On Feb. 10, President Shirley Ann Jackson hosted Jim McNerney, chairman and chief executive officer of  The Boeing Company, the world’s largest aerospace company and a top U.S. exporter, in the EMPAC Theater for an insightful conversation on corporate leadership.

The hour-long conversation in front of a room full of Rensselaer students, faculty, and staff touched upon topics such as the strong relationship between Boeing and Rensselaer, the core attributes of an effective leader, leading in a global economy, and the importance of an institutional commitment to ethics.

Taking place during the week of the Center for Career and Professional Development Career Fair, the discussion began on the longstanding partnership between Boeing and Rensselaer.

Noting that Boeing was the number one reported employer of 2012 and 2013 Rensselaer graduates; Boeing has been the largest participant in the Rensselaer Career Fair for the last four years; a significant number of Rensselaer students participate in internships at Boeing; and many others engage in Boeing-sponsored research and other leadership development activities on campus, President Jackson talked with McNerney about the value of the partnership and what makes Rensselaer students such a good match for Boeing.

McNerney said that “RPI has meant a lot to our company. There are 426 RPI graduates working at Boeing today. One of the things we love about Rensselaer graduates is that they share our ‘aspirational’ element. We are both committed to making the world a better place.”

RPI has meant a lot to our company. There are 426 RPI graduates working at Boeing today. One of the things we love about Rensselaer graduates is that they share our ‘aspirational’ element. We are both committed to making the world a better place.”—Jim McNerney

As a leader and in his day-to-day roles, McNerney shared that a majority of his time is focused on working with people: Boeing employees, customers, external constituencies, and investors. McNerney is focused on helping his people grow and improve because he believes “the best way to grow Boeing is to grow people. People need to feel like they are 15 percent better each year.”

In addressing the topic of how leaders can embed ethical decision-making into the culture, President Jackson said to McNerney, “You speak often about the importance of a strong corporate culture. Clearly the tone is set at the top, and you have talked a lot about One Boeing and the importance of maintaining a consistent standard of business conduct wherever Boeing operates in the world. At Rensselaer, we encourage students to ask, ‘Just because we can, does that mean we should?’”

Leading people and enabling this growth in a global economy requires a strategic approach that is tailored to specific countries’ and Boeing’s needs, all while balancing innovation and its inherent risks, McNerney discussed. Under McNerney’s leadership, Boeing is committed at the highest levels to instilling ethical and consistent standards of business conduct throughout its global locations.

“If corners were to be cut at Boeing, airplanes could fall out of the sky,” McNerney said. “And we cannot let that happen. We want people to come from a culture where there is balance between the inspirational and the need to do things the right way.”

Before opening up the floor to questions from the audience, President Jackson asked McNerney to reflect on how leadership is being redefined in today’s globally, hyper-connected world. “Fundamentals of leadership don’t change, but the mechanics of it do. Leaders have to become conversant in new technologies,” McNerney offered. “The best designs come from collaborative environments and iterations between people, and these new tools and technologies increase our ability to collaborate.”

McNerney was also joined by other top-level Boeing executives including John J. Tracy, chief technology officer, and Wanda Denson-Low ’78, senior vice president, Office of Internal Governance. Denson-Low is a member of the Institute Board of Trustees.