Women in Aviation: How XOJET is Breaking the Glass Ceiling
Ask any XOJET employee and they’ll tell you there’s something special about the feeling inside an XOJET office—be it corporate headquarters in San Francisco, the operations command center in Sacramento, or even an aircraft cockpit at Van Nuys. Bound by a shared commitment to service and competition, it’s a place filled with close friends, loyal colleagues, and a work culture that, in the words of SVP of Human Resources Michelle Bauman, “is built on company values of integrity, collaboration, compassion, and continuous improvement.”
Look carefully, however, and XOJET doesn’t just feel different; it looks different. In an industry traditionally dominated by men, you’ll soon notice that many of XOJET’s most important leadership positions are held by smart, powerful, and accomplished women. Michelle, Rebecca Kodesh (VP of Scheduling), Renee Aivaliklis (VP of Client Services), Lezlea List (Regional VP of Sales), Danielle Talbott (Regional VP of Sales), Kriste Hauswirth (Director of Operations), Christy Hutchison (Operations Business Manager), and Susanne Kelly (Assistant Chief Pilot) are just a few of the inspiring women who lead XOJET to new heights year after year—and the list goes on and on.
All together, women make up 33% of the management positions at XOJET, a stark contrast to the industry average hovering as low as 5%. Furthermore, 10% of XOJET pilots are women, nearly double the nationwide average for professional pilots. While there’s still work to do before closing the gender gap, it’s a promising trend that establishes XOJET as a true trailblazer when it comes to establishing, encouraging, and empowering women within aviation.
What’s the driving force behind this female ascent? And how did these groundbreaking women smash the glass ceiling in an industry habitually led by males?
Below are the unique insights gained from a roundtable discussion with some of XOJET’s most important leaders—all of whom just happen to be women.
Hiring for Performance and Personality
After years of fine-tuning its culture and hiring practices, XOJET has honed in on exactly the type of individual who can thrive within the company’s fast-paced, performance-driven environment. They’re seasoned aviation professionals, fierce competitors, and skilled communicators, but most importantly, they’re great human beings.
“At XOJET, you not only have to be good at your job, you have to be a good person,” says Michelle. “This is the same for every position and person. You have to care about others and you have to put people first. When we interview someone, if the only thing they tell us about is how good they’re going be at the job, they probably won’t be a good fit at XOJET. Here that is not enough. We want someone who is authentic and is invested in supporting others. The men and women at XOJET embody that.”
The result is a propensity to hire candidates with the intangibles to succeed, not just the experience. In a male-dominated industry where experience has traditionally favored men, XOJET has leveled the playing field—allowing women to reduce the gender gap and earn their way to the top.
“Traits that were traditionally labeled ‘feminine’—being family-oriented, having strong communication, using more teamwork—are actually becoming understood as powerful drivers of success in any company,” says Susanne Kelly, one of XOJET’s industry-leading woman pilots. Kriste Hauswirth, an XOJET executive who also captains both the Challenger 300 and Citation X, sees it as a legitimate competitive advantage within the industry. “From flight operations to sales to maintenance,” she says, “having a more diverse workforce makes us successful. It gives us an edge that other companies may not have.”
The premise is simple: XOJET sits at the forefront of woman leadership because it employs a completely impartial approach to hiring and developing leaders. The candidate who best suits the role wins the job; all women have to do is seize the opportunity.
“From a sales perspective,” says Lezlea List, “it is so important to hire individuals that have the energy and personality to make the advisor role a part of their life. You have to have a passion for servicing clients and the ability to really grind it out the first several years, as you build a book of business. It is an even playing ground for all of our advisors, and so many women have taken the opportunity to earn a leadership role within the sales team.”
“We do buck the norm in terms of woman leaders,” admits Michelle, “but our ultimate goal is to always hire the top-tier talent. The women in this company are the most talented I have worked with. They are smart, caring, and compassionate, but they’re also fierce, objective, hardworking, and persistent. They don’t sweat the small stuff, they focus on the problems, and they fix things. Better yet, they are unconditionally good people! They’ve earned their success.”
Blazing the Path for Other Women
The beauty of XOJET’s development of woman leaders is the ripple effect it creates throughout the entire company. “We have created a culture that is centered on supporting all leaders, not just women,” says Michelle. “It’s a culture that encourages people to speak up, take initiative, come up with new ideas, and voice their opinion. As a by-product, XOJET is an environment where women are treated equally and where they can thrive. The best part is, once you get really strong and capable women in leadership positions, more come on board.”
It’s the reason why, when asked to share their inspirations, each of these accomplished women simply pointed to each other. “What’s lacking when you’re singled out in an industry is a certain type of camaraderie that others may take for granted,” says Susanne. “But because XOJET has strong female leadership, we get to enjoy camaraderie too, and that’s pretty special.”
Christy Hutchison, XOJET’s Operations Business Manager and one of only 20 women to have ever achieved the prestigious title of Certified Aviation Manager (CAM), agrees that inspirational role models can empower women to conquer their biggest obstacle: themselves. “It’s mind-blowing to me [that only 20 women have received the award] because there are so many women who are qualified,” she says. “It’s representative of the self-limitation within the industry. I’m making it my personal mission to help other women obtain it.”
Leading by example, of course, doesn’t just impact today’s generation of woman aviators, but also the aspiring women following in their footsteps. “The power of perception and representation is hard to quantify, but it’s very strong,” says Susanne, herself an avid advocate for young female pilots. “Women of all ages have said to me, ‘Wow, I never thought I could be a pilot,’ which isn’t surprising. If they grow up never seeing a woman pilot, it probably won’t occur to them as an option in their own lives. Not having role models makes it harder to imagine yourself succeeding. Luckily that’s changing.”
A Culture of Mutual Support
While childbirth and parenting considerations often place women at a career disadvantage, XOJET doesn’t let them stand in the way of professional advancement. Buoyed by a culture of widespread collaboration, respect, and empowerment, women at XOJET can create flexible work arrangements and lean on a full team of both men and women eager to lend a helping hand in times of need.
“As a performance-driven company,” says Danielle Talbott, “our Sales team can trust each other to accomplish our jobs remotely, especially now that technology has come such a long way. It’s a community of trust and there’s so much flexibility to help women, and men, achieve a work-life balance.”
What’s more, XOJET team members will go well out of their way to help a fellow employee manage their job and family simultaneously. “A few years ago,” remembers Michelle, “we had an employee emergency and I needed to be with their family to help them. In the interim, I’m a mom myself, so I was worrying about who would pick up my kids and feed my dog. Before I had a chance to figure something out, I got an email from the folks here and everything was taken care of. My kids were picked up by a colleague, they had dinner with one of our pilot’s families, my dog was fed, and eventually they stayed at another colleague’s house for the night. I was able to 100% do my job—help an XOJET family in crisis—all because other employees were taking care of my own family.”
Rebecca Kodesh, who leads XOJET’s aircraft positioning and scheduling, adds that this sort of wholehearted support isn’t just reserved for woman employees or even XOJET’s local employees, for that matter. “We go above and beyond to take care of our people,” she says. “Recently, a gentleman whose wife was on labor watch was piloting one of our airplanes. She started going into labor early, so instead of getting the gentleman on a commercial airline, we let him take the jet home so he could get to his wife in time. Sure, this was a unique scenario, but it speaks to the fact that how we strive to serve our clients, also applies to our employees.”
The bottom line is, by taking care of its people, XOJET fosters long-term company loyalty and a healthy work-life balance—a win-win for women who have big dreams both at home and in the workplace.
A Common Thread
It’s no coincidence that XOJET’s groundbreaking female aviators all share several key qualities: strong personality, relentless drive, and undeterred confidence. To reach this point in their careers, they simply had no other choice.
“Times have changed a lot and it’s very dependent on the culture,” says Renee Aivaliklis. “But at 18 years old, when I was the only woman in my department, I remember being asked on my first day at the job, ‘So when are you going to quit?’ The comment was meant to intimidate, but all it did was make me work harder to prove them wrong. I had to show my peers that I could not only do the job, but I could do it better.”
It’s the same experience shared by Susanne, who adds that women can be held to different standards. “There’s more spotlight on us, so there’s more pressure,” she says. “If you mess up, it’s because you’re a girl. Many people out there will still say that, so you better work twice as hard to prove them wrong.”
The bottom line is, successful woman aviators have to set their sights high and never back down. “This is a male-dominated industry,” says Michelle, “and it’s only natural that we have work harder to prove ourselves. There is a constant pressure to never make a mistake, but that only makes you better at your job.” Adds Rebecca, “If you make the opportunities for yourself, they’re available. But you have to be strong-willed enough to go after them.”
The bright side, of course, is that XOJET’s strides in developing woman leaders—while still ongoing—are a testament to the promising future that lies ahead for women in aviation. Thanks to fearless leaders like Rebecca, Christy, Renee, Danielle, Kriste, Lezlea, Susanne, Michelle, and many others, the path has been paved for young women to continue to close the gender gap within every field of aviation.
“There are so many facets of the industry,” says Rebecca. “My advice to young women would be to find something you’re really passionate about. That’s what’s going to drive you to maintain the fast pace and high demands this industry requires. It’s so easy to get addicted.”
“My response to people who say I work in a male-dominated industry,” says Danielle, “is ‘So what?’ To me, women coming behind us should not get in their own way. Don’t let the stereotype be a reason to stay away. Like anything else in life, it’s not going to fall into your lap. Take the initiative and don’t look at being a woman in aviation as an excuse—if you leverage it correctly, it’s actually an advantage.”