‘Unless We Challenge, We Don’t Get Change’

Former fighter pilot Mandy Hickson
Pioneering female fighter pilot Mandy Hickson on what she’s learned about overcoming obstacles, being a better leader—and living a good life.

There’s a reason that battle metaphors are used for business so often. Like war, much of business is about winning and losing, preparing for challenges, organizing teams, leadership.

Mandy Hickson has experience with all of it. One of the first female pilots in the UK’s Royal Air Force, she had an extraordinary career flying the Tornado GR4 on front lines, including patrolling the no-fly zone over Iraq. Hickson was the only female aircrew member for much of 45 missions and three tours of duty.

She learned valuable lessons about overcoming challenges, understanding risk and the importance of failure. Hickson, author of An Officer, Not a Gentleman, will share those lessons as a featured speaker in the next installment of our Women in Leadership series, on September 27 (join us!).

She gives a preview here, including where she was on 9/11, why the Air Force made her lose 50 pounds and what still makes her a little bitter.

What made you want to be an Air Force pilot? And maybe more important, what made you think you could do it?

It’s about the importance of role models. My grandpa happened to be a pilot during the Second World War. And because I grew up hearing his stories, it drip-fed into my imagination. We have an organization in the UK called the Air Cadets. And my mum happened to be reading an article and she said, “Oh, the Air Cadets is opening its doors to girls next week.”

When would that have been?

That was in 1986. And once I joined the Air Cadets, I absolutely loved it. I loved the team ethos. I loved the leadership aspect of it. But more importantly, I loved the flying. I had a half an hour flight. And I remember very keenly, I was 14 years old, and I said to the pilot, “Do you get paid to do this?” And he said, “Yes, this is my job.”

It was this sort of moment where I thought, “My goodness, someone’s getting paid to do something they absolutely love.” And it was this joining of the dots as a 14-year-old girl to recognize that actually a job doesn’t have to be something that’s tedious, it doesn’t have to be something that you have to do. It can be something you’re passionate about.

But the reality was that women weren’t allowed to be pilots in the Air Force, so I chose a career that didn’t exist.

They weren’t allowing women in the Air Force yet?

No. That changed in the early ‘90s. In 1992 they allowed the first woman to become a fast jet pilot. By then I was at university. So, from the age of 14 when I first flew to being 19 years old at university, five years, I continued to pursue a dream that was not technically available to me. But everything I did was a steppingstone to achieve that goal.

As my mom just kept on saying, “If it’s going to be someone, why shouldn’t it be you?” And so actually that sets a sight that you think, “Well, why shouldn’t it be me?” I worked hard at school, I became head girl, I led all the sports teams, I became a high-ranking person within the Air Cadets, all of those things. And then I was 17 and I received a flight scholarship that I applied for.

I was told when I applied for that that I was obese. And I had to lose three and a half stone in weight, 52 pounds. We never challenged it. As a family, we never challenged it. I was 6’ tall. I was 12.5 stone, and I was told I should be nine stone in weight, which is just ridiculous because their height charts didn’t go up that high. They went to 5’8”.

That sounds unreasonable.

And so, again, this whole reality of when we’re younger and someone from a position of authority says something to us, we tend to believe it’s the gospel, that it can’t be challenged. And I think one of my big messages is, it doesn’t matter who is speaking that. If there’s a truth that needs to be challenged, it is important to challenge these things as well. Because I lost all the weight.

It sounds like your mother was your support.

Absolutely. I was brought up in a single-parent house with my sister. And so it was this real strong sense of women can do it. She dedicated her life to bringing us up and she brought up two very strong independent women—my sister is the medical director of a hospital. And so, yeah, I think having very strong female role models around you is very, very important in life.

What do you see as the parallels to business in your story?

When I left the Air Force 12 years ago, I looked at what my skill set was. I’m a pilot. I assumed I should carry on and become a commercial pilot because that’s what everyone does.

But I became a volunteer to fly young cadets. So, free of charge, you would take these youngsters up, it was how I’d started, and you’d give them a half an hour flight. I was flying with this young girl, and she was a very talented aviator. She was monosyllabic throughout the whole flight in a very teenage manner. And at the end, I said, “You know what? You’re really good.” She was like, “Oh, I bet you say that to everyone.” I said, “Actually, I’ve never said it to anyone. You’re really very naturally talented. Is this something you might want to do?” And she said, “Oh, my gosh, I never thought I could. This has been my dream. But because I wanted it so much, I just thought I wouldn’t show you I was interested.”

We’re so often consumed by the possibility of a negative outcome, that we don’t focus on the potential that we can gain. And at that moment, I decided that it was time to change my direction completely and I could use my story to be a role model.

I left, I retrained as a coach and a facilitator of what we call human performance factors. For example, airplane crashes almost always come down to human error. So, how do we minimize the human error? We do it by training people in all of those human elements of communication skills, decision-making, stress management, fatigue, all of these elements that create a very safe flying environment. Guess what those factors create in business? Very profitable, high-performing teams.

So you focused in on business.

I realized I could utilize my stories of operating in a high-performance environment like a fast jet squadron operating in a war zone and read those across into business. And so that’s what I do now.

I developed different sessions, but a lot around decision-making under pressure, around trusting our team and how do we build the team from the grassroots level, really from the establishment of a team, how do we build trust very quickly? I talk a lot about self-orientation within teams. It’s very easy to sometimes just think, “I’ve got to look out for number one,” but in doing so, we don’t see the team developing and the trust doesn’t build.

I started to do keynote speaking for businesses then, even though I assumed it was going to be pitched at schools. I talk about being in the air over 9/11 actually coming back from America from an exercise when we heard that America had shut their airspace. And when you’re in the clouds and you’re flying over the Atlantic doing air-to-air refueling from a tanker and you hear of a continent shutting down—how do you make decisions when you have no facts to base them on?

So I talk very much about controlling the controllables and what you can’t, you’ve got to let go. Because ultimately, when we’re feeling stressed, our stress bucket is filling up with superfluous issues that are completely outside of our control and yet they sap our capacity to deal with the here and now.

It’s about recognizing what is sapping your capacity, what is filling your bucket, and thinking, “Is it within my sphere of influence?” If the answer is yes, we act on it and if it’s not, you have to find a way, whatever tool you use to empty that brain to say, “Right. I can’t do anything about it.” So, I use those little tools, things like control the controls, if you can’t let it go. A decision-making model that we use, the trust formula.

You also talk about taking risks, taking smart risks.

Yes. When they changed the rules allowing women to become pilots, I took all the tests and I failed all of them. You could take them twice and I took them twice and I failed them twice. At that point I was thinking, “Well, obviously, I’m not good enough.” But it was my boss at this club at the university who said, “This is not right. You’re one of our best pilots. Why can’t you pass the tests?”

He believed in me. So, again, I talk very much about mentors’ allyship, not just women mentoring women, but male allyship as well because I’ve been lifted at every single stage of my career by men because there were no other women going through the system. He believed in me, and he challenged the system and he discovered that the majority of women taking these tests were failing them outright.

So it was about bias in the testing?

There was a very basic and unconscious bias in the testing system that they’d had no awareness of because, guess what, they’d never been tested on women. And so, again, there’s those lovely messages there for business of, “Unless we challenge, we don’t get change.” And sometimes it can be something that we think, “Well, that can’t be changed.” This was the entire recruiting system for the Air Force. Well, guess what? They took me on as a test case and they changed the tests.

That’s a lesson in not giving up.

Even at a very early stage of our career, if you think that something is not right and you recognize that something can be done to change it, then it’s really important we step toward that.

And that can help everyone do better.

Cognitive diversity within our teams is so important because so often we recruit from the same universities, we end up with echo chambers with people who look like us or don’t look like us, but they still think like us. But it’s not just about cultural diversity and gender diversity, it is about cognitive diversity. Both my children are severely dyslexic. And I see them working through problems and it’s completely different to my own, the way that they deal with things. I think it’s fascinating.

We don’t know what we don’t know. And if we just have this box and we recruit from this group of people then we’re only ever going to get these ideas. So, it’s about pushing us to think differently.

Let’s get back to this idea of failure too because you talked a little bit about how to overcome it. But is there something in the experience of failure that can be positive, that teaches you something?

Without a doubt. So, I think it’s a really poor choice when we basically put all our children now through schools and we don’t have sports days where there’s winners and there’s losers. That is not real life. When you don’t win the race, you start to build up a tolerance for the fact that, “Okay. I wasn’t the winner. I can either give up or I can try harder or I can train.” Or “I accept that actually somebody is much more talented than myself at that field.”

But what we are doing, even as a small child, is building a strategy to deal with failure. If we have never developed that strategy, then how are we expected to [handle it as adults]?

I’d been very sporty from a very early age, so I’d actually failed an awful lot throughout my time at school. And that’s fine. I was becoming more resilient. What is resilience for organizations? I think it’s closely linked to purpose. I think if we have a very, very strong sense of purpose, actually, it’s easier to be resilient because now we know where we’re going and we are focused on that goal.

So, I had an obesity problem which I didn’t have, but I overcame that. I lost the weight. I failed all the tests. That’s fine. How else can I get there?

Failure is a psychological challenge, but ultimately, if we learn to fail and we learn to fail fast as younger people, then we don’t build it up to be this huge issue later in life. If you look at highly successful people, they’re demonstrating that ability to fail, to be agile in their thinking. Constantly asking, “How else can I get there?”

You talked about flying on 9/11, the danger of that. When is the risk too much? How do you distinguish between a smart risk and a foolish risk? Is there some tip for that?

I’ll talk about it from a flying perspective: I would never take undue risk. So, we would do a full-threat brief. We would consider every single what-if scenario. And if you get to a point where you say, “Actually, that risk is not worth the mission. The risk is too great,” then ultimately, we would say, “Right. We’re not going to go into that area.”

In business it’s scenario planning, thinking through the possibilities.

It’s about always thinking about what’s the worst-case scenario. And by doing that, you start to recognize that actually some of those worst cases actually aren’t that bad, and that is a risk worth taking. That’s something we do all the time when we’re flying. It becomes a very natural process as well.

There have been a lot of challenges along the way. What would you say has been your biggest challenge and how did you overcome it?

Cultural change within the military at the time I was there. Policy had changed, process had not. And I think this is where culture takes a lot longer to actually change than the rules. They allowed women to join, but they hadn’t really thought through the plan. Sometimes when we make changes at a high level, we have got to be cognizant of the fact that people might take a longer time to catch up, even in the physical sense. For example, there was no female flying kit, there were no female toilets, I was on detachment, I was sharing a shower with a man.

Wow.

I’d just say, “Don’t turn around. Don’t look.” I mean, that’s the sort of level we were at, but that was the stuff I got on with. There was, obviously, all the low-level sexism of, you know, naked women on screensavers. I made them all naked men and the next day they were all landscapes. So, this was a very different era. The policy had changed, but processes hadn’t caught up. And then when I had children in the military, again, they didn’t really know what to do with me. They said, “Right, Mandy, you’re going straight back to the front line.” I said, “I’m breastfeeding a four-month-old baby. How’s that going to work?” And they went, “Yeah. We don’t know. We haven’t got a process in place.”

How did you respond?

I found a job, which was a, we called it a second-line job which I could do, but I was told if I took the job I would never be promoted again in the military because it was a dead-end job. Ultimately, I didn’t feel I had a choice. I couldn’t as a mother of two children under 18 months go to a war zone, and it was Afghanistan at the time.

I was basically hanging up my career, which I do feel a little bitter about, even now. But it’s about recognizing that it would take years to see this culture actually change. And did it change quick enough whilst I was in? Probably not. Since I left 12 years ago, I can now be that person that’s a role model. I get contacted daily, pilots in America contact me. There’s a wonderful girl going through fast jet training on the F-35 at the moment. And she recently told me, “I found your book at the right moment, Mandy. If I hadn’t found it, I would have failed flying training.”

So it worked out.

Yeah, it’s lovely. I can be that sort of connection now to the next generation. While we were serving, we just kept quiet because we wanted to be part of the team. We didn’t want to say, “I’m a woman in a man’s world.” It’s, “I can do this. I can get on with it.” But now I feel that having left, we have a responsibility to that generation to say, “We’re here, we’ve done it, we’ve survived. The ladder is not just down. It’s securely fastened and you are free to flow up.”

I have no regrets whatsoever. And I ended up being able to be mum while my children were young, which was really important to me as well. I hadn’t chosen to have two children and then to just literally give them to someone else to look after. So, I did want an active part in that. I’m not sure it’s helped particularly.

We do make choices. I look at the choices I’ve made and I think they were the right choices for me at the right time. I often reflect back to Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, and she talks about life is not a career ladder anymore, it’s a jungle gym. I think that’s the best analogy.

It’s a great metaphor.

Such a lovely metaphor because I think there are times when it’s easy to accelerate a ladder, but there are also times when you do find yourself on the cargo net hoping not to fall into this ball pit below and thinking, “Please let me survive.” But then, again, later in life, we might find that it’s great to step back onto the ladder. Now my children are older, I can accelerate again. And so, actually, just recognizing that there are peaks and troughs in your life.

The work-life balance is awful. I don’t like that term. I prefer work-life blend because balance is indicative of the fact that there’s only one point where you will actually have it in balance, whereas blending is what we’re doing these days, isn’t it? Everything is blended in. It’s all about working out how we can get that blend right.


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