Summary

While experience can create great leaders, not all great leaders have decades of experience.  So how do you handle being promoted to a leadership position when you are decades younger than your peers?  In this podcast, Fiona and Emily discuss some of the hurdles young leaders face, how to overcome perceptions that you are not experienced to lead, and ways to keep going when faced with challenging situations.

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Welcome to another episode of Leading Ladies Of… Aerospace. Today, I am really, really excited to introduce to you Emily Wittman, President and CEO of Aerospace Futures Alliance. Emily has been described by industry peers as an experienced coalition builder, and an economic engine. My experience with Emily is that she’s a powerhouse of integrity and thoughtfulness, and she’s been a real supporter to me. I’ve really appreciated her friendship as a peer in the industry. Prior to her current role, she has worked for Senator Maria Cantwell, the Puget Sound Regional Council and Greater Seattle Partners. I decided to call Emily’s session today ‘Top 30 under 30.’ Emily is a young female leader and a fabulous one at that. And so today she’s going to talk to us about thriving as a young leader in aerospace. Welcome Emily.

Thank you, Fiona. It’s good to be here.

I’m so excited to have you.

Thank you.

 

So is there anything that you want to share with our audience, Emily, that I didn’t say in your introduction?

I suppose going in the way back, just mentioning that I am a Washingtonian born and raised. So I grew up in Maple Valley, which is most famously known as being the city next to Kent and Covington. When I try to tell people exactly where, it is about 45 minutes from Seattle. I went to the University of Washington and then promptly moved to Seattle. So I am a hometown girl, essentially. I never quite got away from our beautiful state, which I’m very happy about.

Yeah. And I’m also glad to see that you don’t seem to be part of the Seattle freeze – for those of you out of state, when you move to Seattle, there’s a phenomenon known as the ‘Seattle Freeze’ to outsiders, with the locals not being too friendly. But I have to say Emily is most friendly!

Thank you, Fiona. I think we’re still trying to get a touch of that Southern hospitality. We don’t quite hug at this day and age but hugging with your eyes or smiling with your eyes is definitely what I was taught.

 

Emily, I am so glad that you are here with us today. One of the things that I’ve always been observing with you is just how different you look to some of the people around you in aerospace and how you feel us in the face of that. So if you’re okay with it, could we start today by talking about what your experience has been since, since transitioning into your current role?

Yeah, so I think my LinkedIn page technically puts me at 11 months now, maybe 10-11 months in this job. It both feels like 10 years and 10 days.  Right at the beginning – I mean, there’s a real difference between my experience in 2019 and in 2020 – not just because we’re moving to a new platform and we’re not able to be with one another.  But in I had the summit back in October, I had to plan that and execute it within six weeks. And that was really a debut, much more than any press release or article was. But as a debut for people to see my quality of work and the way that I like to structure conversations and bring people together and build community.

A very public debut may I add, as the summit is attended by hundreds of local aerospace companies. So what a way to be introduced to the community!

Absolutely. And there are so many aerospace companies where…I think we have more than 600 direct aerospace employers and 1400 plus suppliers. And so, while I had been involved in aerospace business recruitment and economic development in the past, I hadn’t had that handshake or put a face to the name with every single one of them.  So I was meeting or cold calling quite a few of our aerospace partners saying, ‘Hey, are you involved in our summit? And by the way, I’m the new CEO and I will see you there.’ So I would say it was a great experience. It’s definitely been interesting to see who has reached out and become part of that inner circle of support now that we all transitioned to resilience and recovery during this post COVID, hopefully post COVID, time. The folks who have reached out to partner and become collaborative with AFA… it has been really rewarding and what we’re able to do with our mutual members and for our constituents in Washington.

 

Fantastic. Fantastic. So we’re looking today at sharing experiences as a young leader. What kind of obstacles have you faced in your early days in the role?

Time.  I will say, even in interviewing for this job, the other candidates, just by the nature of things were decades sometimes into their career and they have to a resume update and take a couple of pages off every time. And my resume firmly fits on one page, at least up until this point. And I’ve had great experiences and done quite a bit in those different job opportunities, but still, I just didn’t have as much time under my belt as, as other applicants and other folks in that talent pool. And what has been the biggest obstacle is proving that I’m a quick learner and when I don’t know something I admit it, and I bring in and try to find the expert, both in a qualitative and quantitative way. There are so many great theorists we’ve had in our community, who’ve either retired from those positions and have that expertise, or who are actively challenged by the same issues of running a board, or running a nonprofit, during this time that I can lean on and learn from. And you’ve been a great asset and being able to ask questions of, ‘Hey, I feel like I’m trying to bib whack through the brush here and try to figure out a new path, and I think you’ve probably already done this, so give me the tip.; So that has been the blessing in all of this.  But the biggest obstacle is definitely, ‘Man, I haven’t seen her around for 10 plus years. Therefore, what is she bringing to the table?’

 

Yeah. Well, first of all, thank you for the compliment – and to our audience that wasn’t planned! I used to do a role similar to Emily, so I’ve proactively tried to support Emily and that support has gone both ways. So there’s definitely a mutual respect there. And I’d say when I first met you, I was like, ‘Oh, well, she’s from outside and she’s younger. What does she have to offer?’ And I suspect or assume that I’m probably not the only one, I suspect that you’ve had both males and females think about, ‘What does she bring?’ And so how do you approach people when you sense that initially?

First, I think – I falsely think – I’m very, very funny. And so I try to break the ice early and ignore like…

You are funny!

I didn’t break the window behind you, just break the ice and conversation! But I try to acknowledge it early and bring myself in on the joke almost right away. So for example, I joke that I don’t have a technical background in aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering systems engineering. I joke that the only science I know is political, but that’s also my job. And that’s the team member that I can play within this.  the technical side and how to build the airplane, and build the rocket, and build the component and design, the next best thing.  I’m the one who gets to translate that for you into reminding our community why it’s important that we continue to foster and support aerospace companies and business and inspire that next generation of talent. So I think once I assert that that’s my role and how it is very valuable, they understand it. You didn’t necessarily have to come up starting as a CNC programmer in order to be able to talk to our legislators about issues that are important. I love to push those people in front of legislators before me, but I’m the person who was able to facilitate that conversation and make sure that we build that community, especially as we’re advocating for our companies and our communities.

 

Beautiful, beautiful. So I’m hearing that humility and a humor is a big part of your approach to business. And I think that now is a good moment for a quick Segway into a story, which is rather embarrassing for me. So early on, when I was getting to know Emily, we were actually at an event, and she came over and I was introducing her to a colleague of mine. And I happened to be eating at the buffet at that point in time. And I happened to send a particle of food in Emily’s direction. I was so embarrassed, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have just spat food at the President and CEO of AFA. What is she going to think of me?’ And I remember you just laughed, and you put me at ease.

And I said something like, ‘If it wasn’t going to be you, it was going to be me!’

And it, it just made me feel like ‘, I’m comfortable around this amazing woman.’ So I think that humor is, is definitely a huge, huge skill of yours. And in my own experience – I was a manager at 27 and directorate 29 – and sometimes it can be really hard when you’re out there and you are different, it’s very easy to have a chip on your shoulder, that’s weighing you down and be like, ‘Ah, the odds are against me.’ But I find that bringing in humor and just understanding human nature can make a huge difference.

Yeah, It’s also balanced with showing your cards and really showing that you are improving yourself in very quick, but important and meaningful ways. And what I mean by that is whenever I walked into a room, especially early in my career, when I was 22, 23, working as a full-time staffer for a United States Senator, I was in her Seattle office. And I would take meetings with constituent groups. I did her federal grant funding, so very similar to the work we’re doing right now, advocating for communities for economic recovery. I used to do competitive grant funding for the Senator, so community would have a great idea for a job, a program, or I was very into freight and movement of products, which is definitely part of my aerospace knowledge and my first introduction to aerospace. And so I would work with communities, but they would come in and they would assume either that I was the front desk assistant, which I was for a year and a half, and it was, it was bootcamp. I was on the front lines, listening to every issue provided by our constituents who had a meaningful and passionate reason for calling, even if I didn’t personally agree with it. So you just got very good at connecting with people very quickly. But they would either assume that I was the front desk assistant, which says more about them than it does about me, or they would assume I was the intern. And so their demeanor towards me changed when they learned that I was actually the person taking the meeting on behalf of the Senator, rather than the person who’s escorting them back and getting them a glass of water, which are important roles to play. But again, more said about them. And so in those conversations, put them at ease, yes, humor, but also showing that I had a really firm grasp of what we were talking about, and being able to dive past platitudes and generalities and into the weeds of an issue. So we’re actually able to talk specifics and then come out of it with a set plan. I wouldn’t say it was able to help everyone all the time. But at least you were able to place the next puzzle piece down for them. Or you were able to, to run with it and come up with a plan together.  But really studying and taking the time to do research and understanding exactly what you think your opinion or think your perspective on the issue at hand is, and then inviting them into that conversation and getting deep enough in the weeds that you can change your perspective or learn more, add to your understanding of it and be able to help them, or have them help you.

 

Very much a learning mindset bringing to each and every conversation.

Yeah. Yeah. And sometimes you throw, you throw down that card and they go, oh, I’m surprised that, that’s just a niche issue that I’m really passionate about, but now we can really talk about it because we’re taking it down from the 30,000 level where I’m explaining to you the basics of this issue that this person has been studying or working on for their whole career. And now you can find exactly how you can partner together, not solve the whole problem for them, not solve the entire puzzle for them, which I think as women in particular, we take on because we’re helping, we like to be helpers and see a quality product produced. And it’s hard sometimes to add to the product and then wish it off and, and hope that it flies there, and at the end to see it really blossom in completion.

 

Fantastic. So I love what you said about, about not, not always taken on the version of solving for all this and what, what tips would you, would you give to the women out there that have a tendency to want to protect other people and make sure that everybody’s challenges are addressed?

I got a quote – the great Brene Brown. I don’t think you have a conversation about what it’s like to be a female leader without bringing in the great Brene Brown. But she talks about the marble jar and the anatomy of trust. And I think that we give so much of our time and energy and passion that we want to help and run with an entire project and be a partner. But we ended up giving far more than we are getting and the energy dedicated is imbalanced.  It’s, I think, an easy first step is to give them a test, give them a task at the outset. And if they were right on and return on the task, and provide the quality and the work, or help. Most of it is just if they took the time to do it and return it in a timely manner, then you can consider really putting in a hundred percent of your energy, knowing that this is something you can really collaborate on rather than, ‘Oh, you’ve come to me with this great idea. I really want to run with it.’ And now I’m the one running with it and you’re looking back saying, oh yeah, I gave her that idea.

Yeah. And I really love what you’re saying, because what I’m hearing is when somebody brings a challenge to you is, okay, how can we solve this as a partner rather than how can I solve this for you? It’s not being the hero. It’s being the collaborator, being the partner. And I think I absolutely love what you said about the little test, how much commitment are other people bring into the table. I know that I can certainly take a lot from that.

 

And I love, you made the transition in the conversation there to energy.  Because so far in this conversation, we’ve talked about, how you do deal with some of that negativity or judgment that you might come across. But at the end of the day, you’re human. And I imagine sometimes you’re having a rough day and there’s, there’s a lot of people that have come along and judged you or treated you a certain way. It can weigh heavy on the heart, at least it does on mine. And so what are some of the tips for how you refill your cup when you experience that?

First, give yourself a break. I think the – and it’s probably Brene Brown again – I’m sure it said a million times one a million posters, treat your inner monologue to treat you in the same way that you treat your friends. If you wouldn’t give that encouragement or say that to your best friend, then you shouldn’t be saying it to yourself over and over again. I think that as somebody who naturally deals with anxiety, I’m probably doing about 20% better than I’m giving myself credit for doing. Sometimes that might be, 20% better. Anyways, my worst is maybe better than someone else’s best.  Again, the passion and the energy that you have to the task at hand and vice versa, don’t give your, don’t feel like you have to be completely passionate and dedicated and in love with every single task that you do.  Sometimes a task is just a task. And you just got to get it done.

Giving yourself permission, not to be perfect, giving yourself some permission to just let it go and not, not, not hold onto it.

And just evaluate what gets assigned as needing to be perfect. Right. If it’s something that needs to be perfect, make it perfect, but not everything in your day is going to merit the perfect. And then I try to find the little joys in life. It’s kind of funny, I used to get such a kick, I’d have a conversation with someone on the phone and the person who worked next to me always joked, you have two sentences when you’re off the phone. It’s either, ‘They were so nice. I just though was so great,’ or, ‘Ok that was a waste of time.’ So I find a little joy in the day. Like if that was a lovely conversation, just in that. And externally it’s like, that was really lovely.  And today I would say, it just felt frustrating and sluggish for some reason. And the joy today was I looked through most of it – a cursory glance – at most of the resumes that came in for our job fair for tomorrow. And I was trying to sort of need to know or having need to be established and value add in a conversation in my meetings. Its doing a lot of data crunching and research so I understand the narrative.  And I was pulling out everybody’s master’s degree, subject, essentially, just trying to look at it. And I was looking at, and I went, ‘Oh my gosh, we have so many really talented, interesting people in our state. How lucky are we that we have these people in our community?’ So that was today’s little joy.

 

Oh, beautiful. And for those of you listening from out of state, Emily has actually arranged a job fair for tomorrow, in the midst of COVID. Recognizing that we have some great talent in this state and connecting our local talent to the great companies that are actually hiring right now. So hats off to Emily for that.

Yeah. It’s definitely a team effort talking about folks who are collaborating and reached out. I’ve been really impressed, not only with Erin on our team, obviously, who has just been the one really driving this event and she’s done great, but also partnerships with the employment security department who receive federal money to do similar types of events. So I think we’re the first test case for aerospace, but they’re looking to do them for every industry as well.

 

And I can’t wait to see what you guys produce. So Emily, you know that on this show, we love to talk about people’s stories. Do you have a story to share with us where you’ve faced some hurdle with an unnamed individual based on your gender or your age, like a story from struggle to success that you would be okay to share with our audience?

Yeah, I mean, there’s a couple. I can’t dismiss the real experience, as a straight, white woman, I definitely have a lot of privilege, especially with the first two designations, but as a woman, I definitely have personal experiences in sexist or just overtly inappropriate behavior. And never, like I never thought, oh, it would happen to me, especially in this type of professional context, but it happens all the time. And I think we talked once about how do you impact with discussion? Do you want the blatant aggressions, or do you want like the quiet microaggressions? Obviously the blatant ones, because you can call them out and recognize them, but that takes a lot of strength to do.  I’ve always had that strength, but I think to what, because I’m here more as a young woman than, than a woman alone…the biggest frustration for me is when I lost a job opportunity, simply because that person had more time on their resume and was a partner within the community. And people knew that individual and had experience with them. And while I didn’t have as much time on my resume, the work that I had done and the way that I collaborated with people and led teams was very value add and produced results that other, weren’t either taking the risk to do or just weren’t, weren’t passionate about doing didn’t feel like it was their job. And, and it wasn’t my job either. One of my – you called me fearless earlier – and I have to give credit, the first person I ever called me for this actually was Josh Brown, the Executive Director over at Puget Sound Regional Council. When I was leaving he was like, ‘Yeah, they just need someone over there who’s fearless.’ And I didn’t think that I was fearless in this context – you’ve witnessed probably more of that since I left.  I was at a meeting with the new mid-market airplane council back when it was first called together. I remember it was down at the Gordon Thomas Honeywell offices down in Tacoma, and it was hosted by economic development, the EDB home of Pierce County. And a big room of people, kind of your typical players, I think that coalition was 40 organizations, which is huge. And they were kind of going around the room, talking about their ideas. And I remember at the time Brian Bonlender, who’s the then director of the department of commerce, he was taking notes and Chris Green, his Deputy was taking notes. And I was like, ‘It’s great, you want to see leaders taking notes, but it’s also clear that there’s no staff on the other end coordinating the whole conversation.’ I mean, it was I think Chris Green, had printed off the agendas. And I’m not sexing any of the type of tasks, it was more that as a young professional, I thought, oh my gosh, here’s the department of commerce director, very, very like almost in the weeds, like really working on things, but clearly, they needed help. And the way I categorized it was that I saw a lot of captains and no crew. But when you have a lot of captains and no crew, you need someone to be able to do a lot of the work. I’m trying not to say the captains do no work, but you need a cabin crew in order to fly that plane and they do a lot of important stuff, right?  So I wrote up a project timeline and a project template essentially, and walked into the office on alert and said, ‘I think this is what your organization can do over the next three to six months. Back then we were anticipating Boeing was going to to build a new mid-market airplane within 2017, 18, obviously that hasn’t happened. But we were able to do a lot of great work, especially on workforce development issues. And we toured the whole state. And that was all predicated on the fact that I took the risk of putting together an idea and they saw value in it. And then we were able to collaborate on that over time. And it was after that, that I was passed over for someone who had more time on their resume when I felt like I had been filling that role.  And, and I was pretty explicitly told the difference was, at least on paper, that I just didn’t have enough time.

 

Working with humor, I was like – I actually said this to my hiring committee when I was interviewing for this job with AFA – I said, ‘The elephant in the room is that I’m young. And I get that. But what comes with that is energy and a lot of ideas, and the ability to pivot,’ and also not having any predisposed judgements over this supplier or that, or this plane or that plane.  I didn’t have a VTOL OEM picked out that was my favorite based on some business relationship. ‘And the elephant in the room really is that I am young, and I promise you every day I wake up, every day I wake and I’m just trying to get older for you, every day I wake up and I’m trying to get a little bit older, but day by day, for you and they laugh at it, like that’s all you can do is.’

 

Yeah. And what I love about that is that you took the experience and not getting a job and you used it to help you get your next job. And what I’m hearing is number one, call it out. And number two be brave, number three, show them what you can do.  Everybody’s got subconscious bias and there are many examples where you do need a certain amount of experience to do a certain role. But when it comes to leadership, some of the strongest leaders I’ve seen have actually been younger than me. So I really appreciate your ability to be bold in challenging those stereotypes, because I think that with the great team between yourself and then the experienced team that are on the AFA board, I think you could create magic together. I saw the same thing at Rolls-Royce. In their sales and marketing teams, they put a lot of work into creating diversity in their teams. And so you would have these experienced people with people under 30 and they would just create these super dynamic teams. And I think that openness is what really sets some companies apart.’

 

Emily, I just want to be conscious of your time. And I’m also really conscious that this podcast is about breaking the glass ceiling. And I can’t believe I got to five, 10 minutes from the end. And I still haven’t asked you a question the glass ceiling. So Emily, in your experience, does the glass ceiling, be it in aerospace, politics, wherever, does the glass ceiling still exist?

Oh, absolutely.

How does it show up for you?

I think that’s the tough thing about the glass ceiling is that it’s clear. And so you don’t know it’s there until you run into it. And sometimes if you hit it hard enough and in the best way, it cracks on its own and you’re like, ‘Wait, I’ve got through that one.’ But there’s almost something on the other end of this, which is, yes, I’m the president and CEO of this organization, and that might sound, it almost feels like we’re in a glass house almost, or we’re in an ivory tower, or whatever, type of… pick a material and pick a structure in this metaphor. But it’s like, email me, call me. I once had someone say recently, ’Man, you’re really hard to get ahold of.’  And I was like, ‘First of all, I know four people in your office that have my phone number. Then you could turn to, my email, which is always on the bottom of all of our newsletter emails, there’s a telephone number on our website, LinkedIn messaged me, I’m vastly able to be gotten ahold of and I really want to collaborate.’ And I think, I will naturally try to run with and solve a whole problem, but I’m also very happy to try to partner and work on a piece of your issue and be the first to admit where I can’t take it a hundred percent, where I’m only going to be a conversation that maybe broaden your thinking about something. But I’m so excited to collaborate on others. And I think by exposing yourself and exposing each of your organizations, and then those partnerships, you start to decrease the likelihood of hitting a glass ceiling, because then you start to have your community vouching for yourself, so that by the time you walk into a room something that may have been an obstacle as a complete unknown it was no longer an obstacle for you.

 

Love that image of that. The first of all, I have this image of you going splat into a glass ceiling. And then I have this image of you collaborating with people and it being like the sliding doors letting you through.

Absolutely. Absolutely. Having your established aerospace industry partners be validators for you is really important. I mean, I’m not going to pretend that I don’t operate within a network, in a context. It’s just, I think you said earlier, building partnerships based on humility and being value add, and I try to be honest when I have to say no about doing something together. And that’s just because I know I don’t have any, like sometimes literal emotional energy, to make that happen. And then also the balance of is it a priority for the organization? And we are still very much in this time of churn. And that makes me very uncomfortable because I like to have processes and plans figured out and there’s a timeline and we stick to it and, it’s like, ‘Okay, great. I’ve got my timeline. Like the project is the project timeline is on paper and then it’s like so pretty.’ And then you’re like, ‘And here’s COVID and like, give me something, here’s a recession, or you pull it back in because now there’s job opportunities that you’re trying to connect people to.

You never know where those curve balls are coming from, be they related to the glass ceiling or other things.

 

So Emily, what is one piece of advice you would give to somebody graduating from college right now, wanting to enter the workforce? What’s one piece of advice you would give them the braking be taken off the glass ceiling?

I can’t think of a terribly tactful way to say it, but… you might not know everything, but neither does everyone else, whether that is the CEO or down of your organization. Be fearless and take those risks, as long as they’re within inappropriate context. But but be fearless and take risks and don’t be afraid of going for it because there’s, that necessary initiative is more bare than you think. You might be a bigger asset, your talent is a bigger asset than you even know, just because on the other end of it, it’s really easy to pick out like who the outstanding intern is, and it’s not based on what was on their resume. It was based on how they were as a, as a teammate or as a person and how they collaborated. And for me personally, it’s the initiative that someone takes. Like, I didn’t ask you to do this, but you did it and you did it really well.  You can’t do it perfectly, because for me, nobody can do something the way I would do it because only I would, I changed my mind on how I would do it three different times. Yeah, I would say be fearless, take initiative and then just be, have that humility and go, ‘I don’t know this,’ and they’ll go, ‘I don’t know what either.’ And then you can figure it out.

I love the spin that you put on that, even the CEO doesn’t know everything. I think so many people are intimidated by people in positions of power and they’re just human beings. And I see you interacting with leaders all the time. And I think that is, that is a hurdle block for men and women. It doesn’t matter who you are in the organization everyone’s a human being. And quite often it’s lonely at the top and they actually appreciate being treated like human beings.

Perception yeah. That they are untouchable. And I guarantee that they have not been, they’ve rarely received an email from a new hire saying, ‘Hey, the new hire and, I’d like to buy you coffee, can we set up half an hour? I just want to introduce myself and get to just get to know you.’ And then make those really human questions, like up to human questions, ‘What have you been your biggest frustrations? Like if you could look back and give me advice, what would you wish that you knew starting out this like, oh, I didn’t need to go to grad school or have a better work-life balance.

 

Well, Emily, I wish we had more time. I could sit here and talk to you for hours. It has been a real pleasure to get to know you a little better today. I mean, I already know you pretty well, but now I’ve got some more juice and I’m loving it and I’m sure our audience will too. And so for our audience who is listening make sure that you go to McKayUnlimited.com and check out the podcast. We’ll have show notes, so some of the things that Emily’s talked about today with Aerospace Futures Alliance and Brene Brown, it’s all going to be mentioned i6n the show notes. You’ll be able to find links to those books and those resources.

Thanks Fiona, and thanks everyone for listening, email me, LinkedIn message me, I’d love to get to know you as well in the post—COVID world.

Welcome to another episode of Leading Ladies Of… Aerospace. Today, I am really, really excited to introduce to you Emily Wittman, President and CEO of Aerospace Futures Alliance. Emily has been described by industry peers as an experienced coalition builder, and an economic engine. My experience with Emily is that she’s a powerhouse of integrity and thoughtfulness, and she’s been a real supporter to me. I’ve really appreciated her friendship as a peer in the industry. Prior to her current role, she has worked for Senator Maria Cantwell, the Puget Sound Regional Council and Greater Seattle Partners. I decided to call Emily’s session today ‘Top 30 under 30.’ Emily is a young female leader and a fabulous one at that. And so today she’s going to talk to us about thriving as a young leader in aerospace. Welcome Emily.

Thank you, Fiona. It’s good to be here.

I’m so excited to have you.

Thank you.

 

So is there anything that you want to share with our audience, Emily, that I didn’t say in your introduction?

I suppose going in the way back, just mentioning that I am a Washingtonian born and raised. So I grew up in Maple Valley, which is most famously known as being the city next to Kent and Covington. When I try to tell people exactly where, it is about 45 minutes from Seattle. I went to the University of Washington and then promptly moved to Seattle. So I am a hometown girl, essentially. I never quite got away from our beautiful state, which I’m very happy about.

Yeah. And I’m also glad to see that you don’t seem to be part of the Seattle freeze – for those of you out of state, when you move to Seattle, there’s a phenomenon known as the ‘Seattle Freeze’ to outsiders, with the locals not being too friendly. But I have to say Emily is most friendly!

Thank you, Fiona. I think we’re still trying to get a touch of that Southern hospitality. We don’t quite hug at this day and age but hugging with your eyes or smiling with your eyes is definitely what I was taught.

 

Emily, I am so glad that you are here with us today. One of the things that I’ve always been observing with you is just how different you look to some of the people around you in aerospace and how you feel us in the face of that. So if you’re okay with it, could we start today by talking about what your experience has been since, since transitioning into your current role?

Yeah, so I think my LinkedIn page technically puts me at 11 months now, maybe 10-11 months in this job. It both feels like 10 years and 10 days.  Right at the beginning – I mean, there’s a real difference between my experience in 2019 and in 2020 – not just because we’re moving to a new platform and we’re not able to be with one another.  But in I had the summit back in October, I had to plan that and execute it within six weeks. And that was really a debut, much more than any press release or article was. But as a debut for people to see my quality of work and the way that I like to structure conversations and bring people together and build community.

A very public debut may I add, as the summit is attended by hundreds of local aerospace companies. So what a way to be introduced to the community!

Absolutely. And there are so many aerospace companies where…I think we have more than 600 direct aerospace employers and 1400 plus suppliers. And so, while I had been involved in aerospace business recruitment and economic development in the past, I hadn’t had that handshake or put a face to the name with every single one of them.  So I was meeting or cold calling quite a few of our aerospace partners saying, ‘Hey, are you involved in our summit? And by the way, I’m the new CEO and I will see you there.’ So I would say it was a great experience. It’s definitely been interesting to see who has reached out and become part of that inner circle of support now that we all transitioned to resilience and recovery during this post COVID, hopefully post COVID, time. The folks who have reached out to partner and become collaborative with AFA… it has been really rewarding and what we’re able to do with our mutual members and for our constituents in Washington.

 

Fantastic. Fantastic. So we’re looking today at sharing experiences as a young leader. What kind of obstacles have you faced in your early days in the role?

Time.  I will say, even in interviewing for this job, the other candidates, just by the nature of things were decades sometimes into their career and they have to a resume update and take a couple of pages off every time. And my resume firmly fits on one page, at least up until this point. And I’ve had great experiences and done quite a bit in those different job opportunities, but still, I just didn’t have as much time under my belt as, as other applicants and other folks in that talent pool. And what has been the biggest obstacle is proving that I’m a quick learner and when I don’t know something I admit it, and I bring in and try to find the expert, both in a qualitative and quantitative way. There are so many great theorists we’ve had in our community, who’ve either retired from those positions and have that expertise, or who are actively challenged by the same issues of running a board, or running a nonprofit, during this time that I can lean on and learn from. And you’ve been a great asset and being able to ask questions of, ‘Hey, I feel like I’m trying to bib whack through the brush here and try to figure out a new path, and I think you’ve probably already done this, so give me the tip.; So that has been the blessing in all of this.  But the biggest obstacle is definitely, ‘Man, I haven’t seen her around for 10 plus years. Therefore, what is she bringing to the table?’

 

Yeah. Well, first of all, thank you for the compliment – and to our audience that wasn’t planned! I used to do a role similar to Emily, so I’ve proactively tried to support Emily and that support has gone both ways. So there’s definitely a mutual respect there. And I’d say when I first met you, I was like, ‘Oh, well, she’s from outside and she’s younger. What does she have to offer?’ And I suspect or assume that I’m probably not the only one, I suspect that you’ve had both males and females think about, ‘What does she bring?’ And so how do you approach people when you sense that initially?

First, I think – I falsely think – I’m very, very funny. And so I try to break the ice early and ignore like…

You are funny!

I didn’t break the window behind you, just break the ice and conversation! But I try to acknowledge it early and bring myself in on the joke almost right away. So for example, I joke that I don’t have a technical background in aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering systems engineering. I joke that the only science I know is political, but that’s also my job. And that’s the team member that I can play within this.  the technical side and how to build the airplane, and build the rocket, and build the component and design, the next best thing.  I’m the one who gets to translate that for you into reminding our community why it’s important that we continue to foster and support aerospace companies and business and inspire that next generation of talent. So I think once I assert that that’s my role and how it is very valuable, they understand it. You didn’t necessarily have to come up starting as a CNC programmer in order to be able to talk to our legislators about issues that are important. I love to push those people in front of legislators before me, but I’m the person who was able to facilitate that conversation and make sure that we build that community, especially as we’re advocating for our companies and our communities.

 

Beautiful, beautiful. So I’m hearing that humility and a humor is a big part of your approach to business. And I think that now is a good moment for a quick Segway into a story, which is rather embarrassing for me. So early on, when I was getting to know Emily, we were actually at an event, and she came over and I was introducing her to a colleague of mine. And I happened to be eating at the buffet at that point in time. And I happened to send a particle of food in Emily’s direction. I was so embarrassed, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have just spat food at the President and CEO of AFA. What is she going to think of me?’ And I remember you just laughed, and you put me at ease.

And I said something like, ‘If it wasn’t going to be you, it was going to be me!’

And it, it just made me feel like ‘, I’m comfortable around this amazing woman.’ So I think that humor is, is definitely a huge, huge skill of yours. And in my own experience – I was a manager at 27 and directorate 29 – and sometimes it can be really hard when you’re out there and you are different, it’s very easy to have a chip on your shoulder, that’s weighing you down and be like, ‘Ah, the odds are against me.’ But I find that bringing in humor and just understanding human nature can make a huge difference.

Yeah, It’s also balanced with showing your cards and really showing that you are improving yourself in very quick, but important and meaningful ways. And what I mean by that is whenever I walked into a room, especially early in my career, when I was 22, 23, working as a full-time staffer for a United States Senator, I was in her Seattle office. And I would take meetings with constituent groups. I did her federal grant funding, so very similar to the work we’re doing right now, advocating for communities for economic recovery. I used to do competitive grant funding for the Senator, so community would have a great idea for a job, a program, or I was very into freight and movement of products, which is definitely part of my aerospace knowledge and my first introduction to aerospace. And so I would work with communities, but they would come in and they would assume either that I was the front desk assistant, which I was for a year and a half, and it was, it was bootcamp. I was on the front lines, listening to every issue provided by our constituents who had a meaningful and passionate reason for calling, even if I didn’t personally agree with it. So you just got very good at connecting with people very quickly. But they would either assume that I was the front desk assistant, which says more about them than it does about me, or they would assume I was the intern. And so their demeanor towards me changed when they learned that I was actually the person taking the meeting on behalf of the Senator, rather than the person who’s escorting them back and getting them a glass of water, which are important roles to play. But again, more said about them. And so in those conversations, put them at ease, yes, humor, but also showing that I had a really firm grasp of what we were talking about, and being able to dive past platitudes and generalities and into the weeds of an issue. So we’re actually able to talk specifics and then come out of it with a set plan. I wouldn’t say it was able to help everyone all the time. But at least you were able to place the next puzzle piece down for them. Or you were able to, to run with it and come up with a plan together.  But really studying and taking the time to do research and understanding exactly what you think your opinion or think your perspective on the issue at hand is, and then inviting them into that conversation and getting deep enough in the weeds that you can change your perspective or learn more, add to your understanding of it and be able to help them, or have them help you.

 

Very much a learning mindset bringing to each and every conversation.

Yeah. Yeah. And sometimes you throw, you throw down that card and they go, oh, I’m surprised that, that’s just a niche issue that I’m really passionate about, but now we can really talk about it because we’re taking it down from the 30,000 level where I’m explaining to you the basics of this issue that this person has been studying or working on for their whole career. And now you can find exactly how you can partner together, not solve the whole problem for them, not solve the entire puzzle for them, which I think as women in particular, we take on because we’re helping, we like to be helpers and see a quality product produced. And it’s hard sometimes to add to the product and then wish it off and, and hope that it flies there, and at the end to see it really blossom in completion.

 

Fantastic. So I love what you said about, about not, not always taken on the version of solving for all this and what, what tips would you, would you give to the women out there that have a tendency to want to protect other people and make sure that everybody’s challenges are addressed?

I got a quote – the great Brene Brown. I don’t think you have a conversation about what it’s like to be a female leader without bringing in the great Brene Brown. But she talks about the marble jar and the anatomy of trust. And I think that we give so much of our time and energy and passion that we want to help and run with an entire project and be a partner. But we ended up giving far more than we are getting and the energy dedicated is imbalanced.  It’s, I think, an easy first step is to give them a test, give them a task at the outset. And if they were right on and return on the task, and provide the quality and the work, or help. Most of it is just if they took the time to do it and return it in a timely manner, then you can consider really putting in a hundred percent of your energy, knowing that this is something you can really collaborate on rather than, ‘Oh, you’ve come to me with this great idea. I really want to run with it.’ And now I’m the one running with it and you’re looking back saying, oh yeah, I gave her that idea.

Yeah. And I really love what you’re saying, because what I’m hearing is when somebody brings a challenge to you is, okay, how can we solve this as a partner rather than how can I solve this for you? It’s not being the hero. It’s being the collaborator, being the partner. And I think I absolutely love what you said about the little test, how much commitment are other people bring into the table. I know that I can certainly take a lot from that.

 

And I love, you made the transition in the conversation there to energy.  Because so far in this conversation, we’ve talked about, how you do deal with some of that negativity or judgment that you might come across. But at the end of the day, you’re human. And I imagine sometimes you’re having a rough day and there’s, there’s a lot of people that have come along and judged you or treated you a certain way. It can weigh heavy on the heart, at least it does on mine. And so what are some of the tips for how you refill your cup when you experience that?

First, give yourself a break. I think the – and it’s probably Brene Brown again – I’m sure it said a million times one a million posters, treat your inner monologue to treat you in the same way that you treat your friends. If you wouldn’t give that encouragement or say that to your best friend, then you shouldn’t be saying it to yourself over and over again. I think that as somebody who naturally deals with anxiety, I’m probably doing about 20% better than I’m giving myself credit for doing. Sometimes that might be, 20% better. Anyways, my worst is maybe better than someone else’s best.  Again, the passion and the energy that you have to the task at hand and vice versa, don’t give your, don’t feel like you have to be completely passionate and dedicated and in love with every single task that you do.  Sometimes a task is just a task. And you just got to get it done.

Giving yourself permission, not to be perfect, giving yourself some permission to just let it go and not, not, not hold onto it.

And just evaluate what gets assigned as needing to be perfect. Right. If it’s something that needs to be perfect, make it perfect, but not everything in your day is going to merit the perfect. And then I try to find the little joys in life. It’s kind of funny, I used to get such a kick, I’d have a conversation with someone on the phone and the person who worked next to me always joked, you have two sentences when you’re off the phone. It’s either, ‘They were so nice. I just though was so great,’ or, ‘Ok that was a waste of time.’ So I find a little joy in the day. Like if that was a lovely conversation, just in that. And externally it’s like, that was really lovely.  And today I would say, it just felt frustrating and sluggish for some reason. And the joy today was I looked through most of it – a cursory glance – at most of the resumes that came in for our job fair for tomorrow. And I was trying to sort of need to know or having need to be established and value add in a conversation in my meetings. Its doing a lot of data crunching and research so I understand the narrative.  And I was pulling out everybody’s master’s degree, subject, essentially, just trying to look at it. And I was looking at, and I went, ‘Oh my gosh, we have so many really talented, interesting people in our state. How lucky are we that we have these people in our community?’ So that was today’s little joy.

 

Oh, beautiful. And for those of you listening from out of state, Emily has actually arranged a job fair for tomorrow, in the midst of COVID. Recognizing that we have some great talent in this state and connecting our local talent to the great companies that are actually hiring right now. So hats off to Emily for that.

Yeah. It’s definitely a team effort talking about folks who are collaborating and reached out. I’ve been really impressed, not only with Erin on our team, obviously, who has just been the one really driving this event and she’s done great, but also partnerships with the employment security department who receive federal money to do similar types of events. So I think we’re the first test case for aerospace, but they’re looking to do them for every industry as well.

 

And I can’t wait to see what you guys produce. So Emily, you know that on this show, we love to talk about people’s stories. Do you have a story to share with us where you’ve faced some hurdle with an unnamed individual based on your gender or your age, like a story from struggle to success that you would be okay to share with our audience?

Yeah, I mean, there’s a couple. I can’t dismiss the real experience, as a straight, white woman, I definitely have a lot of privilege, especially with the first two designations, but as a woman, I definitely have personal experiences in sexist or just overtly inappropriate behavior. And never, like I never thought, oh, it would happen to me, especially in this type of professional context, but it happens all the time. And I think we talked once about how do you impact with discussion? Do you want the blatant aggressions, or do you want like the quiet microaggressions? Obviously the blatant ones, because you can call them out and recognize them, but that takes a lot of strength to do.  I’ve always had that strength, but I think to what, because I’m here more as a young woman than, than a woman alone…the biggest frustration for me is when I lost a job opportunity, simply because that person had more time on their resume and was a partner within the community. And people knew that individual and had experience with them. And while I didn’t have as much time on my resume, the work that I had done and the way that I collaborated with people and led teams was very value add and produced results that other, weren’t either taking the risk to do or just weren’t, weren’t passionate about doing didn’t feel like it was their job. And, and it wasn’t my job either. One of my – you called me fearless earlier – and I have to give credit, the first person I ever called me for this actually was Josh Brown, the Executive Director over at Puget Sound Regional Council. When I was leaving he was like, ‘Yeah, they just need someone over there who’s fearless.’ And I didn’t think that I was fearless in this context – you’ve witnessed probably more of that since I left.  I was at a meeting with the new mid-market airplane council back when it was first called together. I remember it was down at the Gordon Thomas Honeywell offices down in Tacoma, and it was hosted by economic development, the EDB home of Pierce County. And a big room of people, kind of your typical players, I think that coalition was 40 organizations, which is huge. And they were kind of going around the room, talking about their ideas. And I remember at the time Brian Bonlender, who’s the then director of the department of commerce, he was taking notes and Chris Green, his Deputy was taking notes. And I was like, ‘It’s great, you want to see leaders taking notes, but it’s also clear that there’s no staff on the other end coordinating the whole conversation.’ I mean, it was I think Chris Green, had printed off the agendas. And I’m not sexing any of the type of tasks, it was more that as a young professional, I thought, oh my gosh, here’s the department of commerce director, very, very like almost in the weeds, like really working on things, but clearly, they needed help. And the way I categorized it was that I saw a lot of captains and no crew. But when you have a lot of captains and no crew, you need someone to be able to do a lot of the work. I’m trying not to say the captains do no work, but you need a cabin crew in order to fly that plane and they do a lot of important stuff, right?  So I wrote up a project timeline and a project template essentially, and walked into the office on alert and said, ‘I think this is what your organization can do over the next three to six months. Back then we were anticipating Boeing was going to to build a new mid-market airplane within 2017, 18, obviously that hasn’t happened. But we were able to do a lot of great work, especially on workforce development issues. And we toured the whole state. And that was all predicated on the fact that I took the risk of putting together an idea and they saw value in it. And then we were able to collaborate on that over time. And it was after that, that I was passed over for someone who had more time on their resume when I felt like I had been filling that role.  And, and I was pretty explicitly told the difference was, at least on paper, that I just didn’t have enough time.

 

Working with humor, I was like – I actually said this to my hiring committee when I was interviewing for this job with AFA – I said, ‘The elephant in the room is that I’m young. And I get that. But what comes with that is energy and a lot of ideas, and the ability to pivot,’ and also not having any predisposed judgements over this supplier or that, or this plane or that plane.  I didn’t have a VTOL OEM picked out that was my favorite based on some business relationship. ‘And the elephant in the room really is that I am young, and I promise you every day I wake up, every day I wake and I’m just trying to get older for you, every day I wake up and I’m trying to get a little bit older, but day by day, for you and they laugh at it, like that’s all you can do is.’

 

Yeah. And what I love about that is that you took the experience and not getting a job and you used it to help you get your next job. And what I’m hearing is number one, call it out. And number two be brave, number three, show them what you can do.  Everybody’s got subconscious bias and there are many examples where you do need a certain amount of experience to do a certain role. But when it comes to leadership, some of the strongest leaders I’ve seen have actually been younger than me. So I really appreciate your ability to be bold in challenging those stereotypes, because I think that with the great team between yourself and then the experienced team that are on the AFA board, I think you could create magic together. I saw the same thing at Rolls-Royce. In their sales and marketing teams, they put a lot of work into creating diversity in their teams. And so you would have these experienced people with people under 30 and they would just create these super dynamic teams. And I think that openness is what really sets some companies apart.’

 

Emily, I just want to be conscious of your time. And I’m also really conscious that this podcast is about breaking the glass ceiling. And I can’t believe I got to five, 10 minutes from the end. And I still haven’t asked you a question the glass ceiling. So Emily, in your experience, does the glass ceiling, be it in aerospace, politics, wherever, does the glass ceiling still exist?

Oh, absolutely.

How does it show up for you?

I think that’s the tough thing about the glass ceiling is that it’s clear. And so you don’t know it’s there until you run into it. And sometimes if you hit it hard enough and in the best way, it cracks on its own and you’re like, ‘Wait, I’ve got through that one.’ But there’s almost something on the other end of this, which is, yes, I’m the president and CEO of this organization, and that might sound, it almost feels like we’re in a glass house almost, or we’re in an ivory tower, or whatever, type of… pick a material and pick a structure in this metaphor. But it’s like, email me, call me. I once had someone say recently, ’Man, you’re really hard to get ahold of.’  And I was like, ‘First of all, I know four people in your office that have my phone number. Then you could turn to, my email, which is always on the bottom of all of our newsletter emails, there’s a telephone number on our website, LinkedIn messaged me, I’m vastly able to be gotten ahold of and I really want to collaborate.’ And I think, I will naturally try to run with and solve a whole problem, but I’m also very happy to try to partner and work on a piece of your issue and be the first to admit where I can’t take it a hundred percent, where I’m only going to be a conversation that maybe broaden your thinking about something. But I’m so excited to collaborate on others. And I think by exposing yourself and exposing each of your organizations, and then those partnerships, you start to decrease the likelihood of hitting a glass ceiling, because then you start to have your community vouching for yourself, so that by the time you walk into a room something that may have been an obstacle as a complete unknown it was no longer an obstacle for you.

 

Love that image of that. The first of all, I have this image of you going splat into a glass ceiling. And then I have this image of you collaborating with people and it being like the sliding doors letting you through.

Absolutely. Absolutely. Having your established aerospace industry partners be validators for you is really important. I mean, I’m not going to pretend that I don’t operate within a network, in a context. It’s just, I think you said earlier, building partnerships based on humility and being value add, and I try to be honest when I have to say no about doing something together. And that’s just because I know I don’t have any, like sometimes literal emotional energy, to make that happen. And then also the balance of is it a priority for the organization? And we are still very much in this time of churn. And that makes me very uncomfortable because I like to have processes and plans figured out and there’s a timeline and we stick to it and, it’s like, ‘Okay, great. I’ve got my timeline. Like the project is the project timeline is on paper and then it’s like so pretty.’ And then you’re like, ‘And here’s COVID and like, give me something, here’s a recession, or you pull it back in because now there’s job opportunities that you’re trying to connect people to.

You never know where those curve balls are coming from, be they related to the glass ceiling or other things.

 

So Emily, what is one piece of advice you would give to somebody graduating from college right now, wanting to enter the workforce? What’s one piece of advice you would give them the braking be taken off the glass ceiling?

I can’t think of a terribly tactful way to say it, but… you might not know everything, but neither does everyone else, whether that is the CEO or down of your organization. Be fearless and take those risks, as long as they’re within inappropriate context. But but be fearless and take risks and don’t be afraid of going for it because there’s, that necessary initiative is more bare than you think. You might be a bigger asset, your talent is a bigger asset than you even know, just because on the other end of it, it’s really easy to pick out like who the outstanding intern is, and it’s not based on what was on their resume. It was based on how they were as a, as a teammate or as a person and how they collaborated. And for me personally, it’s the initiative that someone takes. Like, I didn’t ask you to do this, but you did it and you did it really well.  You can’t do it perfectly, because for me, nobody can do something the way I would do it because only I would, I changed my mind on how I would do it three different times. Yeah, I would say be fearless, take initiative and then just be, have that humility and go, ‘I don’t know this,’ and they’ll go, ‘I don’t know what either.’ And then you can figure it out.

I love the spin that you put on that, even the CEO doesn’t know everything. I think so many people are intimidated by people in positions of power and they’re just human beings. And I see you interacting with leaders all the time. And I think that is, that is a hurdle block for men and women. It doesn’t matter who you are in the organization everyone’s a human being. And quite often it’s lonely at the top and they actually appreciate being treated like human beings.

Perception yeah. That they are untouchable. And I guarantee that they have not been, they’ve rarely received an email from a new hire saying, ‘Hey, the new hire and, I’d like to buy you coffee, can we set up half an hour? I just want to introduce myself and get to just get to know you.’ And then make those really human questions, like up to human questions, ‘What have you been your biggest frustrations? Like if you could look back and give me advice, what would you wish that you knew starting out this like, oh, I didn’t need to go to grad school or have a better work-life balance.

 

Well, Emily, I wish we had more time. I could sit here and talk to you for hours. It has been a real pleasure to get to know you a little better today. I mean, I already know you pretty well, but now I’ve got some more juice and I’m loving it and I’m sure our audience will too. And so for our audience who is listening make sure that you go to McKayUnlimited.com and check out the podcast. We’ll have show notes, so some of the things that Emily’s talked about today with Aerospace Futures Alliance and Brene Brown, it’s all going to be mentioned i6n the show notes. You’ll be able to find links to those books and those resources.

Thanks Fiona, and thanks everyone for listening, email me, LinkedIn message me, I’d love to get to know you as well in the post—COVID world.

About Emily

Emily Wittman is President & CEO of the Aerospace Futures Alliance (AFA), a collaboration of business and government leaders working together to ensure Washington state continues to be a thriving global leader in aerospace.

An experienced coalition builder, Wittman’s career has focused on growing jobs and economic opportunity for Washingtonians across the state, first with U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell and then with the Puget Sound Regional Council.  She also led regional aerospace business attraction at Greater Seattle Partners, presenting Washington’s aerospace supercluster to industry leaders in numerous forums.

“Washington is an innovation economy and aerospace has been its driving force for more than 100 years,” said Wittman. “This is the most exciting time to be in aerospace and I am honored to work for our more than 1,400 companies in this role.”

Wittman has extensive experience working with diverse stakeholders on strategies to expand the aerospace industry and strengthen its supply chain throughout the state.

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