How to change public perception and internal perspective

When Boeing faced challenges in and out of the courtroom, Lawrence Oliver made sure the company came through with a reputation for authenticity

Lawrence Oliver is not one to shy away from a challenge. Joining Boeing as chief counsel of investigations while the company faced legal and ethical issues didn’t scare him off from the job. In fact, he saw it as part of the appeal.

“That was part of the allure of the job,” Oliver says. “I was well aware of what was reported publicly and in the media regarding a few unfortunate episodes, and I knew the job was created in response to those episodes. I knew it was going to be a challenge.”

The unfortunate episodes Oliver is referring to culminated in the conviction of the former Boeing chief financial officer for engaging in improper employment discussions, as well as the investigation of the company for allegedly obtaining trade secrets. This investigation resulted in Boeing’s suspension from certain defense businesses.

Oliver took on the job of chief counsel of investigations just six months before the suspension was lifted, bringing him in at a tumultuous time for Boeing’s staff—especially the legal team. They needed a leader, and Oliver has been that leader for the last eleven years.

“People will follow those who can admit mistakes, who will support them in their time of need, who will go to bat for them.” 

“My role was and is to oversee legal investigations, so I have a lot of constituents to satisfy,” Oliver says. “From 2004 to 2006, we had an independent monitor onsite overseeing Boeing’s compliance efforts.”

While the technical day-to-day activities involved insuring Boeing’s compliance, Oliver’s job was much bigger than that. He had to earn the trust of both the executive leadership team and the public, something he has worked on maintaining in the decade since.

Boeing’s executive vice president and general counsel J. Michael Luttig has worked with Oliver for more than ten years. He says Oliver has all of the skills necessary to seamlessly lead.

“Lawrence is a great leader by the depth of his intellect, experience, and judgment; and better suited by virtue of his character, integrity, temperament, and demeanor,” says Luttig, who previously served on the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Oliver says his job is aided greatly by a strong general counsel in Luttig. “He has a high level of credibility and trust with the other senior executives and the board that flows down to the law department,” Oliver explains. “When my team is gathering information, to have the backing of a strong executive vice president is of great benefit.”

Credibility and authenticity are key to Oliver and are what makes a leader effective even in the most turbulent of circumstances for a company.

“Authenticity often is tested when the pressure is on, when there may be temptation to deflect and not take responsibility,” Oliver says. “People will follow those who can admit mistakes, who will support them in their time of need, who will go to bat for them.”

Oliver has helped maintain a supportive process for investigations since the suspension in 2003. Thanks to Oliver and the legal team, as well as regular trainings, employees of Boeing know they can report matters to be investigated without fear of internal backlash.

“People feel comfortable raising concerns,” Oliver says of the reporting system in place at Boeing for potential investigations. “The system, which is managed by Boeing’s ethics portal, has shown over time that when you raise concerns, you’ll be protected, and you don’t have to fear retaliation. With that, people become more and more comfortable verbalizing questions, thoughts, and concerns.”

It’s that kind of trust building that leads Oliver to feel confident in the state of Boeing’s image going forward. He says he isn’t plagued by worry over another ethical scandal because he is confident in the systems they currently have in place.

“A lot of it, as simple as it sounds, is just about doing the right thing,” Oliver says. “And being responsive internally and externally.”