Applying Military Training to a Covid Stressed Workplace – Aileen Alexander on Leadership in Crisis


Larraine Segil: This is our EWA Minute with EWA Heroine Aileen Alexander. Would you tell us a little about your military and governmental background to set the stage for our major topic for today.

Aileen: Sure, happy to do that and before I dive in I want to take a second to acknowledge all of our first responders, those healthcare professionals, the men and women that are on the front lines doing what they do as well and their families making sacrifices right now in real-time and to those in our network, Larraine, whom we know are very actively engaged in their communities supporting others.

I started my career serving in the US Army. I was an Officer. I spent about four years on active duty serving in the Signal Corp. I was on active duty for 9/11, and I reflect on that experience as an incredible foundation to not only build upon but to leverage throughout my career. After Graduate School, I went to Washington, DC. I spent a few years working in National Security and Defense, spending time in the Pentagon and the Office of the Secretary of Defense as well as on Capitol Hill on the House Armed Services Committee. In the Signal Corps, we were the IT division putting in the voice and data networks for our men and women in uniform.

Larraine: And you were a platoon commander as I recall, is that right?

Aileen: Yes. The Army has a way of training you and giving you opportunities for many roles. So I started out as a platoon leader as a second lieutenant. Then I took on other responsibilities. At the end of my career with the Army, I was managing logistics for our battalion.

Larraine: Fantastic. So, Aileen, you were trained for the kind of situation that we are going through now, weren't you? Tell us a little bit about that.

Aileen: The situation we are in now is so new and different. It comes around every hundred years, but I think that that the training that we got early on really instilled a few fundamental things. One is to expect the unexpected and to lean on your teammates when you're dealing with real uncertainty and, at times, unpredictability.

Larraine: That is so important, especially now when your teammates are remote and you have to be in a position of trust. When you left the military, you went into the private sector, and you're now with Korn Ferry. Could you speak a little bit about what your position is there?

Aileen: Yes, I am a Managing Partner here at Korn Ferry. I've been with the company for just over eight years. I've had the opportunity to rise the ranks, and today I wear a couple of different hats. I focus on our clients and our business portfolio within technology as well as co-lead our Cybersecurity Practice. In addition to that, I also lead our Philadelphia office.

Larraine: Let's talk about what we are dealing with today in our moment of tremendous crisis in our country and our world. What would you say the military training has done for you that is helping you become such an outstanding leader both at Korn Ferry as well as in your community?

Aileen: There are a few things that I have learned directly, and others that I gained by being around some tremendous leaders whether they were military or civilian, whether it was here in the US or with our allies around the world from a global perspective. There were a few different things from a leadership perspective that I was able to gain, and which I am applying today. The first is to have a shift in mindset. We're in unknown territory, and once you accept that change, it means you need to think about your priorities, your strategic priorities, in a new and different way. And you need to adapt in how you work and how you foster and continue to bring your community together. And also how you instill a continuous culture As leaders, it's also important that we adapt how we lead, how we team, how we operate. I've seen this throughout our company, I've seen it with others in my broader network, but leaders more than ever need to be visible. They need to lead from the front. They need to set the tone for their organizations for their companies. We talk a lot about communications and the importance of the frequency of communicating, but being clear, being candid, being transparent is more important than ever. I think another piece around how you adapt is a motto that I learned early in the Army, and as a lieutenant. It is a people-first, mission always mentality. Focus on your colleagues, focus on your teammates, focus on your clients and your customers. Meet them with empathy, and if you do that, the mission or the business will continue to sustain as you adapt.

There are two other things that those of us who served, learn, and one is to see the big picture. It's quite easy to look at the world from your vantage point or from as I used to say through a straw. But, more important than ever is really stepping back and taking a panoramic view of what's happening, to look forward and not only look in the rearview mirror, we don’t have time for that. And in seeing the big picture, is having a lot of self-awareness and being comfortable with what you don't know and relying on all your colleagues from those in the field to the front lines, as well as those that are at the headquarters so to speak. It's important that you connect all those dots, get the facts, and collect those inputs. And the last thing we did, not just from an operational perspective, but strategically, is a term called unity of effort. We're in this together, it's not about command and control, but it is about breaking down silos, collaborating, learning from one another, and being focused together on a common purpose. I think you could apply that internally to your organization, but Larraine to your point, when we think about all of our communities and the intersection of public, private, and our not for profit, we really need to have a common sense of purpose and unity of effort in those endeavors.

Larraine: In our network we do have first responders and physicians who are in the ICU, as well as Commanders in the Police Department, FBI, and so on, as well as business leaders, and on an All Network call, you said something that I think is amazingly intuitive and that is, "Every leader needs a break." I know that a lot of our Network has said, "You are so right, and I never thought of myself as needing a break." Can you just give us a few thoughts on that?

Aileen: Yes, it's a lesson I learned from a woman who I served with early on in my Army days. I thought that I could be Super Woman, that I could go in constant motion. But when one does that, one starts to break down; you might not think as clearly, you might not lead as effectively or be able to adapt as quickly as you need to. We are all human, we need to take breaks, we need at times to walk away, seek clarity. Decide whether it's your family members, your friends, your community, an EWA sister, whom you can lean on, and with whom you can lean in. It's important for all leaders to focus on their support system and not burn themselves out. We're in this for some time.

Larraine: As well as your leadership role at Korn Ferry, Aileen you are also are the mother of twin girls and also have a supportive husband, so you have many roles now that are challenging and converging in the same environment. A couple of thoughts on that and how you are managing being in all of those roles at the same time?

Aileen: I'm doing the best I can. I have an incredible teammate and partner in my husband, My father early on said something to me, which is as you are juggling a bunch of balls in the air just remember some of them are made of glass, and some are made of rubber. If you drop one made of rubber, it'll bounce back, but those made of glass could break. And I think about those different hats as women we need to wear, and how you need to prioritize, how you have to be humble and ask for help, and how you have to be honest with yourself and be honest with your family, friends, colleagues, and bosses. Honesty is more important than ever, and one cannot operate with ego, and think that you can do it all.

Larraine: Aileen you are an inspiring leader, and we're so proud to have you as one of our EWA women, Exceptional Women Awardees. Thank you so much, Aileen.

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