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Six Ways You Can Challenge Assumptions and Lead Your Team

Sep 16, 2019

Fighter squadron commander, combat pilot, first female member of the elite U.S. Air Force Nicole MalachowskiThunderbirds flying demonstration team, White House Fellow. These are just a few of the accomplishments you will find on Nicole Malachowski’s resume. Throughout her career, she has learned a lot about leading teams and empowering each individual to contribute to goals and objectives. 

Her experience has shaped six defining principles that she says can help safety professionals reach their full potential and take their teams to the next level. 

You Define Your Own Success

Success means many different things to different people. For some, it may be reaching a certain position or achieving a certain salary. For others, it may be something else entirely. Malachowski urges you to remember is that it’s up to you to determine what makes you successful and encourages you to not try to live up to other people’s definitions or expectations. 

“The beauty of this thing we call life is that everyone’s definition of success is different,” she says. “When you define success for yourself, outside of anyone else’s expectations, it’s very freeing and empowers you more to take that next step.”

Malachowski says that having the courage to try new things, challenge ourselves and take that next step can open the door to new opportunities and levels of success. 

“We have no idea what we’re capable of until we’re willing to step outside of our comfort zone,” she says. “Don’t catastrophize the future or try to cross bridges that you’re not at. If you haven’t tried something or taken a leap of faith, you have no idea how it’s going to work out.”

Harness the Headwinds of Change 

Change is a constant in everyone’s life today. It is how we adapt to change that determine the results. Malachowski says the first step in this process is to empathize with your team and have an individual and tailored conversation with each individual to understand their perspective.

By taking this approach, leaders can gain a greater understanding of how each team member sees their role and how to best utilize that individual’s skills, thereby allowing each team member to take ownership of the change. 

“If you can put people where they can shine, where their strengths can be helpful and they can feel like they are contributing, let them experience that,” she says. “Ask employees, ‘What is it that you would like to do as part of this project?’” 

As a leader, you may also find that fear of the change is coming from a fear of the unknown or from a misunderstanding of what a particular change will mean to each employee and the team as a whole. 

“Often, resistance to change comes from fear of the unknown and maybe we as leaders haven’t communicated things as clearly as we thought,” she says. “Provide that venue to offer guidance on any unanswered questions.” 

Whatever the change may be, Malachowski emphasizes that effectively managing the individuals involved is the key to project success.

“If you have trust and teamwork, you can do anything, you can accomplish anything,” she says. “Change is about managing people more than it is about managing the process.”

Push the Envelope

When people hear the phrase “pushing the envelope,” many things may come to mind. During Malachowski’s career in the Air Force, pushing the envelope meant utilizing aircraft and her skills to their optimal capabilities. Leaders should try to bring that same mind-set to their organizations so they can strive to employ everyone’s skills and abilities to the fullest.

“Teams are made up of individuals who are all uniquely skilled and pushing the envelope is about bringing out the best in the people on your teams,” she says. “Each person has something extraordinary that they’re bringing to the table. If you’re extraordinarily good at something, that should be applauded by the team.”

By utilizing this approach, a leader can help everyone on their team brings all of themselves to work every day. This fosters an environment and a culture in which each team member is comfortable being their authentic self.

“Leaders who push the envelope with their teams ensure that they have empowered, enabled and provided the necessary resources to their people to utilize and optimize all of their skills,”  Malachowski says.

Create a Culture of Vulnerability

While "pushing the envelope" is about recognizing and capitalizing on each team member's strengths, creating a culture of vulnerability is about acknowledging weaknesses and creating greater transparency.

“Creating a culture of vulnerability is about developing a team that’s completely transparent,” she says. “Regardless of what role a person plays, regardless of where they are in the hierarchy of the organization, vulnerability applies to everyone.”

To get your employees to embrace such a culture, as a leader you have to embody those qualities yourself.

“As leaders, we’re resistant to admit our failures and weaknesses, but you have to break through that,” she says. “The more you demonstrate that behavior, the more other people are willing to try.”

Creating an environment in which both team leader and team members acknowledge their weaknesses can strengthen the team as a whole and heighten the sense of responsibility among each team member.

“When trust is high and transparency is high, the execution of the mission will go off the charts,” she says. “You want to provide an environment where collectively, we share the failure, we share the improvement and we can share the success.” 

Understand That Failure Is the Price of Entry

Much like change, failure is inevitable. We all experience missteps and setbacks throughout our careers. An organization and its employees cannot avoid failure and should use it as a learning experience.

“You have to make decisions, and failure is going to happen along the way,” Malachowski says. “If you’re really trying to grow and strength yourself and you’re going after big goals, if you’re implementing creative and innovative ideas, there are going to be failures along the way. That’s the price of getting to the goal line.” 

The key is not letting the fear of failure prevent you from acting.  

“That kind of mentality will paralyze you into indecision, you’re going to stagnate and hold the status quo,” she says. “The fact of the matter is that no organization, no team, no industry is stagnant. If you maintain the status quo, you’re going to get left behind and competitors are going to beat you.”

Tailor Your Leadership

At the heart of each of these principles is understanding each individual on your team, how they view success and what they can contribute to the team. Malachowksi says that developing personal relationships with each member of her teams has propelled her success as a leader.

“At any given time, I had about 100 different people in the fighter squadron and I made a point of knowing each of them individually,” she says. “I made a point of tailoring my interactions with them to their unique skill sets, their personality and their needs.”

For those who think they don’t have the time to meet with every team member individually, Malachowski stresses that the payoff is worth the effort.

These conversations can serve as the foundation for understanding each employee’s definition of success, she explains, and help identify what motivates them in the work that they do and what they want to achieve in their careers. This can help you as a leader put them in the right place to thrive. This understanding can also help you develop a culture in which each individual can achieve based on their own definition of success and contribute fully to the team.

 “When people are happy and thriving and using their skill sets, they’re willing to give more, to do more and be a part of something bigger than themselves,” she says.

Listen to our full interview with Nicole Malachowski for further insights on how you can improve your leadership and take your team to the next level. 


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