Nicole Malachowski at Raymond James Women's Symposium. (Photo: Janet Levaux/ALM) Nicole Malachowski at Raymond James Women’s Symposium. (Photos: Janet Levaux/ALM)

Col. Nicole Malachowski knows how to soar — and she knows a thing or two about leadership in a male-dominated field. The retired Air Force pilot, who flew a F-15E Strike Eagle and went on to be the first female Thunderbird airshow participant in an F-16, also served in 26 combat missions.

“You never know who you are inspiring. It’s about being a woman and being darn good advisor, for instance,” she explained at the 25th annual Women’s Symposium of Raymond James on Wednesday.  

I look out, and this is the biggest crowd of women I have ever spoken to. When I started out in the military, there weren’t these kind of events until about five years into my service,” she told a crowd of roughly 420 female advisors and 300 other guests, most of whom are female client associates with Raymond James, employees of the firm and event sponsors.

While about 15% of advisors are women, about 18% of the active-duty Air Force is female, she says

How many women are pilots? Out of 12,000 pilots in the Air Force, just 750, or 2%, according to the former Thunderbird. But back in World War II, more than 1,000 women flew in the Army Air Corps, she adds.

As for female fighter pilots, there are 63 out of a total group of 3,000. “It’s a small number,” Malachowski explained. 

Thunderbird Scene

When she was picked in 2005 to be the first female Thunderbird pilot, “I hated it,” Malachowski said. “I wanted to be an extraordinary Thunderbird, a skilled fighter pilot, so I bristled at the label ‘first female.’”

But at her first air show, she noticed a line of about 20 individuals trying to get signatures from the male pilots and over 100 in her line. 

“Most were women who were 18 to 20 years old,” the ex-pilot said. The response showed her that “it means something to see someone who looks like you succeeding. It’s not about Nicole, but about the art of the possible.”

Success Secrets 

“It’s all about authenticity,” Malachowski explained. “Breaking barriers requires integrity. You must maintain fidelity to who you truly are. Do not censor part of yourself.”

She then went on to explain what it took to overcome self doubt in a male-dominated environment: “We all have those moments, women and men alike, when we don’t want to be different” by raising our hands or standing out in other ways.

In her mid-30s, after being in combat and acting as a mission commander, the pilot thought about applying to be a Thunderbird: “Every year, we were asked to put in an application. I would delete and delete the messages,” she said.

A few years into this cycle and after combat in an F-15, she asked herself: “Why not me?” 

There were folks you told her the role was tough and that she might not get picked for it, Malachowski explained. She even told a wing commander that she thought the role was “too big for her” and might withdraw her application. 

“The general said to me, ‘Nobody wants to lead a scripted life.’ In other words, it’s OK to be different and to take risks. Never write yourself or others out of a script. And you can be that person, like Major Gen. Mark Matthews was for me, for somebody else,” she shared.

As she moved on to becoming an instructor in the Air Force, Malachowski found it important “to believe those who believe in you,” she said. “Don’t wait until you are ready for a job or role. Do the work. You build trust by being trustworthy, in all circumstances and at all times.”

Set Boundaries, Get Help

Malachowski highlighted her frustration over a particular maneuver she had to do for the Thunderbird shows, which prompted her to ask her teammates for support; that turned into an extra day or two of intense practice. 

“I asked for help,” she explained. “You are never too experienced to ask for help when you need it.”

The former pilot also described her initial difficulty of maneuvers during air turbulence. “We all have turbulence in our lives. You cannot control it,” she said.

“The secret, as the team told me, is to loosen your grip or the formation falls apart,” Malachowski explained. “You have to let go.”

In business, military and other leadership roles, such as working with clients having trouble, “It’s important to tailor, to customize your approach to others. It takes time. But if you really care, you will make the time to tailor your approach,” she said. “Be the one they can count on.” 

Turning to how she juggles different roles as a wife, mother and member of the Air Force, Malachowski said she gave structure to her time rather than multi-tasking: “I found I could perform better when I said, ‘Monday is about flying, Wednesday working late on squadron commander tasks, Friday for time as a couple, and the weekend for the kids.’”

When you set clear boundaries, “People will respect them. Communicate the structure to those affected. I wish I had done this sooner.”

Finally, be sure to ask for and accept help when it is needed, Malachowski said. “And maintain fidelity to who you truly are.”