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5 Valuable Lessons We Learned from Martha McSally

5 Valuable Lessons We Learned from Martha McSally

It’s not often that you have the chance to sit down with a retired Air Force Colonel, a U.S. Senator, an inspirational author, and the first woman in U.S. history to fly a fighter jet in combat. It’s even less often that you have the chance to sit down with someone who’s managed to achieve all those remarkable feats, but that’s exactly what happened on March 17, 2021, when InfoTrust had the opportunity to connect with Martha McSally. 

Over the course of her impressive 26-year military career, Martha McSally overcame incredible hardships, faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and performed countless acts of bravery. She continued that legacy of courage and perseverance during her time in the United States Senate, and her book Dare to Fly: Simple Lessons in Never Giving Up has inspired readers worldwide to face challenges head-on. 

During our conversation, McSally shared five valuable lessons that we’ve taken to heart at InfoTrust. Some of these lessons were already embedded in our company culture, while others have given us clear reminders of what we need to do to continue to grow and prosper. 

1. Build Your Misery Database

When McSally climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, she did it with six friends, one of whom brought along his 13-year-old son. The boy was an elite runner, but the 19,000-plus foot climb was intense. He was miserable. 

On the last day of the climb, McSally pulled the boy aside and said, “The rest of us feel like we want to quit too. But the reason we don’t is because we’ve all been through tough times, and we know that we’ve gotten through them. All those miserable but survivable experiences go into your database, and when you’re up against hard times, you can tap into that database and say, ‘I got through that, and I’ll get through this, too.’”  

She continued, “You don’t have as much misery to tap into, but the good news is that you’re building your misery database right now. And if you can put one foot in front of the other and make it to the top of Kilimanjaro, you’re going to be able to reach back for the rest of your life and say, ‘I climbed the tallest mountain in Africa when I was 13.’” 

Every person at InfoTrust has their own misery database they can tap into when the going gets rough. But we also believe that it’s important not to turn away from other people’s misery. Understanding the hardships that others experience—and being able to develop empathy for their experience—can fuel us to go further. 

That’s one reason the InfoTrust Foundation launched a scholarship at the University of Cincinnati for students who may need an extra leg up. Straight-A students often have opportunities for financial help, but other students who are fighting through personal challenges also deserve support. We want to make sure that while they’re building their misery database, there’s hope shining through on the other side. 

2. Be Brutally Honest

The military can be very rank-focused, and there’s often a “shut up and get on with it” mentality. But that mentality doesn’t cut it when it comes to fighter pilots. Their lives are literally in each others’ hands, so they form a culture where they all have to be willing to put the rank down and be brutally honest with each other. 

It’s not always easy, because humans are naturally a little defensive, especially when the advice comes from their juniors, but when lives are on the line, brutal honesty matters more than ego. According to McSally, “I think it’s the responsibility of every leader to set the stage and give the opportunity for subordinates to speak up.” 

Personally, I want my team to separate me, Alex, from my title as CEO. I want them to feel comfortable speaking up because, at the end of the day, my ideas are no different from anyone else’s. I love to have opinions, but that doesn’t mean they’re always right. 

One thing I’ve learned is that engineers love solving problems, so even when we move from technical work into management positions, it can be hard to let go of our desire to have our hands in the nitty-gritty details. But, truth be told, people in leadership positions aren’t always the most knowledgeable about the day-to-day details or the latest technologies because they don’t work with them on a day-to-day basis. 

That’s why brutal honesty and team trust are so important. The best ideas often come from the people without the highest titles. 

3. Never Fly Solo

We’ve all heard the term “wingman” for a reason. Fighter pilots make it a point to never fly solo. Even though they’re alone in the cockpit, they’re always flying alongside someone else. The job of the wingman is to keep their partners safe, and in order to do that, they have to have the authority to actually step up, use their judgment, and make calls. 

It may sound cliché, but we really do have a team-driven organization here at InfoTrust. One of the most revealing examples is how we handle parental leave. When an employee leaves for three months, it’s not always easy to fill their shoes, but that’s precisely what we do. Everyone steps up, comes together, and figures out how to get the work done. That’s because everyone sees so much value in working as a team that they are willing to step up and help each other. 

That kind of teamwork can’t be imposed from the top-down. The employees must be willing to participate. When teams function that way—empathetically, organically, willingly—that’s when they’re the most powerful. That’s when you know you’ve tapped into the good side of humans. 

4. Choose to Be Generous

I asked Martha for her advice about how InfoTrust should be thinking about our giving priorities moving forward. As we grow, how can we figure out the best ways to support our communities? 

She responded that, first and foremost, we have to continue making the choice to give. In the midst of uncertainty, it’s easy to hoard, cling to resources, and give into fear. But, in reality, giving is the fuel that will get us through that uncertainty. 

I think that’s absolutely true. Even in the midst of the pandemic, the InfoTrust Foundation managed to contribute more than $200,000 to our community. Giving is at the heart of our philosophy, and I firmly believe that giving allows us to grow, because it gives our organization a central why. Why make money? Why hire new people? Why get up and do what we do everyday? Because we know that we can make a difference in others’ lives. 

Right now, we’re testing a new kind of charitable initiative in the Philippines. It’s a microlending program that allows people (primarily women) to start small businesses in their local communities. The loan carries 0% interest, and when the recipients pay the loan back, the money returns to the pool to support the next group of entrepreneurs. This program is in its infancy, so we’re not entirely sure how it will work, but if it does work, it will be life-changing for so many people. So, we’ve decided to lean into the uncertainty and make generosity our ongoing mission. 

5. Get to the First Water Station

McSally is also a marathon runner, and she says that when she’s training someone to run their first marathon, her main piece of advice is to break it into incremental goals. If you think of a marathon as 26.2 miles, the task will be daunting. Your mind will scream, “How in the world am I going to get through this?” But if you tackle it in smaller segments, it becomes much easier. 

Don’t worry about the finish line. Just worry about getting to the first water station. And once you’re there, take a few sips, and then set your sights on getting to the next water station. 

There’s a lot of wisdom in focusing on short-term goals that, in the long-run, progress you toward your big dream. Every time you move towards those smaller goals, you’re making progress, but you’re not letting yourself get distracted by all the obstacles you’ll have to face in the future. 

This is why, at InfoTrust, we are always stressing the importance of setting priorities. When we’re clear on our priorities and the smaller goals that it will take us to achieve them, it becomes much easier to achieve the things that matter. 

As InfoTrust grows, I encourage us all not to get distracted by the finish line, but to just focus on the things that matter day-to-day, month-to-month, and year-to-year. Focus on getting to the next water station, and bit by bit, we’ll succeed.

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