Gulfstream Aerospace, a key business unit of General Dynamics, is a household name in technologically advanced business aircraft. It all began with The Grumman Gulfstream I in 1958, and today it has about 3,000 business jets in service worldwide. With company headquarters in Savannah, Georgia, Sheryl Bunton, the company’s SVP and CIO, joined in 2015 to lead the manufacturer’s Business Technology Unit, meaning she oversees all the technology solutions, cybersecurity, and digital transformation strategies companywide. This is a role unique to other high-level ones she’s had in manufacturing since before, if something was sold, it would be made and delivered the next quarter. At Gulfstream, what’s sold today might not be delivered for years. And when an aircraft is created, it could be in service for 40 years or more. It’s an extraordinary manufacturing journey, she says, one with a long view that requires cohesive teams that have to be simultaneously focused on immediate tasks as well as on a distant horizon. It also means having a deep understanding of what’s needed and what isn’t.
“We have to make sure we’re not always chasing the next shiny, and not doing our duty around the digital transformation that exists already,” she says. “We have a full plate for the next four years and that’s our focus because otherwise, you can get distracted. We need to dedicate our time, treasure and change management to getting transformation done.”
After all, decisions she makes have ripple effects across the organization. “I’m not trying to equip five people,” she says. “I’m trying to equip 5,000.” And despite a deeply stoic disposition, Bunton understands that to be an effective leader, it’s important to check on people—now more than ever—particularly on those new in their career or newer to the company who don’t have an established network to rely on.
“It’s a weird and rough time I think we’re not going to get out of for a few more years, so let’s be good humans and check on each other,” she says. “When people are under sustained, long-term, incredible pressure, you see who’s a good leader, and who maybe needs some coaching. But find some humor in the dark times. It’s always there.”
CIO Leadership Live host Maryfran Johnson recently interviewed Bunton, where they discussed digital business acceleration, IT’s agility layer, celebrating female representation in the C-suite, and more. Here are some edited excerpts of that conversation. Watch the full video below for more insights.
On the digital transformation journey: Everything we do is customer-centric, making sure our customers have a great experience either in the aircraft that’s delivered or how they interact with us on our customer support side. We have a fair amount of legacy debt, and my team and I think about how to execute well; how to get from A to B. Because you can’t say, “Give me $100 million in five years and I’ll get back to you with a lovely little digital environment.” That’s where we came up with the agility layer, which is essentially a cockpit that takes eight disparate systems and puts them all into a new digital front end so people don’t have to sign into all the different systems. It does this work behind the scenes that used to be very manual. So instead of printing a bunch of paper and then writing all the part numbers and remembering the work instructions, you can now bring your laptop onto the plane being built, see it all there, and have confidence to know it’s right. So when we talk about agility layer, it’s important to understand the underlying technology and that this strategy equips and improves our shop floor.
On the Business Technology Unit: I’m fortunate to have an extraordinary leadership team that has stuck with me. We like to say we are trauma-bonded from how we built this place, starting seven years ago. A major thing we want to think about is how we deliver going forward, and make sure everything we do makes sense for the business. In terms of structure, I have three application teams dedicated to certain parts of the business. One focuses just on our engineering and innovation of the flight group, all the product lifecycle management (PLM) stuff. We have a highly engineered product and something like 2,500 engineers that cross all different parts of the business. Then I have a fantastic global infrastructure team. We do almost everything insource, so we manage our environment. Third is my information security cyber team. I’m fortunate they’ve all stayed with me through some very difficult years.
On supply chain setbacks: The challenge now is getting anything—access points, servers. We’re used to having safety stock at a variety of different suppliers. And our partners always took great care of us. We could need something and get it within a day or two. Now it’s months. There was something big we needed to do and they gave me a timeline of 42 weeks. At that point, let’s not call it weeks; let’s just say a year. You have to plan with an even further horizon. I hope it gets better, but I don’t think it will for another 18 to 24 months.
On hybrid working: If you go into one of our hangars and see this incredible aircraft being built, and the work that goes into it and the level of commitment, quality, and detail, and just the sheer beauty of these things, you have an appreciation that you take back to your support work and say, “What can I do to make this easier and better?” You don’t get that from being fully remote, whether because you’re an outsource employee or you don’t come to the office. It’s that connection to what we do and what it’s like to be on the shop floor, and actually experience what our people experience. We started coming back from the pandemic outages in June 2020, far sooner than many others. It was great foresight because the longer people are home full-time, the less they want to come back. And I get that. But it’s even more than culture. It’s when you’re in manufacturing, when you make things for a living, three-quarters of your organization can’t work from home. You can’t build a landing gear in your dining room. And you have that “You get to work from home and I don’t,” equity piece to pay attention to. The other thing is if you work full-time from home and you want to lead people, you aren’t going to get there in your career until you go back to the office at least part-time.
On female representation: We recently started a women’s employee resource group and I’m the executive sponsor. Particularly in light of labor challenges, you need diverse talent more than ever. There’s been oceans of ink spilled about the difficulties for women in IT and we have as much as I can find, but I’d like it to be a lot more balanced than it is now. I am very intentional about development for the women in my organization. One of our largest business units is run by a woman and my boss has been terrific about bringing women onto the leadership team, myself included. I hope it’s very different for the next generation since I spent most of my career as the only woman in the room. That’s a hard place to be, and something if we are intentional about, can be different down the line. We need to share our experience, make sure opportunities are presented, and lift women up.
CIO, Digital Transformation, IT Leadership, Remote Work