Boeing Frontiers
June 2002 
Volume 01, Issue 02 
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Fun and flexibility guided John Warner's career


John WarnerIt's no small feat to rise to the top of one's game as an engineer—or as the No. 1 administrator of the world's largest aerospace company. But Chief Administrative Officer John Warner managed to do both during his 34-year tenure at Boeing.

When he retires from the company this month, he will have held 16 different jobs across business units and across the country. To hear 62-year-old Warner tell it, every position has been a challenge, with each as enjoyable as the one before.

"The fun thing for me," said Warner, "are the moves, the changes, and the ability I developed to accept those changes. I learned to 'enjoy the job you're in, and never think about the next one.' By moving around so much, I got to meet many Boeing people - and that is one of my biggest rewards. These are amazingly talented people, and to be around them is inspiring," he said.

And that from a former engineer who, when he arrived at Boeing in 1968, never planned to stay more than five years. Armed with a doctorate in aeronautical engineering, he planned to help mold eager minds within the halls of academia. Instead, he ended up shaping them inside corporate America.

"You can't predict what's going to be of interest later on," said Warner, who calls himself a "quasi-chief of staff" for Boeing Chairman and CEO Phil Condit. "For people who end up in management, the ability to be flexible" is key. "I would have bet a year's money that I never would have ended up here."

For Warner, it's been all about the journey. And in his case, one that has taken him from Boeing's supersonic transport program in 1968 to one of the company's top positions in 2002.

Among other things, he's helped manage airplane systems design, headed up Boeing Computer Services, and—in what could be described as a most impressive swan song—spearheaded Boeing's World Headquarters move from Seattle to Chicago last year. In fact, he postponed his planned early retirement in order to help Condit through the transition.

A self-described "data freak," Warner seemed to be the right man for the job, shaping and leading a detail-oriented team that helped Boeing make its ultimate choice.

"When we walked into [Phil's] new office," said Warner, "it was what I called a seminal moment for me. Either he was going to say, 'John, you no longer have a job,' or he'd say, 'This is great.' He looked around and said, 'This is great.'"

During the pre-relocation search, Dave Komendat, director of Security and Fire Protection for World Headquarters, spent about four days each week for five weeks with Warner and his small, handpicked team as they crossed the country on their fact-finding tour.

"It was a great learning experience to watch him deal with the media, the local officials, and all the hoopla that surrounded this thing," said Komendat. "[John] was very focused the whole time; he didn't allow himself to be swayed by the niceties."

Warner made it clear to the team, said Komendat, that "you didn't have the option to fail" when it came to opening Boeing's new offices on time.

But wasn't it tough for Warner, logging countless hours and poring over mountains of data, knowing he would leave the company a year later?

"That's not difficult at all," said Warner. "I continue to work as if I'm never going to leave."

Unlike some folks who find it hard to move from "doing" to "managing," John Warner welcomed the shift from engineering to administration. What made him so well equipped for the transition?

"I think it was the willpower to learn," said Condit. "Lots of people have the capacity to learn new things, to learn continuously. The challenge is to use that capability to learn. One of the great things we're seeing in a number of our leaders is they have learned a lot of new skills."

And Warner has relished sharing his professional skills - and the life lessons he's learned - with up-and-comers across the company. Kristi Savacool, now vice president and general manager of Shared Services Group Puget Sound Region, is one employee he's informally mentored over the years.

"He's an exceptional person and a leader with tremendous integrity and courage," Savacool said. "He has a special ability to establish an environment where people can learn and really stretch. When John is around, you always feel supported and able to create the future."

Despite his title, Warner prefers his farewell festivities low key and held in Boeing common areas, so everyone feels welcome. Savacool says this reflects advice Warner's often shared with her and others: "Don't ever confuse who you are with the job you do."

"Others will come and go around you," Savacool remembers him saying, "but you are always here. Take care of what is constant.' He never lost his center or the balance in his life."

And that "center" includes his devotion to public service in communities where he's lived. Granted, his chief administrative officer duties included overseeing Boeing's philanthropic giving. But Warner relishes this task in his personal life as well, planning to spend even more time serving on Seattle-area charity boards during retirement. However, his first priority is his relationship with his four young grandchildren, who, he said, "essentially manage my time."

On June 28, Warner will leave Chicago for "home," which for him is Seattle. Since helping move World Headquarters last year, Warner has split his time between Seattle and Chicago. A man who's notoriously well-prepared and organized for any outcome, Warner found a surprise after the relocation.

"I didn't think I'd like Chicago as much as I did," he said. "I would have been happy to continue, but it's time to move on."

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