When your office is the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat, going to work typically isn’t business as usual. We talked to Carey Lohrenz, the first female F-14 Tomcat pilot in the U.S. Navy, about women in leadership, being bold, and shifting the work culture conversation.
Author, speaker, and aviator
When your office is the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat, going to work typically isn’t business as usual. In fact, you have to very quickly get comfortable with a dangerous, demanding, and constantly changing work environment.
So maybe you’d be surprised to learn that the same issues plaguing women in boardrooms today apply in the cockpit as well. But here’s the thing – says Carey Lohrenz, the first female F-14 Tomcat pilot in the U.S. Navy – jets don’t know the difference between who’s flying them, and it’s time to flip the conversation and bring that mindset into broader work culture.
Q: The first thing you see on your website is "Welcome to my office" – and it's a jet. Tell us more about your office and your workday.
Carey: Where do I start? The cockpit of the F-14 is one of the most dangerous environments in the world to try to figure out. What’s so interesting about flying this airplane is that you can never do it perfectly. You have to be willing to [say], “today is good enough, but tomorrow, you need to be better.” Because when you're working in these demanding environments, it is constantly changing.
It's a place where I learned some really unforgettable lessons – not just in flying, but also in life and leadership. How do you handle relationships? How do you figure out how to lead through adversity?
Q: You said it's an environment where you can never do it perfectly. How do shift your mindset to be okay with that?
Carey: When you're operating in an environment where you are expected to perform highly complex and high-pressure tasks, and in an environment that's constantly changing, you need to be able to learn and move through fear.
That sounds a little trite, but one of the things I've uncovered is regardless of industry, high-performing teams – and ones that will remain relevant for the long-term – require fearless leaders. You have to be able to perform faster and more efficiently than your competitors.
Oftentimes, we have an expectation that if we've invested in a great strategic plan and we've got a very articulate, flowery vision, then that will be good enough. But if we can't execute effectively, if we don't have a plan for the actual doing part, and then learning while we’re doing, all that other effort is worthless.
As a fearless leader, it all starts with you. You are the model that your teammates will pattern themselves after.
Q: If you are speaking to the fearless leader in the room, what are some of the things they can do to get their team on board, or to bring a high-performing team together?
Carey: No doubt, being a fearless leader starts with having that bold vision that will both inspire and align your team.
Thinking about my experience on an aircraft carrier, with clarity of vision and purpose, we all knew what success looked like. And we understood on a very individual level the role that each of us played in making that a reality.
So, the first key is understanding what success looks like. Whether your team is launching airplanes, or installing routers, or selling essential oils, or software, it's imperative that you, as a leader, step up and provide that vision. That then empowers your team to be able to achieve high performance.
Otherwise, we all show up for work well-intended to do a good job, but we're not aligned and headed in the same direction. A clear vision gives people focus, and focus is power.
Q: So, it’s not, "Hey, team, here's the big idea. See you in six months and let's see how you did." It's an ongoing conversation.
Carey: Absolutely. And then part of that is having that ability to communicate that vision. You have to be able to do that repeatedly, because everybody takes in that input in different ways, or they won't hear it the first time because they're overwhelmed.
In order to reinforce that vision, you have to remind people, “Here's what we're working on, and here's what we're trying to accomplish.”
Otherwise, people get distracted by day-to-day activities, and you start diluting your focus, and now you're diluting that power.
"What I didn't realize was that it was going to take an extra dose of courage and a huge helping of tenacity, simply because I was a female. In my mind, it seemed like such a nonsensical conversation, because airplanes don't know the difference, they don't know who's flying it."
Q: How did you know you wanted to work in military aviation and fly a fighter jet? And did you experience any early opposition or obstacles?
Carey: Well, I always knew that I wanted to fly. My dad was a former Marine Corps aviator and then flew commercially for 30 years. My older brother and I grew up playing with my dad's silk maps and flight gear from his time in the service. And my mom was a flight attendant for Eastern Airlines before having kids.
Given this background, I think my brother and I had no doubt that we were destined to be in the cockpit. A path to an aviation career, especially a high-performing military career, is a challenge for anyone no matter how driven, how naturally skilled you may be, or whether you're a male or a female.
What I didn't realize was that it was going to take an extra dose of courage and a huge helping of tenacity, simply because I was a female. So there definitely was resistance along the way, and right out of the gate from some of the guys that I ran across, people questioned, "Why do you wanna do this? Why do you wanna go into an environment where they don't support women, or where women aren't even allowed?"
In my mind, it seemed like such a nonsensical conversation, because airplanes don't know the difference, they don't know who's flying it. This isn't a question about ground combat. This is about whether or not women can fly. I was shocked by running into people right out of the gate that were like, "Women shouldn't fly."
Because of my background and because of having conversations with my dad, I knew the WASPs [Women Airforce Service Pilots] had flown millions of hours in the 1940s, and yet, nobody else seemed to remember that. So here I am 50, 60 years later, feeling like I'm challenging a system that has forgotten women flew millions of hours.
Q: It seems to be an ongoing disconnect in that regard, with people saying, "Women don't do that” – whether it be in the boardroom, having a challenging career, or having both a career and a family – when we’ve been doing it for decades.
Carey: We’re not hitting the critical mass numbers, and culturally not having the discussions. When you have so few women at the table who are fighting for that opportunity, it can feel like there's only one seat available. This can start the challenge of women not amplifying other women that could be sitting next to them because it feels like there's only that one seat. But in fact, if you amplify other women's successes, you now can develop momentum, and [create] more seats at the table.
Q: It’s affecting younger generations of girls and women, too. How do we change it?
Carey: I've started having conversations that we need to flip the dialogue. We need to change the story that we're telling people.
My oldest daughter came home from college [recently] with a bunch of her friends that are all Division 1 athletes. They started having a conversation saying, "I'm not going to go into the science field." It stopped me dead in my tracks. I asked, "Why is that?" And they said, "All we ever hear about is how awful it is, and there are no women."
Instead of highlighting the fact that there are so few women, we should lead every conversation with the data that having more women in upper leadership positions, on boards, and in executive roles, fundamentally makes your company more financially secure and profitable. Do you want to be more profitable? Yes. Then get more women. Why are we making this so hard? It's like we've lost common sense.
Instead of leading with, "We only have 6% women here," or, "There are too few women in STEM," we need to aggressively shine the spotlight on every woman who is doing anything of note.
We need to change the story because if we don't, somebody else is going to be sitting in your dream job. We need to stop playing small.
Q: Some people struggle with not playing small. If there’s a win, how do you get comfortable celebrating without worrying that people are going to think you have an ego or are full of yourself?
Carey: I'll tell you how we do it. We start talking about it directly and specifically in the open with each other, with men in the room. When you have women that are playing small, because they don't want to rock the boat, because they have to be perfect, because they can't carry around 10 extra pounds, that serves nobody.
Don't wait for an invitation to make a difference. You have to be able to raise your hand before you're ready. Or raise the hand of the woman next to you, because, eventually, you'll start developing that momentum.
Because – almost regardless of industry – the overwhelming majority of leadership positions are currently held by men, this has to be a two-sided conversation because men are the ones who sponsor you right now. It’s not us versus them, or “We're going to shove a couple of you out of the boat so we can come in.” Men should be just as fired up about realizing that there's all this opportunity sitting in the room that they didn't even realize was there.
If the goal is to have a financially stable and relevant organization for the long-term, this is what you need. The pace of change is too fast, the rate of innovation is outpacing our current ability to fulfill those needs. And if you don't address that gap, if you don't bring more women into the fold, you will not be here five to 10 years from now.
Carey Lohrenz is an author, speaker, and aviator, and keynote speaker at INSIGHTS 2018.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.