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Safety 2019: Challenging Assumptions

The first female member of the elite U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds spoke to Safety 2019 attendees at the opening session.

Although Nicole Malachowski is not a safety professional, risk was at the forefront of her duties as the first female member of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.

Malachowski opened for the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP)'s Safety 2019 conference in New Orleans.

"As taxpayers, you trained me to be a fighter pilot, but paid me to be a risk mitigator," she emphatically told the audience.

Malachowski connected her experience to explain to attendees why labeling others and making assumptions only breeds subpar performance, and looking beyond the surface is necessary to building a world-class safety culture.

Querying Expectations

To establish safety excellence at an organization, Malachowski first told the audience about the importance of listen to each and every person on the team.

"At first glance we assume things about people," she said. "Elite teams are going to go above the things they initially think and feel."

When people look down at one another, they make assumptions on who they are and what they do. This, Malachowski said, can only limit a person's potential.

Malachowski told attendees about the obstacles she faced early in her career. Some Air Force colleagues challenged her goal of becoming a Thunderbird pilot, telling her that just because she was a woman and the U.S. Air Force never had a female pilot, that it was impossible for her to become one.

"'It's too big of a dream. It's gnarly,' they said. Other people become fighter pilots not you,'" she recalled. "'You know it's hard Nicole. They never had a female pilot before. You won't get picked.'"

Pretty soon, she was echoing those same sentiments, lowering Malachowski's self esteem. When she asked her superiors for recommendations, staff members told her that they were not sure commanding officers would want to waste a recommendation on her.

"I became ashamed and embarrassed, " she explained. "I almost let others' expectations of me dictate what I wanted to do."

However, Malachowski was determined to compete for the opportunity and to buck the status quo. She wanted her Thunderbird wings.

One day, in a conversation with General Mark Matthews, Malachowski had a breakthrough. He told her, "Nobody wants to live a scripted life."

Those words were the catalyst to push Malachowski forward. Pretty soon, she broke through the tape and worked her way to becoming the first female member of the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. Through changing her thinking and pushing aside the naysayers, she was able to accomplish her goal.

"It's human nature. We're always trying to grow and to do bigger things," she told attendees. "Don't ever write yourself out of the script. How do you decide when to take those naysayers and try to bring them to your side and when to decide to cut them off and let it go?"

She continued, "If you know who you are, what you do and value makes it easier to compartmentalize the naysayers. At the end of the day, safety professionals have a responsibility to keep others safe. Workers' lives are in your hands.... What you do is a good and noble thing. Remember during stressful times why you do what you do. Nothing of significance is ever accomplished alone."

Maximizing Insight and Harnessing Vulnerability

Working with a team that supports the mission and works for one common goal is crucial to maximizing insight.

Every member has a special task, strengths and weaknesses that contribute and move the entire team forward. A safety professional has to actively accept and show gratitude for others' expertise. This leads to trustworthiness across the board.

"Your teammates take as much time doing their jobs as you do," Malachowski said. "Sometimes you think you can do better, but you have to see someone for their expertise. It's about the importance of acknowledging the role of everyone on the team. Mutual respect leads to safety excellence."

Malachowski drew parallels to the Wingman Contract of the Air Force –– an unspoken understanding that acknowledges the common goals and performance standards necessary to ensure unique missions are completed to the highest standards out of shared commitment to the team.

Part of this unspoken contract is creating an environment of vulnerability.

"At the end of the day, we're all doing the right thing out of caring," she said. "What kind of teammate are you? What kind of culture are you creating where people are comfortable asking for help?"

If a safety professional focuses on holding themselves just as accountable as the workers they protect, the level of trust to performance will go up exponentially. Safety leaders must provide an protect an open value for feedback.

This led Malachowski to her greatest accomplishment of her career: Steel Sharpens Steel, an initiative she created to harness vulnerability among her team members and to collectively learn from mistakes.

Malachowski came up with the idea shortly after becoming a new commanding leader of the U.S. Air Force. Two of her lead pilots make what she called a "junior varsity" mistake, flying through a wildlife refuge full of geese and other animals. 

Instead of demoting those team members, Malachowski ordered them to stand in front of their peers and explain the unsafe behavior. Admitting the mistake, she said, was more difficult than outright punishment. Being vulnerable in front of a group allowed Malachowski to use the mistake as a lesson to prevent the same incident from happening again. The Steel Sharpens Steel concept now is used through the entire U.S. Air Force.

"As leaders, it's about holding everyone to the same exact standard," she said. "This is where excellence comes from."


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