For much of my career, I have been a bit of a pioneer as a woman working in traditionally male operational roles. I was the first female Country Manager for United Airlines and by 2001, I was working at headquarters as the Director of Customer Service Planning.
As I left for work one Tuesday, I was expecting a typical round of staff meetings and project work. That changed halfway through my commute, when I learned an airplane had struck the World Trade Center and flames were billowing out of the Pentagon. As soon as I arrived, I went to our Emergency Crisis Center, where a monumental effort was underway to contact and land all of our flights.
My job did not really entitle me to a leadership role, but I felt I had to lean in with all my knowledge and experience and take a risk. I jumped on an FBI review of passenger manifests, then helped to send teams of co-workers to assist distraught family members of Flights 93 and 175, the two United flights involved in the attacks. For most of the next week I remained at the Crisis Center, catching naps at an adjacent flight attendant dorm when I could.
That week I realized I was good in a crisis: Rather than getting rattled or freezing up, I remained calm and went to work with colleagues to solve problems. With the nation and our airline under attack, we came together as a team. Nothing mattered but our passengers and their families, our colleagues coping with their own grief, and the thousands of stranded customers. I was communicating with airport leaders, working with government agencies, and collaborating with our teams onsite. In the middle of what seemed like chaos, we operated as best as we could to create a sense of calm.
United has gone through a lot since then: bankruptcy, SARS, war, hurricanes, blizzards, tsunamis, and a merger. And when the going gets tough, I lean right in. When Hurricane Sandy was about to hit the East Coast, I was head of the Network Operations Center – the nerve center of the airline. My husband, seeing me off at the door on yet another Sunday, just smiled. He knows leaning in for my team is important to me. Before leaving, I turned to him and said, “I live for this.”
And I do.