Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on April 3, 2018
The airline industry, historically, has had few women in leadership positions. That is changing, and is being led by women like Olympia Colasante, vice president of American Airlines’ hub operations in Philadelphia.
I had the pleasure of listening to Colasante share her story during a dinner event at the Cosmopolitan Club in Philadelphia on March 26. She is truly an inspirational trailblazer for women and a role model for all who want to differentiate themselves and advance within their profession.
Colasante began her career in Ottawa, Canada, with Wardair Canada in 1986 when she was hired as a part-time ticket agent. In a test that all would-be ticket agents needed to pass, Colasante achieved a perfect score of 100, the first in the history of the airline.
That perfect score came to the attention of the executives at Wardair headquarters and they suggested that her boss look at her potential beyond a part-time ticket agent. When her boss asked what she wanted to do at the airline, Colasante said, “I brazenly responded, I like your job, if you let me have it.” Her boss commented, “You can’t have it today, but I can help you get it.”
Colasante said, “I never started the job as a ticket agent but worked with my boss in the office where he exposed me to all facets of the airline and airport operations.”
When USAir (later renamed US Airways) started to fly to Ottawa in 1990, they hired Colasante as a supervisor, which was an exception to how people advanced at the airline. Traditionally, supervisors came from the rank and file.
After her six-month probationary period, she caught the eye of her boss’s boss, and she became the first USAir-sponsored employee to be transferred from Canada to the U.S. where more opportunities for advancement were available for her.
Colasante said, “USAir took a chance by moving me to the U.S. and into a male-dominated culture. My reaction was I needed to work harder, so I took on all kinds of extra assignments. I took training classes outside of my day job on nights, weekends and on my days off. This set me apart from my peers and became known as being very different. I felt pressure to succeed.
“Most of the skepticism about me succeeding wasn’t from my superiors. It came from my peers. One day, two of my fellow female managers asked me to go to coffee with them, so I did. They asked what I thought I was doing? They said, ‘You sign up for all these extra projects and stay late every day. Why are you wasting your time doing that?’
“I told them I was not wasting my time. I am doing it to advance in my career. They said, ‘You’re just kidding yourself because this is a boy’s club and you will never rise higher in the organization than where you are today. You are only here today because you are the token female. So, don’t waste your time because you are never going to go anywhere.’”
Colasante responded, “That is not what I feel and that is not what I believe. Have you really asked yourself why you aren’t getting ahead? Maybe you need to do things differently. It has nothing to do with you being female.”
At the Cosmopolitan Club dinner, Colasante was asked how she differentiated herself and created a pathway to advancement within a male-dominated industry. She said that it all went back to her acing that test to become a part-time ticket agent. She constantly studied and became the expert at the airport she was stationed at and developed a reputation for being the go-to person on any issue. This is how she differentiated herself vis-à-vis her peers.
She explained, “I learned more than anyone else, and that became obvious. Not everyone took the time to do all that reading. The other thing I learned was about how you effectively lead people. If you take care of the people within your span of care, you can’t lose. If you take care of people, they will do their jobs exceptionally well.
“It’s about listening to them and providing them what they needed to do their jobs. I cared about them as individuals. I mentored them. I helped them develop into leaders. I am proud that many have gone on to jobs with much greater responsibility.”
Notice that Colasante used the phrase “span of care,” rather than the phrase “span of control.” That is a fundamentally different approach to leadership, which is based on command and control.
Colasante continued, “My leadership and mentoring skills were acquired by observing effective leaders during my career. I also learned from other leaders who were not so effective, and I decided I never wanted to grow up like them.”
When US Airways and American Airlines merged in 2013 to form the largest airline in the world, Colasante continued to advance. Prior to being named to run American Airlines’ hub in Philadelphia in July 2017, she ran the airline’s operations at London’s Heathrow Airport.
So, what are the takeaways from Colasante’s remarks?
- To advance in any organization, you need to work hard and to differentiate yourself vis-à-vis your peers.
- In addition to taking every opportunity that comes your way, create your own opportunities. Don’t be afraid to tackle difficult assignments.
- Be a role model for others. Blaze the trail for those who follow you.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School.