The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Diversity | Leadership

October 2013
Ability to adapt, plus a clear and realistic understanding of challenges women face are crucial for success
By Elizabeth Handover

Christine Zeitz, president of the North East Asia division of BAE Systems, is the epitome of a natural born leader: smart and savvy, warm and poised, a highly engaging communicator, and with the confident ability to say how it really is.

Her leadership success has come from the tough lessons she learned along the way. These include adapting to every situation and having a clear and realistic understanding of the challenges that women face in leadership positions.

Zeitz started her journey 25 years ago, by building a successful career in the heart of the male-dominated defense industry.

Her first lesson came while studying accounting and economics in college. The young Zeitz had a vibrant personality and the image to go with it: multi-colored hot pants, long hair, and crazy jewelry.

After attending an interview she thought had gone very well, she didn’t get the job. And by graduation, she was still unemployed.

However, Zeitz registered at a placement agency and, within the week, received a call to go for an interview with BAE Systems.

The firm was looking for a graduate accountant and, this time, for the interview she wore a grey suit, crisp white shirt and conservative black shoes. She removed her jewelry, braided her hair, and toned down her personality. She got the job and, with it, her first understanding of the importance of perception and fitting in.

Zeitz’s career is filled with tales of stereotypical assumptions and bias she has faced, and the challenge of what was perceived possible for her to do as a woman in her job role.

She was reminded repeatedly that, to succeed, it is essential to fit in, and that stakeholder perceptions must be carefully managed.

As she moved into a management position, she needed to communicate and collaborate with, lead, and coach mainly middle-aged men, most of whom had previously been in the military or were engineers or tradesmen.

She adapted, presenting herself as accessible, someone to whom people could relate. Most importantly, she was perceived as non-threatening.

This, of course, is only part of it. Zeitz worked hard to be the best she could be, made important contributions and, above all, ensured her excellence did not go unnoticed.

Leadership research in the United Kingdom suggests that impact is three times more important than performance, while exposure is six times more important for moving ahead a career.

Zeitz recognizes that, inherent in her story, is the continuing conundrum and contradictory perception of women as leaders.

Women need to fit in, be accommodating, be one of the team, as well as demonstrate leadership abilities, and be noticed. Step too far one way and women are seen as acquiescing and weak. Step too far the other way and they are seen as tough and aggressive. It’s a tricky path to negotiate.

Zeitz stressed that, despite the rules sometimes being unfair or biased, women have to learn to play by the rules of the game and stay on the team. “Most importantly, you want to stay in the game . . . Why? Because, as you move up into positions of influence, you can change the rules,” she said.

Zeitz indeed has changed the rules. As one of the operations directors of BAE, she brought three women onto her management team, raising the bar for other such teams who only had one female.

With the birth of her second child, she changed to a part-time position and, after three years, realized she had fallen off the company HR system. Thus, she set about getting the company to change its rules.

Now all part-time employees are included in succession planning, talent forums, and incentive programs. This is in line with full-time employees.

On returning to work full-time, she soon had a heavy workload, including travel commitments. She negotiated more flexibility and, since then, Zeitz has worked with BAE to change the workplace culture. Now the company accepts flexibility as the norm.

Zeitz has successfully negotiated the defense industry’s corridors of power while keeping her focus on the bigger picture. Along the way she has always been committed to making things better for the women—and men—who come after her.

Elizabeth Handover is co-chair of the ACCJ Women in Business Committee and president of Intrapersona K.K., Lumina Learning Asia Partner.

Elizabeth Handover is co-chair of the ACCJ Women in Business Committee and president of Intrapersona K.K., Lumina Learning Asia Partner.


Christine Zeitz is president of the North East Asia division of BAE Systems.

Christine Zeitz is president of the North East Asia division of BAE Systems.