Podcast: Col. Nicole Malachowski on Asking "Why Not Me?"


Colonel Nicole Malachowski is a 21-year-veteran of the US Air Force and the first-ever female Thunderbird pilot. In our newest podcast, we talk with Nicole about her journey from Air Force Academy Cadet to Fighter Squadron Commander, Thunderbird pilot, and White House fellow and adviser. And, she reveals what was going through her mind as she made the decision to apply for a program, the Thunderbirds, that no woman had ever successfully joined before. 

During our conversation with Nicole, we ask her questions like:

  1. What was the toughest part of joining such a historically-male organization? Did you feel pressure to be so extraordinary because you were the first woman joining the ranks?
  2. What has the Air Force taught you that you bring into your everyday life?
  3. What’s your advice to someone who wants to shatter a glass ceiling in their life?

We talk to Nicole about what it means to "harness the headwinds of change," something she routinely calls on anyone hoping to advance personally or professionally to do. And we get her thoughts on the #MeToo movement sweeping the nation. 

Listen now:

Or, download the podcast episode from iTunes here.

If you want to learn more about Nicole, or book her to speak at an upcoming event, call us at 1-800-SPEAKER or live chat with a member of our team right now.

Podcast Transcription

Here is the full transcription of this podcast episode:

Nicole Malachowski: Now, this was a dream I had been nurturing for a long time, but it was such a gnarly dream that I didn't dare even let it into my head. It scared me to think about even applying for this, let alone let it out of my mouth.

Leading Authorities: Let's pause here for a minute. This is Colonel Nicole Malachowski. She's a 21 Year veteran of the US Air Force and the first ever female Thunderbird pilot. Pretty impressive, right? But before we get into today's episode, I want you to hear what was going through Nicole's mind when she first made the decision to apply for a position that no woman had ever successfully gone after. I think you'll quickly see why she's becoming one of our favorite new speakers.

Nicole: And every year the Air Force sends a message to pilots and says, "Here's the qualifications. If you want to apply to be a Thunderbird, go for it". There's like 12000 pilots in the Air Force, and there's only six that fly in the formation and only three spots every year. The chance of getting picked or slim to none, right? So, every year, delete, message comes out, delete, message comes out, delete. And then one year, I was reading the message in 2005, and it hit me. "Oh my gosh. I actually meet the qualifications". "Maybe I should? No, they haven't had a woman before. No, my chances are slim to none". But I went to bed that night and I couldn't get it out of my head. And I woke my husband up and we had a chat in the middle of the night. I annoyed the heck out of them. And it occurred to me. Why not me? Why not me? I had been in three operational F15 squatters. I had flown in combat. I was a flight commander, a flight instructor and an evaluator. Why not put my hat in the ring? So, the next day I went into work and I told my friends and my colleagues, this is what I was going to do. Mostly supported. But the questions came, "You know it's really hard to be a Thunderbird?" Yes. "You know your chance of being picked are really slim?" Yes. And then the words, "You know, they haven't had a woman Thunderbird before". Yes.

Leading Authorities: Today, I talk to Nicole and hear firsthand, how she dealt with doubt, fear and that pressure that comes along with being "the first". Plus, I got her advice for getting out of your comfort zone, thriving in a high stakes environment and forcing yourself to ask the question, why not me? You're listening to Speaking of where we sit down with innovators and thought leaders to talk about ideas that are changing the world now. I'm your host, Maddie Glading. Nicole, thank you so much for being here with us today. We really appreciate it. You are America's first female Thunderbird pilot and a combat veteran, and you really got to the top in a field that is typically male dominated. And you say that one of the things that helped you get there was harnessing the head winds of change. What do you mean by that?

Nicole: Yeah, well, first, thank you for having me here today. I'm really excited to be with you all. When I talk about harnessing head winds, I think it's a really interesting metaphor from the flying aviation world that we can translate into organizations maybe that are not aviation or flying related. From a pilot's perspective, headwinds impact everything that we do. It dictates the runway will take off and land from. It dictates our route of flight, the speed, the fuel that we have required, and it even impacts the trajectory of weapons in combat and weapons in flight. And so, it's something that we pay a lot of attention to. I'd like to draw the metaphor to the head winds kind of in life themselves, things that are unpredictable, things that force you to change course that were unexpected, things that are essentially out of your control, because ultimately, what head winds can do both in the air and to us here on the ground is it can force you to use more time. It can force you to be, feel like you're held back. It can force you to use more energy. And at their worst, these headwinds that come at us can actually take away options. But what's interesting, I think about the headwind metaphor is that we always take off and land into headwinds. In fact, we want strong headwinds straight down the runway for takeoff and landing. And it's interesting because those are arguably the two most risky phases of flight. So, in those times of great need, we actually turn into the headwinds and it makes those transitions smoother and it makes them safer. And I think there's a way, in a practical business sense that the organizations and the environment or customers can change in ways that you didn't plan on. And it's very easy for us to run away from those headwinds and to run away from them and try to avoid these circumstances. But what I'm saying is by turning into the headwinds and harnessing them, that it offers an opportunity and occasion for your organization and for you to adapt and get stronger and have increase agility. And it really actually opens doors to new opportunities.

Leading Authorities: So, what would be an example of a head wind that an average person may face in their career?

Nicole: I think when I talk about headwinds during my speech, one of the stories that I share are those Headwinds that can be self-induced. So sometimes we like to point fingers at the environment and, sure change and headwinds come from the environment. Sometimes the universe will just deliver you the unexpected, and we can't control those, but sometimes these headwinds can be self-induced. An example I give in my case was failing a check ride at pilot training. People often look at me in my career and say, "Wow, you must have been the best of the best. It must have been smooth sailing all along", but very early in my career, I had a major failure. And it was because I did not follow the checklist. And in my initial moments, I was angry about it. I had thoughts of just quitting pilot training, and there was a youth and immaturity there too at the time, that was 20 something years ago. But in effect, I had created my own headwind. And when I was faced with trying to overcome that or harnessing that headwind, it took me a little bit, my initial reaction was to run. My initial reaction was to point to all the other things that had happened that day, that had probably caused the failure of my check ride versus actually looking at the problem, owning the mistake I made and getting back on the horse the next day and going flying. And the lesson that I learned from that is really that failure is the price of entry for achieving truly great things. And I got through that failure by owning my mistake, fixing it, sharing it with everyone else on the team. So, it didn't happen to them. And I made sure I leaned on my mentors, I went right back to that network that I'd been nurturing my whole life who had been supporting my dreams, and I was able to overcome that self-doubt and that self-induced headwind I had given myself. So, fear of failure often is one of those headwinds we create for ourselves. And it's actually something we need to turn into and harness because you cannot achieve great things without having an occasional failure, I can't find any examples in history or in life of people who haven't failed.

Leading Authorities: Yeah. I love that. What you said failure is the price of entry into achieving truly great things. I love that. What else has the Air Force taught you that you bring into your everyday life?

Nicole: Absolutely.

Leading Authorities: What else has the Air Force taught you that you bring into your everyday life?

Nicole: There's so many things, obviously, that military service has taught me over 21 plus years. The thing that I think about the most or the mantra, I use a daily mantra that I pulled away from my time in the military, is the art of the possible. The military taught me about the art of the possible. You very rarely will hear a military person say: "That's too hard. That'll take too much effort. That'll take too much resources. We can't possibly and do that". It's just not in the lexicon. We always found a way to get over things, around things and through things because we leaned on our values and we leaned on each other as teammates. So, nothing was too out there or too extraordinary or too audacious. And so, when I start feeling, across my career and even now as I transition into a new phase of my life when, I start feeling confined or I start to get a little bit of the self-doubt. I tell myself, remember the art of the possible. We did extraordinary things in the military. It didn't matter if you were a 19-year-old young airman aircraft mechanic or you're an older experience four-star general. It didn't matter if you were in the air or you were on the ground. We all did it together because we encouraged each other to put our arms around the art of the possible. I mean yeah, there's things like it taught me discipline, it taught me having a mission focus, it taught me absolutely about teamwork and leadership. But the largest life lesson I drew, was really embracing the art of the possible and not being fearful of trying new things or taking big steps or accepting great challenges.

Leading Authorities: Is there a specific time you can think of that you were like, "There's just no way that we're going to be able to do this mission or we're going to be able to tackle this challenge" and your team, or you surprised yourself?

Nicole: You know what's interesting. Every time I flew into a combat mission, though, we were very confident, I never felt like us or our team was unprepared because we had done all of that preparation we had spent years training and honing our skills to get up into the air and to get airborne. As a fighter pilot, you are a trained risk mitigator. You are taught to think of every single contingency ahead of time, you are prepared for what that sortie or that mission is going to turn your way. And I'll tell you, I never flew a sortie ever in my entire career that ever went exactly the way I planned it, but because you've thought through all the different possibilities and because you thought through all of the different contingencies when they happen to you, you're able to handle it.

Leading Authorities: Okay, so shifting gears a little bit, what would you say was the toughest part of joining such a historically male organization? And the other side of that coin is, did you feel a lot of pressure to be so extraordinary because you were "the first"?

Nicole: So, I appreciate that question and it's probably the one I actually get asked the most. And I think that that's understandable. I felt a huge responsibility definitely to get it right, because I felt like this was an opportunity to open doors for other women, and I didn't want to just open the door. I wanted to make sure that it stayed open, if that makes sense. And so, while there was maybe some pressure going into a male dominant field or maybe some pressure from the public, and certainly there were those detractors and naysayers out there. My concern was really for the women that would come after me and my concern was doing my best for all military women aviators, past, present, and the future. I knew I was representing all of them very publicly, and I wanted to do it with the best professionalism, skill and integrity that they deserved. So admittedly, I think that's where I felt the weight of it. I was not concerned about being the first woman in an all-male unit. Remember, I'd been flying fighters for many years by then, and there are many other women military aviators out there today. So, I wasn't alone in that respect. And I wasn't intimidated by the naysayers or the critics, I've just never really been that way. And if I had been, I wouldn't even have applied kind of a thing, so that didn't bother me. And I was certainly not concerned about being the first woman Thunderbird pilot. But I did feel the weight of the responsibility of opening that door and doing it right, so that the door would stay open.

Leading Authorities: On that same note, obviously, the last year, year and a half has seen a lot of these issues of women in the workplace, coming to the front of conversation. How have you felt as you've watched public opinion towards the challenges women face in the workplace shift in the past year or so?

Nicole: So, there's two big things that come to mind when I'm watching the current shift as far as what's going on with women in the workplace today, and one is the big idea of how hard it is to really move and enact organizational cultural change. It is huge. It's gnarly. It is difficult to change deeply ingrained habits, but the examples that we're seeing in the news today are symptoms. They are symptoms of an underlying disease. And so, the organizations themselves have to take a really deep, highly critical and highly vulnerable look at themselves and ask, "Are we living up to our values? Are we really being the best we can be? What things big things and what things small things do we need to be doing differently? And what are these things doing? How are they leading to these symptoms of the greater disease?" And second, I think in the much harder part, it's actually making the necessary changes. So, acknowledging is the first step, but making the changes is hard and you can't do it quickly and you can't do it easily and you don't do it superficially. I think leadership, obviously, of organizations, needs to spend some meaningful time on this with their teams and communicating living by their values, but they need to pay attention to not just the big stuff, but all of the little stuff. And one of the other things that came to mind is we have to be especially cognizant of those who are the most vulnerable amongst some of the people who are part of this organizational change. What I mean by that is when I was a young lieutenant flying, each day I was just trying to survive. I was young in age, young in maturity. I was young in life experiences. I was young in skills. I didn't have a credibility or experience or anything to fall back on. So, I was trying to build that at the time. And I think that applies to the younger people across any of the industries out there. So, when you're starting out, you're trying to learn your craft, and sometimes the last thing you want to do is highlight issues within your organization because you don't want to be perceived as the person who's rocking the boat, and you certainly don't want to be the one that's a challenge, you know to the balance. And so sometimes I hear folks on the news or things say, "Well, why didn't she bring it up ten years ago?" I cringe a little bit because man, that is hard, that is hard to do, and it's hard to have a voice when you're new, or young, or inexperienced, or lack the accountability or the authority. hat said, I applaud the people who can do it and have the courage to do it. But ultimately, what's the anecdote to the disease for cultural change? It has to come from the leadership in your organization. And oftentimes, it's not going to come from the formal leadership, the CEO, I have seen enormous cultural change in the Air Force on big and small things that come from our middle managers and often come from the informal leaders in an organization. People that might not have a formal role or job title or duty, but they can sway the feeling and the culture, identifying who those informal leaders are, communicating with them, getting them on board, I think that's where the cultural change really gets to the root of things really gets to the root of the disease. It's not a band aid or a short course of antibiotics. That's the thing. This is hard. This cultural change is going to take a long time. It's complicated, but if leaders are committed, and they authentically put forth the effort, this change can happen.

Leading Authorities: So, reflecting on your career up to this point, what would your advice be to someone who wants to, I know you said that you didn't think of yourself as being "the first" you were just doing your job, but what would your advice be to somebody who finds themselves in a position where they maybe want to do something that's never been done before?

Nicole: Yes, I would say the first thing I think you need to do is always surround yourself with positive people. I need you to build a network of folks who believe in your dream as much as you do and who will guide you along the way and the importance of nurturing that network and growing that network across a career and across your lifetime is vital. My very first most impactful mentor that I made as a 17-year-old cadet at the Air Force Academy is still my mentor today, and she has guided me across my career and cross professional and personal, highs and lows, and it's just vital that you surround yourself with positive people and don't get hung up on critics or obsess over their opinion of you. Go back to that nurturing team and add to it. I have found that good people tend to hang out with other good people and bad people tend to hang out with other bad people. So, grow the good network. There's people that want to help you. Always remind yourself of why you chose to do what you do or why you're making this choice. Maintain integrity to that. Maintain integrity to who you are, your values, and to your why. And I don't know where it is along the way, but it seems at some point or points in life, we often start performing to other people's expectations or performing to other people's scripts. And when you find yourself nudging that way or feeling that, you've got to get rid of it, you got to take that excess pressure off. It's nothing but background noise. So free yourself from other people's expectations and paradigms. And I think if you maintain fidelity to your personal why and you do everything you do with excellence and without fear of failure and that that's how you're going to achieve great things. And that brings us honestly back full circle to our initial conversation about having the art of the possible.

Leading Authorities: Is there anything that you would want to talk about that we haven't covered today yet?

Nicole: One of the other things I think about when I'm considering the mantra, the art of the possible, is an example from the Air Force especially the Air Force flying world, is as soon as you get good at a skill and as soon as you get comfortable with something, it's usually like one-year max. They mix it up, they give you something else to conquer. They give you a new certification, a new upgrade, a new responsibility or increased accountability. And so, this mentality of the art of the possible means constantly pushing yourself to move forward, to evolve. That this becomes a habit. Always asking yourself, "What's next?" because when you accomplish something, you don't declare victory and stop. You have to move onward and upward. And when I think about the mantra, the art of the possible, and what the Air Force taught me, that's what's helping propel me into my next phase of life. And I think it's a mindset that can help propel people into their next phase of life as well.

Leading Authorities: Sort of never allowing yourself to be too comfortable?

Nicole: Absolutely, and you can't rest on your laurels either. Right. What put food on your plate yesterday, ain't necessarily going to do it today, but you're also selling yourself short, right. As far as your potential and the contributions that you can make, if you just stop and declare victory at a specific success.

Leading Authorities: Nicole, thank you so much for coming and being here with us today. We've loved learning about your experiences and your advice for people, I guess for everybody. So, thank you again for joining us.

Nicole: It was a pleasure to be here? I hope we can do it again sometime.

Leading Authorities: Thanks. Thank you so much for listening to our podcast with Nicole. If you want to learn more about her or if you're maybe interested in having her at your next event, visit our website LeadingAuthorities.com, and don't forget to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or Podbean or wherever else you get it. You can also always email us at insider@lauthorities.com. We'd love to hear from you.

If you want to learn more about Nicole Malachowski or think Nicole Malachowski would be a good fit to speak at an upcoming event or meeting, please visit their speaker page. You can also call 1-800-SPEAKER or live chat with a member of our team now.

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