I’ve been immersed in aviation and the path I’m on for more than 20 years. I have been fortunate to be a member of and lead some of the best air mobility crews and some of the world's most elite, special operations teams around the world.
The picture below is from one of my most memorable C-130 aircrews while deployed to Kuwait, supporting operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and The Horn of Africa. It was probably one of the most diverse crews that I had the pleasure of flying with. The picture showcases diversity that you can see, but there was so much more diversity of thoughts, ideas and experiences that each crew member brought to that airplane each and every day that we flew a combat mission.
That photo was in 2005, and now, 15 years later, I continue to serve as an Air Force Reservist and my full-time job is as a commercial airline pilot. In both of these amazing careers that I have been blessed to be part of, I am in the 3% club. I, as a Black/African-American, happen to make up less than 3% of commercial airline pilots and less than 3% of all US Air Force pilots. Can you imagine being in a career where you make up less than 3% of your industry? That’s basically saying that if we filled a room with 100 commercial airline or military pilots, there would only be one or two other people that look like me.
I am in the 3% club. I, as a Black/African-American, happen to make up less than 3% of commercial airline pilots and less than 3% of all US Air Force pilots
Take a moment and consider what that might feel like? Imagine for a moment, that each time you go to a staff meeting, an office function, or the like, there will likely be no one in the room that looks like you. Better yet, imagine what it might feel like to go to work every day and you’re surrounded by only Black/African-American co-workers. How comfortable would you feel having conversations about family, life, your upbringing, etc.?
This has been my experience and reality for the past 20+ years of my life and career. I work and exist in two careers that are dominated by white males. Some might be a little bit uncomfortable with this reality, but I assure you, the raw data and numbers are there and this is my daily experience since college.
Many might ask what does this matter. How do I, and others like me that belong to marginalized groups, manage to stay adaptable and flexible in a world where the majority of our peers do not look like us? I would offer that it is the often overlooked and undervalued soft skills we have acquired and cultivate that help us to succeed. These same skill sets can be capitalized in your organizations to multiply revenue, accelerate business, decrease turnover rates and improve the overall culture of your organization.
Communication, adaptability, flexibility and professional knowledge are the crucial skill sets I am referring to. The best part is that these same soft skills that I and others have come to embody can be learned, cultivated and applicable to anyone, to enable and empower them to succeed in the workplace and in life. The diversity of experience, diversity of thought and diversity of ideas are necessary for organizations to not just compete, but to win. When we are not just accepted and tolerated, but authentically included, we enhance the teams to not just compete, but to become high performance, winning teams.
What can you do to empower these often-disenfranchised groups of people in your organizations? What can you and your organizations do to let this often-disenfranchised group of people know that they are included and have your trust, above all else, and that they will have a fair and equitable chance to succeed? Communication with my leadership and peers has been key, not just for my success from my perch, but for my leadership to better understand my talents and how to develop me. Many times, when given the opportunity to communicate and interact with our peers and our leadership, we learn to appreciate one another for who we are. We learn to value each other’s unique and diverse experiences. This appreciation and value can only happen when open dialogue, communication and discourse is allowed. This further creates bonds that lead to trust among team members.
My challenge to you is to begin having open and honest dialogue within your organizations. Take time to really know and appreciate your team members for who they are, where they come from and the hard work they have put into succeeding in life. You might find some super talented people in your organization that have been overlooked. Imagine the amazing impact on the person and imagine the impact on your organization.