Life at BAE Systems is constantly surprising
Caitlin Hayden, group communications director for defence giant BAE Systems, had never imagined that she would enjoy employee communications. With a background in government affairs, including a role in Obama’s National Security Council, she thrives on reputational issues and crises.
But shortly after joining the US headquarters of BAE Systems as senior vice president of communications, the biggest crisis in modern times hit: Covid 19. With more than 30,000 employees in the United States, Hayden had to ‘lean into my team, get smarter and do a lot more internal comms’, she recalls. ‘What has been the gift from that is that it turns out I really love employee comms.
‘Everything we do [as communicators] has an important impact on the business, but, in that lane, the impact you can have on somebody’s experience here, their perception of company’s leadership and strategy and their place in it all, is just so meaningful. I fell in love with it.’
Her time in the Virginia suburbs of Washington also coincided with the murder of George Floyd which, coupled with other events, shone the spotlight on how companies were addressing societal issues, particularly around race. Hayden had always been active around discreet issues in the DEI space, particularly women in national security, but this combination of events ‘opened up that aperture and was a call to action’, she says.
She joined the US business’ DEI council and now works closely with its employee resource groups (ERG) in the UK. ‘These things that I now love and are core to who I am and what I care about, are slightly different from what I thought the job would be, and what I thought I would be spending my time on,’ she admits.
Hayden was in her role for three years, when the opportunity arose to become group communications director based in St James’s, London, and, together with her Icelandic-born husband and now six-year-old daughter, moved to England over the Christmas holidays in 2022.
‘I absolutely loved my job in the US. It was fantastic. I loved my team. I wasn’t looking to make a move, but then this opportunity came up. I always tell people – and not to denigrate anyone else’s role – that I have one of the best jobs around,’ she says. ‘The people I get to work with. The richness of the stories that we have in this space between our people and technology. The mission that we have supporting our government customers. It is just amazing.’
And yet even many of the people who work for BAE Systems are unaware of the extent of its operations. ‘Wherever you start in this company, within three or four months you say Wow, I wish people knew what we really did. I wish they understood. We’ve got to tell more people. So we are, but we’re doing it in a way that is more intentional,’ says Hayden.
‘I’ve challenged my team to have more of a campaign mindset and to focus in on a few key reputational areas where I think people need to understand who and what we are. Many people think of us as the company that makes big things [submarines, aircraft carriers], but we’re also the company that is doing incredibly high-tech cutting-edge work in cyber, AI and autonomy, which is not what we’re known for. Yet that’s absolutely required for all the big [platforms we build] to eventually be able to talk to each other, to create the intelligence picture that our customers need.’
For Hayden, this involves a three-pronged approach that starts with telling the story of BAE Systems’ technology and its capabilities, demonstrating that it is the leading company to help its customers to achieve multi-domain integration, where all defence systems work seamlessly together.
Many people think of us as the company that makes big things, but we’re also the company that is doing incredibly high-tech cutting-edge work in cyber, AI and autonomy
The second prong involves helping people to understand BAE Systems’ purpose and mission and the huge impact that it has both on national security but also on economies. To that end, her team commissioned Oxford Economics to calculate its contribution to the UK economy. The 48-page report concluded BAE Systems contributed a whopping £11.1 billion to gross domestic product in 2022, while its work supported the equivalent of 132,000 full time jobs. (It directly employs 39,600 people across 50 sites in the UK.)
And finally, to reiterate its ESG credentials by focusing on the S – demonstrating how the company prioritises investing in people, highlighting its diversity and inclusion work, its work to improve skills through 3,400 apprenticeships and nearly 1,000 graduate schemes, and finally its work in local communities. It supported more than 40 foodbanks last year. ‘We are trying to help people understand that we are making a real difference in the places in which we operate,’ says Hayden.
She has been struck by the number of apprentices who tell her that they applied to BAE because they want a job for life. ‘I thought it was just a thing we said, an aspiration that employees join us and stay, but to have a 17-year-old say that? My head explodes in a wonderful way.’
In part, this job security is a function of the long-term nature of BAE Systems’ operations. It has a significant pipeline of work over the coming decades, as it develops the Global Combat Air Programme and works to fulfil contracts awarded under AUKUS, the Australia-US-UK trilateral agreement, which involves helping Australia acquire its first nuclear-powered submarines.
‘There are so many opportunities working in a company that is this big, but the challenge for us is to make sure our workforce understands where they are and how to access them,’ she says. ‘Again, it’s about helping people to understand the kind of company we are and what types of experiences they will have working here.’
Having worked with many companies both as a consultant and at a trade association, Hayden describes BAE Systems as having a ‘really special culture. There’s a humility to how we work that I enjoy so much. It doesn’t feel like there’s any extra edifice or ego. You are coming to work with a bunch of people who are all trying to get stuff done, and it feels nice not to spend a lot of extra mental time and energy figuring out the politics of things and the exact way to send a memo. We are simply focused on getting things done.’
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the value of defence, Hayden is aware that the sector can be fraught with controversy. It is frequently bundled together with tobacco and fossil fuel companies, standing on the ESG naughty step, and in the wake of the Nigel Farage debacle, there were also suggestions that defence companies were being de-banked.
‘To some extent, the pendulum feels to be swinging back to a more balanced place. We try to explain that we are a highly regulated industry that acts as an extension of government’s foreign policy. There is no ESG without security. It’s an important first responsibility of government to be able to provide that, and they need to do that with industry: they can’t go it alone,’ she explains. ‘We’ve long been focused on purpose and governance and doing what is right, so it is frustrating to see us lumped into a category of a bad corporate citizen.’
Having arrived from America, Hayden believes there is a ‘different flavour’ to the ESG debate in the UK. In the US, she sees it as focused more on social issues and whether companies are ‘quote, ‘woke or not’’, while her perception is that ESG has been in the public spotlight for longer here, driven by investors.
She adds: ‘ESG and sustainability is so broad that the challenge for us as communicators is to go deeper and explain what we think it means, and which are the areas in which we’re trying to have an impact and that we prioritise.’
It is why Hayden has focused on the S externally, but internally there is a strong connection between ESG and security. Employees are proud of the role they play in keeping people safe. At many of BAE Systems’ facilities, colleagues work side-by-side with customers, such as the RAF or the Navy, and ‘feel like they’re part of the mission’.
In her first week after joining BAE Systems in America, she lunched with her comms team, asking about their story and how long they had been with the company. ‘Every single person said some version of I have a sister, brother, father, husband who is in the military, and I want to be here because I want to protect them,’ she recalls.
‘I come from a government background, so I’ve worked with a lot of very mission-focused people. But it was the first time in the private sector that I had that moment where I thought Wow, these people are not here because we’re an employer, or because they find it interesting, they’re here because it matters to them. That was very powerful.’ With a brother who is a pilot in the Air Force and a grandfather who served, Hayden also understood.
‘Our people are proud of what they do and want to be able to talk about it and share that. Part of our job is to figure out how to help them do that. Not just because it matters to them, but also from a recruitment and retention perspective,’ Hayden explains.
There is no ESG without security. It’s an important first responsibility of government to be able to provide that, and they need to do that with industry: they can’t go it alone
‘The most powerful advocates we have are our employees. I mean, please do pay attention to what we put out from the corporate centre, but what really matters is what your friend or cousin or the person you met say about their experiences working here. We need to help our people feel empowered to do that, to give them resources and storytelling to share.’
Like other companies with remote workforces, Hayden and her team are ‘constantly evaluating and evolving’ their internal comms strategy. There is an employee app – ‘it has an ardent set of followers, but it’s not everyone’, digital signage at facilities, an intranet and remote kiosks to log in and check emails.
They are also focused on helping employees engage more directly with the company’s senior leaders, so Hayden enjoys hosting regular live virtual events with her Executive Committee peers to provide strategic updates and answer employee questions.
But much of the work falls on local managers. ‘We try to make it easier for them, giving them the right tools and toolkits, so that they can brief people on what they need to know, and where to get more information,’ she explains.
But she worries about information overload and recognises that managers and employees already have enough on their plates. ‘We’re trying to think smartly about rolling things up into digests, so that it’s not 23 different things. Are there things that are not time sensitive, where we can package them up together and put on bulletin boards or use digital signage with QR codes? I wouldn’t say we’ve nailed it. I haven’t found anybody who has nailed it.’
Surprisingly, LinkedIn has proved to be an important channel, both as internally and externally. ‘We have so many colleagues who follow the company and various leaders on LinkedIn, so I always think about the internal audience when we post. There are people on the shop floor who will see stuff there that they might not see elsewhere,’ she adds.
Hayden herself is particularly active on LinkedIn. As well as posts about her own experiences, when she reposts corporate news, she always includes her spin on the issue. ‘We have corporate channels to announce corporate news. I can’t add much value to that, but what I can add is what it feels like to be a communicator around those issues and what our team is doing,’ she says.
‘I was recently at a trade show in Japan, and a guy came up and said I follow you. I see things from your posts in different parts of the business that I wouldn’t otherwise see. That’s very cool. I think when you’re in a company this big, you can get very narrowly focused on the part of the business that you’re in. That’s your world. Lifting people up a little bit to remember that we are this huge, global company… you might work in munitions in Wales, but you’re also part of a company that is launching things into the stratosphere in Utah.
‘We have that amazing intellectual capability. We have all these facilities and talent. Telling that story for people to understand that they’re a part of this, that’s important. We have customers who think we’re the people who deliver X for them, but we also do all these other things over here. We want them to know that – to know the big story.’
Indeed, a prime focus of Hayden’s communications team is working out how to bring together talent from across the world to share ideas and collaborate. ‘We do a global communications conference, which is usually about one third of the function, and alternates between the US and UK. The last one was in May… to have a table where you have folks from US, UK, Sweden, Saudi Arabia, Australia… exchanging ideas and saying Oh gosh, that’s exactly what we’re dealing with. Have you tried this? To really problem solve together…’ she says.
When you’re in a company this big, you can get very narrowly focused on the part of the business that you’re in. That’s your world. Lifting people up a little bit to remember that we are this huge, global company… you might work in munitions in Wales, but you’re also part of a company that is launching things into the stratosphere in Utah
‘The participants were so energised by talking to fellow communicators, to compare notes and brainstorm, to try to come up with solutions. It made my leadership team say We need to come up with a few more moments this year where we bring people together in person and ask for that investment in time. You can get weeks’ worth of work done in a day just by focusing people and giving them that freedom to co-create together.’
But she also works hard to continually develop her function. ‘What does good look like? With whom do you debate the merits of whether regional people should be on a leadership team? How are these constructed? How are you communicating? That’s all stuff that doesn’t have a perfect answer. I love meeting my peers. It’s not only helpful in crystalising my thinking about what’s right for the role I am in, but to be able to say at an Exco meeting Well, I’ve talked to my peers at XYZ and they’ve already solved it this way. Maybe we should think about that.’
Hayden has that seat at the table. ‘I know there are lots of models for where comms sits and what groups it is in, but, for me, having that seat at the table is important. Not just for me, but for my function to understand that they are a valued strategic function. Often comms people feel like they are a support function or delivery people because a lot of colleagues believe they know how to do communications and offer unsolicited advice. My message to my function is: you are the experts.’
When first approached to make the move to London and take up the global position, Hayden posed just one question. She views her job as giving counsel to her chief executive and chair, whether it has been asked for or not, so she said: ‘I need to know that I am going to have the access and trust to give you that. The answer was yes, absolutely. So, I am very lucky to work in an organisation where [the C-suite] really understands the value of what we do, where I have a good amount of trust and empowerment, where they listen to my advice.’
And more than that, Hayden is also excited about the leadership’s willingness – which feeds through BAE Systems – to be creative. ‘I don’t feel like I need to fight to talk about how things can be changed or improved. There’s not only an openness to that, but an expectation that we are going to be constantly looking at how to do things – new, better, differently.’ It’s a challenge she is thrilled to accept.