The new air travel experience can be taxing and frustrating. Between the process of checking luggage and the invasive TSA screening process by the time you’ve actually settled into your seat on a crowded flight the standard feeling is desired isolation. You know how it goes, get seated, give the “I’m not interested in conversation” ear bud signal, and lean back with eyes closed. I go either way. I always have Marie Claire on hand for reading material (no need for me to convince you that I’m sitting studiously with Fortune magazine) and my IPod travel playlist queued up but I’ve also found that getting to know your neighbor isn’t such a bad thing, unless of course they’ve given me all of the signs that I mentioned a few lines ago.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit San Antonio on business. A total of 6 flights there and back were necessary (layovers in Dallas and Atlanta). The flights crossed into the hours when I’m usually getting my second wind and crossing into my insomniac moments since I wasn’t landing in San An until 9pm the first night and flying back would get into Richmond around the time that I’m usually getting off work (at which point I’m amping up on Red bull and rap music). Because of this I didn’t sleep during 4 of the 6 flights and found myself engaged in great conversations with 3 very different people.
Flight from Atlanta to San Antonio: I sat next to a phenomenal woman who was a superintendent of schools. Having recently departed from DC to fly back home she was engrossed in the sequester battle and how it would impact the students that she served, many of which were children of veterans engaged in various wars as well as serving on the home front. Listening to her made me further curious about whom SHE was. There must be something remarkable about this woman! While many people would love to ignore the fact, education is both a political and corporate environment. Its big business and even bigger expense, I would wager that this contributes to the stats that are as typically gender skewed as they would be in a Fortune 5. According to a recent study by students at the JFK School of Government and the Business School at Harvard, women make up 76% of educators but only 50% of principals and 36% of superintendents.
How do you learn what makes someone special? Ask. So I did. She had the journey of getting the ‘right’ education, working her way to the top and focusing on her professional mission but what was more interesting was her connection to being a mother. None of her story reflected the “you can’t have it all” mantra that many high level corporate women are often forced to exhibit. She had successful, well-adjusted children that she and her husband molded to send out into the world as high functioning individuals. Her stories were peppered with great advice that she qualified with, “this is just my opinion”, but that I would wager would work for many.
Polished, professional, well versed in various topics and probably just as well connected there were many things about this woman which could have been impressive, least of which was her ability to see the big picture while maintaining a commitment to the details that make the big picture happen, as I believe only a woman can do. Trading information about ourselves and our careers, I was inspired by her and grateful for her opinion that she believed I was doing a great job. What did I learn from her during our journey?
1. All is a subjective word and what you choose to have, you can! I didn’t get the sense that she was working for some great metric of having everything, instead I got the impression that she didn’t feel she had to sacrifice. I never heard her question her ability to be a parenting professional as many of us do. While the debates rage about the Melissa Mayer’s of the world and the new Dr. Laura acolytes guilt working women about their “choices”, this woman was accomplishing her mission in all areas.
2. We can have common goals but separate paths. There were obvious differences between us. I grew up in an urban environment, she deep in the heart of Texas. Different races, age gap (her son was a year younger than I am), and her Doctorate placing her education level several years beyond my own. None of this stopped us from connecting with one another. The value of being a woman in the workplace is a lesson that only another woman can teach. I told her about leaving college at some point and deciding that I was going to make my way in the professional world. Rather than turn her well-educated nose up at the thought of leaving school for a sales path she told me that she thought I was doing a great job at both managing my career and “from what she could hear” being a mom. As women we often are pitted against each other in professional worlds, trying too hard to be the stand out or “the one” keeps us from the encouragement that we often need to hear and reduces our numbers at the top of the professional world. Speaking to her reminded me that I need to find an opportunity to encourage the next generation of career women.
3. Understand the tasks at hand and prioritize accordingly. She told a great story about her son struggling with a major test week at college. A smart kid (now adult), he was in an environment that was full of his equals and the work was challenging. She saw his call that came in during the night and immediately went into mom role while also keeping her “management hat” on. Her professional experience came in handy but her desire to nurture trumped all and she left work early enough to make the trip to his campus for dinner that night. While he was successful during his day, I’m positive that seeing your parents after a particularly trying week would be the perfect exclamation point (how many of us remember the pleasure of having a non-cafeteria meal on your parent’s dime during college). As a mom and goal oriented professional, prioritizing is a battle that many men don’t have to face when it comes to family, making women less competitive. I’ve always said that I’m an even stronger professional when my children are happy and I don’t feel the need to make an excuse for seeking this balance.
4. Pretty and professional aren’t exclusive–when they are well played. Texas women have a reputation for hair, makeup and glam, she fit it without being over the top, yet nothing about her said ‘mental lightweight’. This might seem superficial but when you land in a professional environment there’s always this feeling that you need to hang up your stilettos to be taken seriously. Women are just as responsible for this stereotype as men, I loved that her appearance-while conservative-was a part of her package and she wasn’t playing it down for the sake of living the old school ideal of corporate women.
5. Don’t let your girl power mentality shut you out of the boys club. While in a leadership position at another school she was offered an Administrative role working with a Superintendent or district leader. Some of us would be short sighted and turn our noses up at the title or perception of being a ‘servant to the leader’ as opposed to the leader, she saw the opportunity. Her move sounded to me like the difference between being the Superintendent and leading a whole school district or going to the white house and working as the Administrative Support to the Secretary of Education–I’m packing and moving to DC! She had a great role but the one that she took while not an obvious move up the ladder was the perfect set up for her current role, giving her visibility and input at another level. As women looking for a power move we often miss the more subtle way to get that power because we get tangled up with titles (at a certain point in your career the title won’t matter).
Out of respect for her position and our conversation, I won’t include her name but I will clearly say that these were only a few of the lessons that were reinforced by her. I’m wishing her the best as she continues while taking our encounter on my journey to the next level. Stay tuned for “Flight Schooled…Journey Two” where you’ll meet an interesting young woman who entered into an arranged marriage while attending optometry school!