October 12, 2023

TPL Insights #192 – How Can Women Get to the Top of Leadership? Claim Opportunities!

By Rob Andrews

By Rob Andrews with italicized content from the StraetgicCFO360 article “How Can Women Get to the Top of Leadership? by Emily DeNitto

Emily DeNitto’s interview with General Lori Robinson speaks volumes to all of us who aspire to top leadership. Lori has a mindset and purpose driven approach to life that has served her and our country well. I have performed extensive surgery on the interview for brevity’s sake but have not lost its essence. Here we go!

As the former commander of NORAD and NORTHCOM, retired Air Force General Lori Robinson—whose 36-year military career included four combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan—knows a thing or two about how women can become top leaders.

General Robinson provides insights into the subject, along with her path to the top ranks of the military, how she handled detractors along the way and why she does all the laundry now. Below is the essence of Emily’s interview with the highest-ranking woman in U.S. military history.

What year did you become the most senior level woman military officer?

2018. I was the most senior military woman in the Department of Defense, civilian and military. There are now two women that have the same level of job that I did when I left. So, while I was the first, I’m so grateful I’m not the last. But no, [young] Lori Robinson had no intention of going into the Air Force. Lori Robinson had no intention of anything, and yet she found a passion.

Inherent in noting you were the first is the idea that it’s still hard for women to achieve positions of power. What helped you get there?

All my mentors are men. All my mentors were fighter pilots. I was one of the first women in our Combat Air Force. I had people that believed in me, independent of my badge, my wings, my sex, my gender, my race, my background, but believed in me and my capability and my potential. And they put me in places that women hadn’t been before. And of course, the biggest thing I try to tell people is, I still had to perform. So, this wasn’t a given.

This four star says it: She didn’t get it because she was a woman, she got it because she was the best. And that’s what you want. All of us want that. None of us want to get something because we’re quote, unquote a girl. We want it because we’re good at what we’re doing, and somebody believes in us.

What got you interested in the military? The idea of flying?

My dad was in the military. Five kids in my family with six years between us—I’m the oldest. My dad says to me, so, Lori, what do you think about going to the Air Force Academy? And I said, hey dad, that’s not happening.

Sometimes these things are just serendipity. What would you say were your biggest challenges along the way, as a woman and or just generally?

I’m a very optimistic person. The glass is always half full for me. We oldest kids, we must lead the way. We always dive into things headfirst, and we don’t worry about what’s happening behind us. But I would tell you, and I don’t say this often, sometimes it was very frustrating to be the only woman in the room.

I understand.

You know, it wasn’t a challenge, but it was something. But here’s the other side, the positive part of all that, it made me so self-aware. It made me understand who I was. And later in life, I would say to the men that work for me, you’re not self-aware, you don’t pay attention what’s happening in the room around you. You don’t understand when you walk in the room, everybody’s watching you, you know?

You can’t imagine when you walk into an auditorium and it’s all new fighter pilots that are there for the fighter weapons school and you’re the only female instructor and they’re all watching you. ‘Who’s that?’ ‘How did you get the patch?’ You’ve got to be confident in yourself. So I learned about that. It was hard sometimes, but the real lesson I learned was how to be self-aware. How to really sit back and go, who are you? Everybody’s watching you. When you take your trash out, they’re watching you. I mean it, you know, all that kind of stuff.

Women are used to being watched, period, even just walking down the street in a way men aren’t.

Right. And I don’t like to compare. I just like to say, so the challenge was understanding, understanding that I was the first, and I did a lot of first things. I often say, I was a commander, I was a general, I was an airman—and I just happened to be a woman.

If I make the woman the most important part, then, you know, I may degrade the institution. But I also realize I did something different. I realize I’m a role model. So, I must take that on too. Through all those things, there were challenges. Sure. But what I like to focus on is how I move my way through it.

Why you speak to other women about leadership?

When I got nominated for my fourth star to go to the Pacific, there was a lot of chatter out there and one of the people that came up [to defend me] was a male four star. And his point was, hey, she’s the most qualified person to go do this. We need to do this together, not just women empowering women—which is important because we can be wicked witches of the west. But it’s also important to have the public support of men.

Let’s talk about finding work-life balance.

I wasn’t very good at it. Because there’s never a daily balance, you know? Especially when your spouse works. And then if you’ve got kids… My husband and I are both type A overachiever control freaks. What we ended up having to do, because at a point he got out and went to the Air Force reserves and flew for the airlines, and I was still an active-duty kid, you know, is we would have weekly calendar meetings.

It’s really about choices, right?

I think your words are perfect. It’s about choices. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We just all must sit back—all of us, not just women—and figure it out. One of the things that I used to do all the time, I would have couples come talk to me and I would look at their records and I’d go, okay, let me tell you who has more potential than the other.

Sometimes it wasn’t the man. But I’m going to tell you that and what you choose to do with that information is up to you. It’s a really hard thing. In my era, we would have kids younger. Well people are having kids older these days and so how does that affect decision-making? Because having children older can allow them to focus a little more on their career when they’re younger.

What are some of the parallels between the military and business worlds?

I have been amazed by the business world. Holy smokes, this is a totally different life. But I think the thing that is really encouraging is that there is this notion of thinking about how do we do long-term succession planning? How do we build our future leaders? How do we think about who’s going to be my replacement?

We’re part of something bigger than ourselves. It’s about the institution. I’m on the compensation committee on a couple boards I sit on, and I look at it like, yeah, [in the military] Congress made my decision. I didn’t even get a vote. My shareholder was the nation. So comparables aren’t there. But really this notion of, you know, thinking about long term, who are we going to pick? Who are we going to groom, who are we going to make sure is given the capabilities to be the next x, y or z? That’s one of the most important things you can do for an institution of any kind.   

I hope the leadership messages embedded in this interview will be of significant value to you and your organization. Give us a call, and let’s talk about your leadership approach.

Warmest Regards,

Rob