Diversity plays a significant role in the success of your team. Tracy “Jackie O” LaTourrette, shares her experiences of being one of the first female fighter pilots in the US military and discusses with Thor ways leaders can make diversity a priority, the advantages diversity can bring to a team and how new team members can bring a unique perspective and make a meaningful impact.
[Below is a transcript of the episode.]
Thor: We’ve all heard a lot about the importance of building a diverse team. And even in a recent McKinsey study, they found that companies in the top quartile for diversity were 35% more likely to financially outperform their industry mean.
But what does it truly feel like to be the unique or new voice of a group? I recently sat down and talked with longtime Afterburner team member, Tracy LaTourrette better known by her call sign “Jackie O”. She is a pioneer in the world of aerial combat by being among the first female fighter pilots in the US military.
When she joined the Air Force Academy after high school, it wasn’t her goal to become a fighter pilot because there were obstacles outside of her control all she really wanted was to be a part of a great team. Jackie O shared with me what it was like to be a part of a diverse team and how new team members can acclimate to a new culture while still making a meaningful impact.
Thor: Jackie O, welcome to The Business ThorCast.
Jackie O: Thanks, Thor. I’m happy to be here.
Thor: Great to be chatting with you. And we’ve talked about this in the past but the very first event I did with Afterburner was with you in front of 2,000 people out in Indianapolis, Indiana. You remember that one?
Jackie O: I do. That was a lot of fun. You’ve been a rockstar from day one.
Thor: Well, I remember you leading the way in that conversation. And you were obviously the lead for that event and took me under your wing and helped me just do my little 10-minute presentation to those 2,000 people, which I was obviously very anxious for. As you did the 50-minute presentation and the rest of the keynotes for that huge crowd. I’d never seen so many people in one room gathered before and I was very impressed with the way that you led the audience, and that you communicated so effectively. I remember thinking then there’s a lot I have to learn about the speaking world from people like you.
Jackie O: Well, I was happy to have you there. And it’s fun, that was so long ago, and here you are years later, still doing the same thing.
Being a Part of Something Big
Thor: Yeah, right? And you have such an interesting career and journey that you’ve been on. As I said in the intro you graduated from the Air Force Academy. I didn’t mention it earlier, but it was just within a decade of introducing the first females to the Air Force Academy in the late ’70s, that was the first time a woman had graduated from the Air Force Academy at West Point, Indianapolis. And so, you were really breaking through those glass ceilings at every level. One of the first females to graduate in the first decade that they had that take place at the Air Force Academy. And then, to go on to fly fighter planes with the first wave of females that did that as well. Let’s just hear the story initially, why the Air Force Academy, why at that time, what pulled you in that direction?
Jackie O: It’s funny, I grew up in Colorado, and so, I was pretty fortunate to be able to have seen the campus at a really young age. My first experience at the Air Force Academy was on what felt like the most important day of my life at that time. I was there for the gymnastics state championships. And I remember walking into the halls for the first time, and this was just a gym, it wasn’t even where the grads lived or the academic building or anything. It was just a gym and I remember just walking in and feeling like I had to walk a little taller and execute a little better. The level of expectation you could just feel from that place was different. It was almost like you could feel the presence of all of these great brave warriors that had gone before us. And some who had paid the ultimate price for our nation’s freedom. And so just being there and being around that feeling, I don’t know, there was just something about it, I knew I needed to be a part of it.
Thor: Yeah, I had that same experience. I remember visiting the academy and just thinking, “This is bigger than me.” And I was at such a young age and just very naive about the world that I knew that this was A, going to be exceptionally tough and B, going to be a rewarding experience nonetheless, which most of the things worth having in life are. But you had some additional things to consider because here you are, what’s the percentage of females at the academy at that time, even though they had graduated for the past decade, what do you think the percentage was?
Jackie O: It was about 12%.
Thor: Yeah. So a really low percentage of females, and so that had to have been another distraction and a challenge going into that environment. Talk a little bit about what that journey was like for you in a male-dominated, and as little as a decade ago, only male environment.
Jackie O: Well, I’m no dummy, I went to a school with mostly guys. What girl doesn’t want to do that? [chuckle]
Thor: Well said.
Jackie O: No. I knew going in there it was going to be tough. My parents gave me a poster of a world-class gymnast when I was little, put it up on my wall, and I still have it. Gave it to my daughter, it says, “Do not pray for an easy life, pray to be a strong person.” And so, when I chose the academy, it was because I knew it would be hard, and I wanted it to be hard, I wanted the challenge. I had no idea what I would when I got out but I knew that whatever it was going to be, it was going to be extraordinary. And I knew that if I wanted amazing, I had to do what was hard and it was exciting to me. And I got a nomination from then Vice President, George Bush. That kind of sealed the deal, you’re not going to say no to George Bush. So I showed up, and the very first day, basic training day one, I don’t think any of us forget that day, do we, Thor?
Jackie O: I showed up the first day in my pink T-shirt, in my newly short fluffy haircut, apparently wasn’t short enough because they immediately took care of that. And I remember trying to stand at attention for the very first time, and I’m smiling from ear to ear and I’m trying to keep my face straight and my chin in. And my sister, seven years older than me, we had been living in Canada that year, so she flew me down and dropped me off that day and she said she almost didn’t leave me there, because while I’m standing there trying to be at attention, what was above my head in big huge letters was, “Bring me men.”
Jackie O: She was a little bit concerned to drop off her little sister there who clearly didn’t have any military bearing at all at that point.
Thor: Yes, and I remember that. They called it “The bring me men ramp,” everybody had to walk through that as they entered the academy for basic training, their very first experience is walking under this big giant sign that says, “Bring me men,” and when it was all male, of course, it made sense, but now, females are being admitted and I’ve got to believe that was a bit of just a confusing environment to start from the very second you walked into that, not the warmest invitation.
Jackie O: No, that and I had my big sunglasses on, covered most of my face. And I remember this guy got right into my face and he said, “Do you have a problem with your eyes?” And I was I like, “Umm.” [chuckle] It’s just funny, but yeah, the whole experience right off the bat, but I was just so excited to be there and my brother was an Air Force pilot and he’s a retired Lieutenant Colonel and so he was a mentor for me and he warned me. He’s like, “You’ve got to show up with the right attitude. These people are not trying to destroy you, they’re trying to break you down so that they can build you back up the way you want to be. They’re trying to create camaraderie between all of you, they’re trying to build a team here and you’ve got to decide you want to be part of that, so you’ve got to let some of those little things roll off your back.” My biggest problem during basic training was actually trying not to smile. I would just hold my cheeks with my teeth and I put some sores in my mouth, because I was trying so hard not to smile. I guess I was a little bit crazy, but I was just really excited there and be part of the whole thing.
Thor: Yeah, that definitely was not my experience. I had very little challenge not smiling as I’m being screamed at. [chuckle] But yeah, so now, you’re in this environment and they obviously had to lower the bar for you, right? And you couldn’t do enough many pushups as everybody else and I know that’s not the case, so why don’t you tell that story?
Jackie O: No, yeah. What? You want the pull-up story?
Thor: I want the pull-up story.
Jackie O: Alright.
Thor: The poor guy who is gonna be the recipient of this pull-up story, I hope he never hears this because he probably… I mean, I wouldn’t steal your thunder, go ahead and tell it.
Keep Your Team Standards High
Jackie O: He’s a good guy, he’s a good guy. So, we’re about halfway through our basic training, we get to go out to Jack’s Valley. We’re out there, it’s dirty, we’re working hard, we’ve come together as a team a little bit at this point. We think we’re starting to get things figured out a little bit and they’re still jamming 30 hours worth of work into a 24-hour day. Well, our cadre, who are simply upperclassmen just a year two and three ahead of us at the academy, they think it’d be fun for us, basics, to build them a horseshoe pit. So, I’m in there digging, they say to me they go, “Sailor, hand your shovel over to the next guy.” So, this guy comes over and takes the shovel from me to take a turn. While he’s grabbing the shovel he says, he was joking but he says it quietly to me, he says, “This is man’s work,” and he grabs the shovel from me. And of course, I had to make a smart comment back to him and I said, “Well, I can do more pull-ups than you.” Well, apparently, the cadre took that as a challenge, [chuckle] so they’re like, “The two of you, get over here drop the shovel.”
Jackie O: So, we had to go do a pull-up contest. And he went first, and I gave him the, “Hey, just do one.” Because we don’t want to wear ourselves out just for their amusement. He does one pull-up, trusting me to get up and also do one pull-up. And of course, I get up and I do my one pull-up also and we think we’re pretty clever and we finally have figured out their system a little bit. And that was great for about 10 seconds and then like, “No, now you’ve got to do it for real.” Then, it was truly fights on so he gets up and he does his pull-ups and then I have the advantage of going second, so I get up and do my pull-ups and needless to say that the poor guy had a rough remainder basic training, he got teased a lot.
Thor: How many pull-ups did you do?
Jackie O: I don’t know, somewhere in 30-35. I was a gymnast, that’s what we used to do. We did pull-ups for fun.
Thor: And he probably was worn out, he just stops right?
Jackie O: Oh my gosh, the poor guy. I felt bad.
Thor: And there’s always the concern and you hear people say, a couple of females that graduated from Ranger training this past year and they said, “Aren’t we lowering the bar for the team? Are we lowering the capabilities of the entire team?” And here we are in a situation where I probably knew two people that could do 35 pull-ups at the entire Air Force Academy when I went through there, and you’re going through and dominating and just showing that not only is a bar not lowered, but you’re going to raise it for the rest of the team and set the standard going through. I just love that story.
Jackie O: Well, hopefully, the bar is not lowered. To me, that’s huge. You’ve got to keep your standards high and even if you’re coming in as the new person who’s different, if you’re a woman or whatever, the last thing you want is for people to look at you and go, “Oh, you’re here cause you’re a girl.” It’s important to be able to say “I met those standards or I exceeded them.” I think we all, every girl that I know that’s been in a situation like that works really hard to try to make sure we’re at least as good as, if not better than the guys where they’re competing with and against.
Thor: Yeah. And so now, you make it through this incredibly difficult school for anybody and you’re also a Division I athlete at the same time. You graduate and what are your thoughts moving forward? They’re still not letting females into the fighter pilot cockpit at this point, so what is next for you after graduation?
Contributing to the Team Mission
Jackie O: What is next for me is actually AWACS, I was a weapons controller in the back. I was directing the air battle and telling pilots where to go. My husband says I’m still telling pilots where to go so I guess some things never change. That was actually perfect for me because I knew going into the Air Force Academy that I probably would never fly. I was nearly blinded as a baby, I had an infection in my eyes that kept me from naturally seeing 20/20, although I did correct to that. But I never expected to be a pilot, even when I started the application process and I always said, “If God wanted me to be a pilot, he’d have me pass the eye test” and then I just didn’t worry about it anymore. It was in His hands and I just focused on trying to practice the habit of excellence. Whatever opportunity was going to come my way, I would make sure that I was ready for it. Flying F-16s was the big, awesome surprise that I got. About a year after I graduated from the academy, I went in for my annual physical and actually passed the eye test, so that was the big sign.
Thor: You’re one of the first females in a fighter cockpit, within the first five to seven years of females joining that cadre. Tell me about that experience and now you’re pulling nine G’s, nine times your body weight, trying to stay conscious in a fighter aircraft and breaking that glass ceiling as well.
Jackie O: It’s funny, Thor. The only barrier I was interested in breaking was the sound barrier. And so to get that opportunity in my home state of Colorado, to come back and fly F-16s with the Colorado Guard was just incredible. It was very important for me that when I came in, I was their first girl, it was very important for me that I didn’t change the mission. I just wanted to come in and participate in it. I didn’t want to distract from anything and that was very important to me. I just wanted to be part of the game. There were some things that I did to try to make sure that I would never slow the team down.
Thor: Yeah and I think that’s a really interesting concept because basically, you’re saying “I want to do this for the team” and a team is so important for us, at some point, we may be asked to give our lives for the team that we join as fighter pilots. It’s insightful to hear you say that as you’re joining this, it wasn’t for you or to have a story in a book later on, or even to do this podcast that we’re doing right now, this is just incidental to the fact that you were joining a team that you wanted to contribute to.
Jackie O: Yeah, it was… When you sign on a dotted line to join the military, no matter what your job is, you’re signing up to be one of the few people who have decided that “You know what? I’m going to provide the enemy the opportunity to die for his country because I love mine enough and hopefully, I won’t have to make the ultimate sacrifice as some of our bravest warriors have done.” But to be part of that group is something that I didn’t take lightly. I’ve seen other parts of the world. I know what it’s like to be in other countries and to not have the freedoms that we have here. And to be able to defend my family, my friends, democracy and freedom, it sounds cheesy but I still tear up every time that we do the National Anthem at my kid’s swim meet. It’s real and I’m just really grateful to be part of it.
Thor: You had a passion for the team that you were joining, you didn’t have a passion for creating your own personal story, even though that would be part of the entire journey. You had a passion for the calling that you were being pulled into.
Jackie O: I did. I did and because of that, I had to work really hard to make sure that I never slowed the team down. I knew I brought some strengths to the team. My background as an AWACS controller was very useful in the air-to-air environment because I was very comfortable there. And, you know, Thor? Women, our bodies are built to pull G’s better than men’s. [chuckle]
Thor: I’ve heard that a couple times. Typically, a woman that’s telling me that and for the listeners that don’t know, here’s the background on it. Every time we pull G’s, and what that means is we’re doing an aggressive turn in the aircraft and so our bodies and the aircraft through centrifugal force weigh more than they did before, so my 200 pound body under nine G’s weighs 1,800 pounds and I’m not embarrassed to say that I passed out cold instead of a centrifuge as we were spinning that around and I had to learn how to be able to withstand nine G’s and keep the blood in my brain, and learn the techniques to do it. But it always came easier for females because you guys are physiologically built to withstand more G’s.
Jackie O: Yeah, that’s right. We like pulling G’s, I like pulling G’s. I’ll tell you what I didn’t like doing though was my first backseat ride. Before I was sent to pilot training, I made the transition from active duty to guard, my first backseat ride I still had the long hair, they put me in the back, my hair was hanging down outside of the helmet, I went out there and I was making sure I was right there with my pilot because I was just the backseater, I was the girl in back. And so, we go out there and hop in and we fly our mission. I’m just so excited, I’m checking six, I’m turning around, of course, my hair is coming out of the bottom of the helmet, all over the place. And we’re taxiing back in at the end of the mission and I’m just on cloud nine. And I want to make sure that when that canopy opens, I’m ready to go when he is. So, as we were taxiing in, I start unbuckling all of my latches. Well, the parachute riser catches my hair…
Thor: Oh no.
Jackie O: And snaps me back, it snaps me back into the seat. Now, I’m basically one with the airplane. My hair is pinned into the airplane. It’s wrapped all the way around the riser. And I’m the new hire, and I already committed to not distracting from the tempo of this mission. So, we come in and I’m just pulling and pulling, I can’t get my hair undone and we’re turning the corner and the marshaler is about to cross us once [chuckle] as we hit the parking spot and hit the brakes and stop. And I am just yanking and it is stuck, and there’s like a foot of hair wrapped around this riser. And I looked around and I’m thinking, “This is not going to happen. There is a solution. I just have to figure it out.” And I looked down and I see my parachute knife strapped to my g-suit.
Jackie O: So, I pulled out the parachute knife and I cut my hair off as fast as I can as the canopy is opening, and then the engines shut down and the sounds go, “Beeeeeeew.” I’m cutting as fast as I can. I finally get all that hair cut off and I’m like, “Ah! Thank God!” So, I’m able to climb out of the jet. As I’m climbing out, I turn back around and I look and there’s a foot of hair wrapped around this riser and I’m just like, “Ugh!” [chuckle] Plus I Jackie O’ed my hair on one side.
Jackie O: So there was that. But I didn’t slow the team down. They did have to take that part of the aircraft apart so they get the hair out before it can fly again, so. But we made it to debrief on time. [chuckle]
Thor: That’s awesome. And for the listeners, that part of the jet, it’s retracting, like a regular seatbelt in a car would be, except it’s much more powerful so when you release those they go, “Pfeeeeew.”, then they snap back inside the seat that you’re sitting in. And for your hair to get caught in that, I can’t imagine, it must’ve been painful too as you’re trying to get those out.
Jackie O: Oh, my pride was what was really hurting at that point.
Defending Our Country on 9/11
Thor: Yeah. Well, okay. Now you go from getting your hair cut in the first back seat ride of the F-16 to then one-day sitting alert in a fighter aircraft after the attacks of 9/11. Tell me a little bit about that story and how you were now contributing in a major way to the defense of our entire nation.
Jackie O: It’s funny because when I was little, I never thought I would even have this kind of opportunity. Medically, generationally, I just never thought that I would be a fighter pilot. And to get to a point where here I was on alert. 9/11 has just happened and the skies are quiet. Nobody is flying. The Rocky Mountains actually looked purple with the sunrise and it’s just incredible. The first mission that I did was we rolled in on a little Cessna, a doctor and his son coming back from Front Range Airport. We’re doing a mission that our mighty fighter had… In our unit, we’d never trained to do. I mean, units who are on the coasts, that kind of air protection was a common thing for them. But for us in the middle, we were used to taking the fight overseas.
Jackie O: And that was what our training and background had been. So, to now be doing an intercept on a very low, very slow aircraft and telling them, “You have to go back to your base” was pretty incredible. I mean, nobody’s flying and here I am. I still feel like a little kid and I’m in this multi-million dollar fighter and the weight of the protection of our state is on my shoulders. And… It’s just… It was an honor. It was an honor to be there. And I’m just grateful for the training that we got that we were able to jump in like that and immediately on 9/11 from one coast to the other. No matter what fighter pilot you were and no matter what squadron you were in, everybody showed up. Lines of communication were down, people just showed up at work. And they hopped in their jets, loaded down with maybe no live weapons, maybe just the gun, certainly not live air-to-air missiles which is what you would use to take down an airliner. And we just all came together as one to protect our great nation. And you don’t mess with the USA. You just don’t. Especially on our home soil.
Thor: In the end, it’s a day that’s emotional for everybody as we reflect back on it and just the overwhelming nature of not knowing what would be next. We didn’t know that the two towers would be the last of it, and the Pentagon would be the last attack. We just thought something was coming around the corner at any second, and to be a part of that defense must’ve been amazing. One thing that I key in your message as well is that the military is a great example of how teams can come together and the silly barriers that we put up between ethnic groups, between gender, or between religious background all just fades away when the mission is on the line. And that’s such a challenge for the clients that we support. And we are part of many conversations, particularly in Silicon Valley these days where we’re helping out large tech companies to break down those barriers as well. And I just would be curious to know from your perspective, what are some of the ways… There’s tons of ways we can talk about how the military could have done it better and it’s still a work in progress, but to have that moment where you all are on one team and you all are fighting together as one group, what are some of the ways that other teams can look to get there?
Jackie O: Well, I think one of the advantages that the US military has is that we know our “Why”. We are drawn together for the greater good of the protection of our nation, and that puts the fight in us and it brings us together as a cohesive team. Some organizations have an easier time with that larger “Why”. I’ve been working with some pharmaceuticals lately, and when you’re trying to cure cancer and other nasty diseases out there, that’s a pretty big “Why.” But even in those cases when you understand the longer term, larger reason you’re together, where I see the most success is when the leaders have figured out that they need to remind their teams every day about that “Why.” You have to remind your team, you have to work to be an organization that everybody wants to be a part of, and then model that every day through open communication, debriefing, creating that culture of comradery and trust that I think is so effective to help create that high-performing team.
Thor: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And a lot of companies will say, “Yeah, but you guys are fighter pilots, you’re fighting for the defense of our nation, of course, you got a strong ‘Why’,” or “You’re creating a cancer drug, of course, you have a strong ‘Why’.” And I always push back and say that any group, any team can create a compelling “Why.” If you’re going ask somebody to spend a third of their life and their time working towards a common goal at an occupation, you better have a “Why” defined. You better have something that’s exciting that you’re pitching to them. Like Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you sell, they buy why you do it.” And the “Why” is the most important thing we can come up with. Any parting thoughts as we wrap up on how you would help a team to start to codify that “Why” and stop going after those tactical little short-term quota wins of, “We got to have somebody that looks a certain way so that we can take this picture for optics.” How do we get out of that conversation and go towards the compelling “Why”, that of course, we’d have people of every color, gender, and background joining us for this.
Creating a Truly Diverse Team
Jackie O: Well, I think we get caught up sometimes in thinking of diversity as a bad word. You either got hired because you’re diverse or you got passed over because you’re not diverse enough, and I think we lose sight of what diversity really is. If you’re trying to create a truly authentically diverse team, then it’s not necessarily something that you can see when you walk in the room, you can hear it in the conversations from the diverse backgrounds, from the diverse experience, you can see it on the resumes with the different talents that have been brought to the table, and I think that we all need to focus on the bigger picture. If you are coming into an organization, don’t be asking what they’re going to do for you to make you comfortable, you need to figure out what you’re going to bring. You need to bring your A-game, work to do your best every day. Give people grace when they maybe don’t quite handle the diverse part of the situation as well as they could. I think most of us are just trying to make it all work at the end of the day, and I think it’s important that we remember that everybody is hired for some great reason. Everybody has a talent that they’re bringing to the table. Work hard to be part of that.
Thor: Yeah, there’s a great book out right now called “Team Genius” that talks about how diversity is so much more than optics and the right teams that will identify that and recognize the fact that a heterogeneous team, meaning a team that’s composed of people that approach problems in different ways, is much more effective empirically, through research, through experiments, more effective than that team that’s comprised of the same… whether it’s several people that look the same way or that think the same way. That’s really what it comes down to, you can’t have that homogeneity on the team. That team that’s diverse is going to be more effective. But I think what’s so insightful in your comment too is that you can’t break down all the walls at once. In other words, when you showed up at basic training, you didn’t look out at the ramp and say, “Hey I’m here take that sign down.” You knew that this would be a work in progress. And by the way, that sign’s gone right now. You go to the Air Force Academy and that sign is gone and that’s a good thing that that’s happened, but it is a journey and it’s something that takes place over time and you are part of that journey along the way, not just breaking down the walls as you showed up.
Jackie O: I think it’s important that you recognize if you’re sacrificing quality to build diversity, then you’re not doing it right.
Jackie O: Because there are… You just need to spread a wider net. You need to advertise to more people. You need to work harder to be a company or team that everybody wants to be a part of so that you have all those resumes to choose from because everybody’s clambering to become part of your team. And I think it’s also important to remember that when you’re looking at people’s backgrounds, there are some things that sometimes can be overlooked. If you’re a mom, if you’re a military spouse, guess what? Those guys… There is no off the clock. There is no “I’m not showing up to work today.” They have to find a solution and they do find a solution, whether they’re overworked, exhausted, whatever. When you look at the people that you have in front of you, sometimes their biggest talents aren’t necessarily the first thing that pops up on the page.
Thor: Yeah, and I would have one last question for you. As you look to send a message to people of any background that are being told that they don’t belong in a group right now, and having to break down those barriers and having to join new teams. What would your message be?
Jackie O: You can do it. You can do anything that you want. Just make sure that you are following your dreams, not someone else’s, and you have to listen to that voice of truth that is the clear voice you’re going hear when you listen inside of your own heart, and ignore all the noise around you. Find a mentor, find somebody who supports you and believes in you. Find many mentors to support you and believe in you but there is no reason to give up. Never, never, never, never give up. Somebody may tell you you can’t do something. They told me I would never fly but you know what? I did, and it’s not because of me doing anything great, it’s because my parents taught me to never give up. To be strong and to just keep going. One more day. Just try one more time because you never know. You never know if the next attempt is going to be the one that’s going to get you that dream that you’ve wanted your whole life. Do not give up on your dreams. Work together, find some people to help you out and just go for it. Get tough. Don’t look for excuses. Make it happen.
Thor: Jackie O, I think that you’re going to have some new requests to be a mentor for some of the people that are listening to us today. I want to thank you first of all for your service. You’re an inspiring person inside and out. I’m proud to have you on the Afterburner team and to be a part of your team, and to have learned from you over the years. To have graduated from the Air Force Academy, gone on to be a fighter pilot and now to be speaking in front of crowds of thousands of people and you continue to lead the way. Thanks for you doing what you do and thanks for joining The Business ThorCast today.
Jackie O: Thanks for having me on The Business ThorCast today, Thor. It’s an honor to be part of the team and it was an honor to be here today. Thanks.