that experience of having to succeed outside my comfort zone was incredibly valuable.”

Joanne Maguire, a fellow UCLA Engineering alumna and retired aerospace executive from Lockheed Martin, served as moderator of the night’s discussion. She agreed that senior leaders are well-served by embracing new challenges and relying on others’ expertise when necessary.

“I always went into new jobs leaning on the conviction that I could learn on the fly,” Maguire said “Be open to advice; recognize you don’t know it all. Most people are incredibly generous with their help, especially when they know they feel valued.”

During Sugar’s tenure at Northrop Grumman, the company grew to become one of the world’s largest aerospace and defense contractors, with 120,000 employees and $35 billion in annual revenue.
Sugar acknowledged the fortune of his decision to go into engineering, and specifically the aerospace industry, where “you could learn and grow and feel appreciated for what you did.”

“There was always the sense that you were doing something that really mattered,” Sugar said. “You really had to be sure that the things you were building were going to work exactly as expected.”

In response to a question from the audience, Sugar said his advice for entrepreneurs is the same as for others seeking more traditional leadership roles in engineering.

“It’s good to have that entrepreneurial bent – the ability to say ‘I have a better idea,’ then actually go out and do something about it,” he said. “If you try hard, you will find a way to succeed.”

A video of the discussion between Sugar and Maguire can be found here.

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Up next in the Ronald and Valerie Sugar Distinguished Speaker Series: Wanda Austin, retired president and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation on March 15, and Ben Horowitz, co-founder of Silicon Valley venture firm Andreessen Horowitz on April 13.

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