Before turning to motivational speaking, Mandy Hickson led an inspiring career as a jet pilot in the RAF. The obstacles that Mandy overcame to succeed in this career path, and the unforgettable experiences gained in the front line have enabled her to draw striking and powerful parallels to the world of business, human resources and management. In this interview, Mandy discusses the value for business and beyond in remaining calm under pressure, the key lessons learnt in her time in the RAF and how she transitioned to her new role as a speaker.
Was flying as a jet pilot something that you aways knew you wanted to do, and were there any particular people or experiences that inspired this career direction?
The first inkling that I would like to be a pilot was when I was about thirteen years old. It all started when my mum was reading an article in the local newspaper. It was all about the fact that the Air Training Corps (a club run by the RAF) was taking girls for the very first time. She enquired of me whether I fancied joining. My first response was to ask what night it was on. Apparently a Tuesday. Sadly Tom Selleck was in Magnum (P I) on that night and as it was my favourite TV programme… there was no way I would be going. She pointed out that they did canoeing, “you like canoeing” she coaxed. “Yes, but not as much as I like Magnum!” I retorted. She then pointed out that I went to an all girls school and this could be my only opportunity to meet some boys! I joined the next week! It was while I was there I had my first flight in an aircraft, a chipmunk, and that’s when I set my sights on my chosen career path.
What were some of the biggest obstacles and challenges you faced in your pursuit to become a jet pilot?
There were some fairly large obstacles in my way. Firstly, women were not allowed to be fast jet pilots in the RAF at that time. The second rather large barrier was the fact that when they did open the doors to women, I went on to fail all the aptitude tests to become a pilot! I had approximately two-hundred hours of flying under my belt by this stage and I was devastated. You are only permitted to sit these tests twice, and when I took them again, I failed them again. That should have been the end of the line for me, but fortunately I had joined another club at university (called the University Air Squadron) and the Squadron Commander believed I had the potential to make it to the front line. He requested that two impartial flying examiners come and assess me. They both graded me as being above average, so now there was a mismatch! I was taken on as an Air Traffic Controller and I continued to make my case to get a branch change to become a pilot throughout my time of officer training. Eventually my wish was granted and I was taken on as a test case! They couldn’t understand why a lot of women that were taking the tests were failing them compared to their male counterparts and they wanted to see if perhaps the testing system was biased or flawed in some way.
“They couldn’t understand why a lot of women that were taking the tests were failing them compared to their male counterparts and they wanted to see if perhaps the testing system was biased or flawed in some way”
What led you to later transition from your career in the Royal Air Force into motivational speaking?
Latterly within my career in the RAF I was repeatedly getting asked to go and speak at local schools. I really enjoyed the opportunity this gave me to try and change the mindset that flying fast jets in the RAF was simply a job for men. There are so few women who have still flown the Tornado GR4 on the front line (approximately five), and I believe it is so important to create strong female role models for young people to look up to. Not necessarily to aspire to be a pilot, but to simply think “Well if she can do it, so can I.”
I can then be really honest and simply say that I was at a dinner party, we all had a little bit too much to drink and I was telling the story of an operational mission over Iraq when we had a close encounter with the surface-to-air missile. It just so happened that someone at the dinner party organised conferences and was holding one in a few months’ time. I was asked to speak at Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire as my first ever event…. Let’s just say the rest is history!
Which single moment or experience as a jet pilot has had the most salience and relevance to your role now as a motivational speaker?
I believe the single moment with shaped my future was that evening flying over Iraq when we were engaged by an enemy missile. It was a very close encounter but we evaded it due to automatically performing a manoeuvre which we had practised so many times before, but never for real. The consequence of getting this wrong would have been fatal for us both. The subsequent events which followed gave me an insight into true teamwork, leadership, empowerment and decision-making under the most immense pressure. Although this experience may seem incredibly far removed from most business environments, the read-across and parallels are tangible. I was leading my first ever combat mission that night, therefore all the decisions were made by myself and my Navigator, not the Squadron Wing Commander (the Boss), who was my number 2 in the formation. I felt empowered to lead and trusted to make decisions. I was allowed to get on with it, without input from the top. You often see in many organisations teams being given jobs, but the leader finding it very hard to let go, and allow these teams to make their own decisions, especially when they do not align with the leaders exact thoughts and expectations. If the leader subsequently steps in, then all the trust within the team evaporates and breaks down. It taught me the most valuable lesson of all; to empower a team, the leader must share their mental models, thoughts and vision, then allow the rest of the team to do their jobs. You cannot tell someone within a team they are empowered. As a leader you have to create the environment, provide tools and knowledge to allow those within the team to feel empowered. That is how I felt that night, over the black skies of Iraq… empowered to do my job and happy to be held accountable for my decisions and actions.
“You often see in many organisations teams being given jobs, but the leader finding it very hard to let go, and allow these teams to make their own decisions”
Remaining calm under pressure must have been vitally important as a pilot. Do you think the need to effectively manage and cope with pressure is becoming increasingly important for UK businesses and employees?
Remaining calm under pressure is incredibly important as a pilot. The last thing that you need to do when things start going wrong is panic. Something that helps enormously in these situations is the fact we have practised and very often planned for most eventualities. All emergences are practiced time and time again in the simulator so that when something does go wrong you are almost acting on autopilot. When you’re flying over an enemy border and things don’t go according to plan… again, because we have looked at all the threats and briefed them beforehand, what can seem a crisis situation is no longer that… you’re simply following the plan. We often use the sic ‘P’s – ‘prior preparation prevents perfectly poor performance!’
When I am now running my “Business Navigation” sessions, one of the areas I focus a great deal of time on is threat management for businesses. I read across many of our planning processes, for example, the bowtie concept and I get businesses to run through it for their own environments. I also share our debriefing model. The fact that after every flight we take the time to analyse what went well, what went badly and more importantly, how can we be better the next time. We leave our ranks outside of the room, so encourage everyone, regardless of position and status to speak up. It gives individuals a voice, allowing us to ask question up and down the hierarchical structure.
What are some of the other key lessons you present as a motivational speaker that were directly shaped from your time as a pilot?
Since leaving the RAF I retrained as a Human Factors facilitator, I then became accredited with the Civil Aviation Authority to deliver training to the aviation industry. In delivering this training it became very apparent to me that nearly all the lessons that we were learning within the world of aviation could easily be distilled into any other business. Human Factors cover many areas; leadership, teamwork, authority gradient, communication, threat and error management, organisational culture, stress, fatigue, health… I could go on!
What do you feel is currently the most important message you are presenting businesses, and has this evolved over time in-line with changing business conditions?
Obviously, if it’s a safety critical industry the read across is simple. Within the nuclear power, oil and gas, healthcare and the petrochemical industries; when an error or mistake is made it can have disastrous implications, often leading to loss of life. But when you look at many other sectors, when mistakes are made, they can cost a company millions of pounds leading to damaged reputation and even bankruptcy.
So how do you talk about mistakes that are made, to create an open and learning environment, a culture whereby mistakes, if not quite celebrated are not brushed under the carpet. The aviation industry has realised that for every one large fatal accident that has happened, there are normally 30 minor incidents, and 300 near misses beneath the waterline. If you can find out what the near misses are then hopefully you can start to be more proactive, encouraging a learning culture and get people talking openly. We used to have a blame culture. After all, as Professor James Reason stated, “Blame is a delicious emotion”. But we soon realised that if we blamed people for honest mistakes, then no one would speak up. We then swung to the opposite end of the scale, introducing a No Blame Culture. Surely this would open the doors to finding out what was happening ‘beneath the water line’. But there was a major flaw, if someone has crossed the line and had acted deliberately irresponsibly or violated for self gain, there needed to be a level of accountability. This is how we arrived at the Just Culture, an environment where we are aware that highly trained, competent individuals do make mistakes, may develop unhealthy norms, deviating from procedures, but there is zero tolerance for reckless behaviour. Every time any incident occurs, it is judged through the lens of the Just Culture. We now find out what is actually happening, we then know the risks and we know where to spend the money to prevent the next accident from happening.
Whether it is the healthcare industry, who have introduced a ‘duty of candour’ an obligation to get people to talk openly about mistakes or whether it’s the financial sector whereby the focus now seems to be on behavioural culture, things are starting to change. Human factors training has been mandatory within the aviation industry for twenty years. How sensible would it be to use all of those lessons and distil them down, to save the wheel having to be reinvented within each industry. I’m not saying that the aviation industry has all the answers, but it has certainly made some great advances in understanding that the human in the system is always the most important part of any organisation and by understanding our strengths and weaknesses a little more, you can increase the performance within any business. My Business Navigation Consultancy uses this learning and shares proven techniques.
I absolutely love the position I now find myself in; on one day, motivating 300 teenagers to Reach For the Skies at a school in special measures, the next speaking to corporate clients to identify ares to strengthen their businesses. The next, taking cadets up from local Air Training Corps, as a volunteer in the RAF, giving them a flying experience, passing on my passion for flying to the next generation.
Dream It, Believe it, Do it!
For more information on Mandy visit mandyhicksonspeaker.com