Carey Lohrenz considers herself an average woman.
“Like you, I juggle many priorities,” Lohrenz said to the room of more than 125 businesswomen. “I run my own business; I just finished being the president of Women Military Aviators Association; and I have four kids.”
As an executive leadership and business consultant, the 6-foot-tall Lohrenz is currently working on her master’s degree in business administration and strategic leadership. And, just last fall, she even published a book titled “Fearless Leadership” — recounting her more than 10 years of planning, executing and debriefing complex missions as the first female F-14 Tomcat fighter pilot in the Navy.
Lohrenz went from being a small-town girl from Wisconsin to working under extreme pressure in one of the most mentally and physically demanding environments imaginable: the cockpit of a $45 million fighter jet at Mach 2.
Her experiences working with some of the world’s most focused teammates — and some who provided her ample “coaching” opportunities — while using finite resources and limited budgets led her to where she is today.
“Since leaving the Navy, I’ve worked alongside and with outstanding organizations, helping them to build really high-performing teams and accelerate their own personal leadership skillsets, as well as those of their teams,” Lohrenz said.
Using personal experiences, she highlighted key issues leaders must consider when setting high-performance cultures within growing companies — and what to do when things don’t go as planned.
Here are a few of her thoughts:
Extreme pressure is inevitable
Lohrenz’s work environment extends well past what you may have seen in “Top Gun.”
“Flying is only part of our job as naval aviators,” she said.
They’re actually responsible for squadrons of up to 300 people and assets valued around $1 billion; running the educational services, administrative, maintenance and safety departments; planning missions; and briefing teams.
“Then, we put on 35 pounds of flight gear, go up to the flight deck, fall into our airplanes, and are launched off the front of the aircraft carrier going from zero to almost 200 miles per hour in just under two seconds flat,” Lohrenz said.
“We also have three radios in our airplanes with people talking to us on different frequencies all at once, oftentimes feeding us conflicting information, at the same time we are operating on what is essentially a three-dimensional battlefield in space.”
Then, at up to 500 mph, the pilots are responsible for leading up to 20 wingmen safely to a target and back to the aircraft carrier.
Only if they haven’t already passed out.
“It is like trying to fly, think and talk with an elephant sitting on your lap,” Lohrenz said. “When we pull back on the stick in our airplanes, we can pull up to eight times the force of gravity. That means our bodies instantaneously go from weighing 200 pounds to weighing 1,600 pounds. … All of the blood pulls from our brains, settles in our lower body cavities, and tries to escape from our feet.”
Despite multitasking being a matter of life and death in the Navy, Carey Lohrenz stresses the importance of knowing which three priorities will allow one to achieve success.
“Even NASA says that the most proficient multitaskers cannot do more than five things at once,” Lohrenz said. “So when you know what your top priorities are, it allows you to say no to those things that will derail your success. No is a complete sentence; focus on the things that matter.”
There will be no complaining about one’s job after reading this — but it’s only about to get worse.
It then comes time to land on an aircraft carrier that looks like the size of a postage stamp from 3,000 feet up.
“I’m going 165 miles per hour; I slam down on the deck; and I come to a complete stop in 1.2 seconds. Every landing is like a controlled car crash that has to happen successfully every single time,” Lohrenz said. “When we don’t land the first time, our chances of catastrophic mishap increase by 500 to 700 percent.”
It may not be too difficult to imagine your last time at work being barked at by your boss and struggling to stay awake, but has it ever been a matter of life and death?
You might want to let it sink in that these pilots do it every single day.
Team leaders are held responsible
One might be wondering how exactly all of the above ever gets accomplished successfully.
Now to add to the exasperation.
“The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is one of the most dangerous industrial worksites in the world,” Lohrenz said. “These aircraft carriers are essentially small floating cities of about 5,000 people — with an average age of 19.”
Even more notable, though, is that, according to Lohrenz, 50 percent of the population turns over every nine months — which means every 18 months, entirely new crews are expected to safely and effectively accomplish challenging missions.
What are Navy leaders supposed to do with that?
They focus on one thing and one thing only — the safe launching and recovering of airplanes.
“Having a clear sense of purpose with every single person in your organization is the No. 1 indicator of whether an organization will be relevant for the long term,” Lohrenz said.
“Your team will trust you if they know you’re committed to excellence and want to win with integrity. … So take the time to plan and brief your team so everyone knows who is accountable for what. Also, to make sure that you are learning and executing at a level of excellence, always debrief.”
Flexibility is a survival skill
“In my world, speed is life — but in your world, the same thing applies,” Lohrenz said. “We work in such volatile environments that if we’re not able to adapt, recover and adjust, we will become irrelevant.”
Lohrenz said unplanned, high-pressure situations are exactly what they train for at the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School.
“They exert so much force and pressure on you to break you, both psychologically and physically, because they want to see when under extraordinary duress, if you will still be a good teammate,” she said.
One such example is a course called Advanced Water Survival, in which students are dropped into the bay and dragged through the water behind a speedboat wearing full flight gear and a parachute.
Call sign: “Vixen”
Carey Lohrenz entered the Navy’s Aviation Officer Candidate School in 1990 with the realization that her drill instructor had never let a female graduate his class because he didn’t think women should be in the military.
“He afforded me a lot of extra personal attention trying to get me to see things his way,” Lohrenz said.
To prove she was worthy of being a potential fighter pilot, Lorenz graduated at the top of her class.
But during her next round of training, she was called into her commanding officer’s office six weeks before she was to earn her wings: Since the law barring women from flying hadn’t been lifted, Lohrenz was asked to either accept a nonflying position or leave the Navy.
“I went back into the briefing room surrounded by 50 male student aviators and I knew was going to cry,” Lohrenz said. “But I looked around the room and realized that the only reason I had that conversation was because I dared to show up different. I dared to show up female.”
She returned to her commanding officer’s office, respectfully demanded a third option, and left.
A week and a half later, Lorenz received a phone call saying once again, she was at the top of her class, and was to be kept in the Navy for 18 months as an instructor.
“It wasn’t the best answer, but I was still in the game,” she said.
A short while later in 1993, the secretary of defense lifted the law.
“Imagine if I had quit when they told me there was no place for me in the Navy,” Lohrenz said.
She was shipped to the West Coast and assigned “Vixen” as her call sign.
We get it, a traditional female term. And it wasn’t the last one she heard.
As Lorenz tells it, more than a few instructors commented that “she’d make really awesome wife material.”
“You bounce along the bottom of the ocean,” Lohrenz said. “They’re trying to see if you have the presence of mind to disentangle yourself, surface, crawl into a raft, recover, and safely signal a helicopter.”
It’d be a safe bet to say no one in business school has ever had to take a course like that.
“But at the end of the day, when I’m strapped into a $45 million asset and I’m 1,000 miles off shore, on fire, at night, down to one engine with all my instruments quitting, that is not the time to say, ‘I can’t do this because it’s too hard.’”
It’s this paralyzing fear of failure, Lohrenz said, that prevents people and companies from growing in the face of adversity.
“We pass up valuable opportunities simply because we’re afraid to fail,” she said. “But the answer lies in pushing the envelope and doing uncomfortable things because every time you do, you get stronger, build more confidence, get more courageous and are able to go further.”
You are ready now
“One of the ideas that they instilled in us in the military is that 80 percent is good enough. Once you have 80 percent of the information you need, take action,” Lohrenz said. “Don’t wait for your perfect plan to come together, because once your plan has been refined to perfection, the environment has changed and your perfect plan is no longer so.”
If one is not doing something professionally every day that gives them a lump in their throat, Lohrenz said, this is a sign of becoming too comfortable.
“The danger in being comfortable is that right next to it is complacency — and nobody is safe in any industry,” she said.
“Not raising your hand makes you even more vulnerable because nobody knows what it is that you can bring to the table. While we feel like we’re playing it safe, we’re actually putting ourselves more at risk.”