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Transition Advice: Interview with Allison Hickey

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Then-Capt. Allison Hilsman piloting the KC-135 at Grand Forks Air Force Base, N.D. in 1984. Hickey was the first female aircraft commander at the installation.

Air Force Brigadier General (retired) Allison Hickey is a leader worth looking up to as a female role model. She works hard and has no problem keeping up with the men. During her time in the military, she took care of her family and advanced her career without losing her femininity. I like to consider her a combination of Grace Kelly and GI Jane – the ultimate combination of a rugged adventurer and a lady of poise, polish, and beauty.

General Hickey attended the US Air Force Academy (USAFA) as part of the first class to admit women, and was Grand Forks Air Force Base's first female aircraft commander. Her other firsts include being the first woman to fly on a pregnancy waiver, the first woman USAFA graduate to be confirmed as General Officer, and the first Woman Under Secretary for Benefits. (There was a Director of Benefits before who was a woman – but not an Under Secretary). General Hickey retired after 27 years of service and then went on to become the Under Secretary for Benefits for the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Here she gives us her advice drawn from her amazing career in the military and beyond.

What advice would you give transitioning members?

The advice I give transitioning service members depends on where they are in their careers. In general, the first thing I tell them is to make sure they attend the mandatory transition assistance program offered by DoD, VA, DoL, and the SBA. Don't put it off. Start early, and by early I mean at least 180 days out. Be your own advocate to get into this class. While many are attending, many are not. As a result, there is quite a difference in the transition experience. Not only will this week-long session provide mountains of resources and information to facilitate the transition, but it ensures you have at least a week to exclusively consider your options. It also connects you with many others who are going through similar experiences, therefore building your network. The program is designed to bring your spouse, so bring your spouse. This is a family experience and one where it's important to have everyone on the same page. Transitions can be very stressful. Keeping the family connected by having them attend the course with you reduces the inherent anxiety that comes with these milestone moves.

The second piece of advice I would share is to build your network early and often. Don't be shy about it. You can leverage your supervisory chain's connections and they can leverage yours too. Rank is indifferent to the need for a good job. Your peers, neighbors, church group, and bowling team are all ways to grow your network. You can learn about available resources on eBenefits.va.gov and specifically on the Veteran Employment Center VEC site, which you can find by Googling directly or finding through eBenefits. Talk to everyone who will listen -- they may be able to share your resume with the right person.

DON'T just take the first job offer that comes along, if you can avoid it, when that job doesn't really interest you. According to a Blue Star Families report just released, more than 50 benefits of Veterans say they aren't in the career area they would choose. Taking a job that isn't right for you now may force a lot of change on you and your family down the road. While some job mobility is expected, too much "job hopping" doesn't fare well on you resume. Choose carefully. Identify the pros and cons. In the same respect, set reasonable expectations for your first job out of service. You will have to prove yourself, but at least you will do that faster than most non-military employees because that is what you have been trained to do -- master your mission quickly!

Find both a mentor and sponsor in your new company. A mentor is someone who will listen and offer advice. A sponsor is someone who has influence in the company and can help be your advocate for career development opportunities. The mentor and sponsor can be the same person, but often are not. You need both in today's world.

Finally, jump in with all you've got! Even if it turns out that this isn't the career you would have chosen, if you do the job well and are recognized for that effort and skill -- you have just diversified your resume. That is critically important. Everything adds up to broader career choices as you move forward. Jump in -- all in -- to move forward!

Why did you join the military?

I grew up as an Army "Brat" -- living and loving being part of the military family. My dad and mom spent over 30 years in the Army, he as an Army Signal Corps officer that retired as a Lt General and the commander of what is now the Defense Information Systems Agency, and my mom as a military spouse who went to great lengths to support the military family as a Director of the National Military Family Association and the first DoD Family Programs Director. Numerous other members of my family were or had served in the military. It was a vital piece of my DNA and still is part of the very core of who I am and my identity. In fact, the value of military service was so deeply inside me that when it came time to choose colleges to attend, I applied to all the Military Service Academies and only one "regular" school as a fallback position. I loved the military so much. Through eleven moves in eighteen years, the two constants were my personal family and my military family.

What was your basic career path?

I wish I could tell you that I had a "basic" career path, but my career resembled more of today's young person than those of my peers in my generation. Though I started on a "traditional" path, that soon changed. I guess I have always been a change agent, starting off by attending the USAF Academy in 1980 in the first class to include women. Though a traditional career path for a military career officer, it wasn't the traditional career path for a woman. When I graduated, I attended pilot training. My assignments for aircraft were limited because women's roles in the Air Force were limited at that time. They are not so limited today -- and that is so very good! I flew the KC-135A (Boeing 707) and, following a special fellowship program, went on to fly the bigger, more selective KC-10 for a few more years. Life changed at this point and my career path took a very divergent role for the times. With the birth of my first two children, I made some hard decisions and decided to continue service in a way that allowed me to balance my role as a wife and mother while still a serving military officer. I joined the Reserves and then the National Guard in support services and quality management roles. Those roles provided more stability to a particular season in my life where I was unwilling to sacrifice the needs of my family, but continued to let me show my capabilities in more diversified ways. I was subsequently identified for skills in this area and brought back to the National Guard Bureau, where I became the organizations Quality Management/ Strategic Planning expert. This opened doors to the Strategic Planning leadership roles that I had back in the regular Air Force, at the Headquarters level.

Through multiple assignments focused on the future of the Air Force and the strategic needs of its force structure and transformation, I found myself the clear choice for challenging missions to change organizations. I ended up retiring as a Brigadier General and the Director of Future Total Force/ Total Force Integration at the Headquarters United States Air Force in the Pentagon. In that role, everything I had done and experienced in a "non-traditional" career path became exactly what I needed to be successful. I was able to implement not only one but two of the most significant changes in the Air Force in decades -- shifting more than $4 billion in the Air Force portfolio and creating more than 140 new missions and units in a highly contentious stakeholder environment.

Did you follow the path you had planned?

If my plan was to serve in the military and as a career, then yes. How I achieved that overall objective was very different. I never planned on flying airplanes. That changed when a career advisor discouraged me from an action I was about to take to remove myself from that option. He told me to just "try it." I did, and when I soloed for the first time it was amazing. I am so glad he gave me that advice. I didn't really understand what it took and what it was like to fly an airplane, since I hadn't even been aboard that many as a passenger. That's a lesson for many --don't discount a career opportunity because you think it will be a certain type of experience. Really try to experience it (intern or apprenticeship or just shadow someone who does it for a while). You might find it is completely different than you thought, and quite exciting.

The second divergent path had to do with family choices. I would always tell a person facing these issues to put the BIG family choices first. Will this job, in general, allow me to fulfill my other God-ordained roles in life, or at the end will I feel as if I failed them in order to do this job. Then the day-to-day choices around the family can be made in order to create success in both places, at work and at home. I also made choices to take challenging jobs -- to jump in with all I had on tough jobs that others thought I was crazy to do because of all the risks in the job (unhappy stakeholders with divergent opinions, budget constrained environments, large gaps in improvement or capabilities to be addressed). I found that if I took these jobs and performed them very well, they pushed me to new heights of opportunities in my career. That made daily work harder, but also more rewarding.

You have seemed to balance family and personal life very well with your career. How did you do it?

I have long said for more than two decades that the solution here is to "marry well." That sounds trite, but it is so very true. Once you have made the "strategic" family choices on jobs for both of you, then it becomes a daily operational or tactical decision to balance family needs on whoever can handle them. I married the absolutely best man, an Academy graduate and pilot who shared common interests with me. He supported me in such tremendous ways and is always leaning forward to be part of our "balancing" requirements. I will say that you never, ever feel like you are balanced when you are going through the daily activities. It's only when you look back that you can say, "Yes, I think we had it about right." We raised three amazing children, with a lot of help from the community of support and a few good child care providers.

Do you have words of advice for other ladies trying to do the same?

Marry well and don't judge yourself so harshly when you miss a mark or two. Look at it over the long haul and adjust if you need to, but don't react to the daily, weekly, or even monthly ups and downs. Work hard at work and deliver high quality work. The rest will all work out. If you need to step out for a while, do something part-time that keeps you on people's minds and keeps you engaged and developing. So much can be done through part time or telework right now, which is a difference that is significant to today's young men and women.

What would you have done differently?

Nothing. Never look back. Just look forward. I made the best decisions I could with the data I had at the time (something my husband taught me -- I married well!). There is such demand for competent and dedicated talent that even if you have a season off, when you come back do it ALL IN! You will be pleasantly surprised at how fast your personal market value increases.

What do you feel your leadership style has been? Why did you choose this?

I probably use a situational leadership model -- one we were all taught in the military. Not every person or action needs the same approach. The leader has to assess the best approach for the right reason with each individual person. As you practice this more and more, and see the defined results -- it gets easier and easier to shift on a dime for that person's needs. I would say in general though, I have long embraced the following attributes of leadership: Be authentic, be bold, be caring and compassionate, and, when necessary, be decisive. Lastly, I would say that my leadership is always characterized by transparency.

What would you say to young women trying to be successful and professional?

Be authentic, be bold, be caring and compassionate, be decisive, be transparent, and don't be worried about how to "fit" marriage and children into life. It's all part of life. Just jump in and do it. It is never convenient, so if it's part of your life plan, then just do it.

Who was your role model growing up? Did you role model change as you got older? Was there any advice that resonated with you?

My role models were my Dad and Mom and other military men and women I met through them. They were all the things I mentioned above but also so completely supportive of me and what I could do despite current (at the time) limitations in law and practice. It is great to have cheerleaders like them in your life. They always encouraged me to try my best, to see past the limitations, to care about others, to care about the family. When I think about other role models beyond them, I see specific leaders in my life who also emulated these same approaches. I see the leader who specifically hired talent "smarter and better" than they were, instead of being concerned about perceived threats. I saw leaders who provided amazing access to senior leaders and strategic environments because they knew the value of those developmental opportunities. I saw amazing caring leadership who fully loved those they worked alongside, without worrying about being seen as "soft." I saw amazing leaders who did the hard things even when the easier was less risky.

Did you have a mentor?

Yes I did and still do, but what I had that was more impactful to my career was a sponsor. A mentor is someone you can bounce ideas off of and talk to, but the sponsor is the one who makes sure you get the best and right job, and has influence they are willing to expend on your development. That is where the real action happens. The best place to be is to have one of each -- a mentor and a sponsor.

When you looked to females in the military in the past, what did you think? Did you want to bust any stereotypes?

I didn't know many or interact with many. Remember, I wasn't in traditional women areas. Most weren't married, so fewer had children. I actually had to cut some of that path for those that followed me.

You busted stereotypes in my mind as you had femininity, class, power, leadership skills, intelligence, and compassion. How do you feel you have embodied these principles?

That is for others to judge. I just never stop trying to improve on all of them. I will say that I was never willing to compromise my integrity and authenticity.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I am proud that I have been the architect behind many significant successful changes in the organizations where I have been honored to serve, and that, as a result, I have been able to help this nation and the men and women who serve it in very significant ways. I am also particularly proud of my alma mater, USAFA, and the opportunity to graduate from this exceptional school. Like me, this wonderful institution doesn't shy away from tough problems and, as a result, they change the world.

What are the biggest sacrifices you have had to have made both professionally and personally?

Tough jobs take a toll on you physically, emotionally and spiritually. You give up a lot of breaths to serve well and faithfully. Sometimes that means you need to step back and reenergize so you can come back stronger, more seasoned, and ready to help the next problem. I am in that season now.

What struggles do you see women facing today that you did not have and vice versa?

Choices. There are just more choices now for today's women. More choices can be a good thing, but also a challenge because choices complicate the decisions. I didn't have as many choices, so it was a little bit less complex and confusing. To those women, I would say what I have become known for saying in multiple careers -- "jump in with all you've got" and be "all in" wherever you land.

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