Franchise Success Call

Team Success Lessons from the First Thunderbird Woman Pilot

culture inspiration multi-unit franchising people May 30, 2023
Team success lessons for leaders

(Part 4 of the Multi-Unit Franchising Conference 2023)


This year's Multi-Unit Franchising Conference keynote was really inspiring. It was given by Nicole Malachowski, from American Airman, the first Thunderbird woman pilot, combat veteran, and fighter squadron commander, the first of her class. It was really amazing to hear her story and the lessons she has learned along the way. 

Although most of us won’t ever know what it takes to be a Thunderbird pilot, what she shared really resonates with what we do every day as leaders and business owners that are growing an organization

Hopefully, you’ll find this blog post very applicable to you and to the team that you work with. 

Subscribe to our YouTube channel to review the rest of the 2023 Multi-Unit Franchising Conference series!


The secret: Pushing the envelope

To begin with, she explained how The American Airman is one of the most elite organizations and the pilots who enter have highly skilled abilities. But she confessed that she has never been the best at anything. However, she has been a part of the best teams, and that is what made all the difference. 

She also mentioned how for her, it is all about pushing the envelope. And she explained that for her to be a part f this team, she had to be willing to push her plane to a speed and altitude limit to demonstrate what was possible with that machine. 

  • What that translates to is bringing your best into the team to make it happen

To be able to achieve that mindset, she enlisted three things that you need:

  1. Courage
  2. Trust
  3. Vulnerability

By possessing these values, Nicole said, you can obtain the best of yourself and of others around you.

However, her path to becoming a pilot of the Thunderbird team was not a straight line but rather littered with challenges and issues. 

That's true for all of our goals and objectives. We don't get from zero to there in a straight line because many things can happen along the way, such as external factors, events, or people that will derail us. 

But it's up to us to get back on course to where we want to go. We have to be strong enough to pick up our things and recommit to where we want to be so that we can get to the expected end result. 

She was no exception. And so, she shared her perspective on what it takes for you to be the best and push the envelope for excellence, going deep on each of the previously mentioned values. 

You may also enjoy: 9 lessons from a serial entrepreneur, a rapper, and an ultraman racer



1. Courage

Nicole mentioned how you need to have the courage to be different regardless of whatever anybody says about you. You also have to take the risk to design your own journey to avoid having an scripted average life. 

Sadly, very few people are willing to take this ownership and design and live the life they want to live.

This happens not only in the personal sphere but also in the professional one. It is important that you raise your hand and speak up about what you want and desire, and risk yourself out there. 

  • Nobody is going to do it for you and, if you don’t ask, the answer will always be “no”

Yes, there will be challenges. Yes, you may fall down. Yes, you may fail, but you can pick yourself up and accomplish things. But first, you have to have the courage to even ask and try. 

Get inspired! 5 steps to make the impossible, possible


2. Trust

You have to be part of the team because no one of us can achieve excellence on our own. We require a team behind us, on our side, and in front of us, to help us. 

Nothing of significance is ever accomplished alone. Even if you are playing as a single man, you need support. For example, a golf player cannot be the best without a trainer, a supporter, a therapist, a psychologist, equipment suppliers… He has a whole team around him, working together so that he can be the best and accomplish greatness. 

When was the last time that you thank a fellow team member that works for you and does a great job? Because when they do a great job, you are able to do a great job as well. And when was the last time you empower them to keep performing the way they are?

Nicole put it really clearly. She asked, what kind of trust do you think is needed to have you fly next to five other pilots and their machines, three feet away, at 500 miles per hour, upside down? Who would you trust that much in your business? 

It’s incredible the amount of work these pilots put together to get to know each other, understand each other's abilities and skills, strengths and weaknesses, build each other up, and trust each other enough to execute that crazy exercise. 

That level of trust, I'm sure, is accomplished by not very many people. But if you can get even close to that, you can do anything as a team! To empower each other, and go in the same direction, Nicole advised the following actions:

  • You have to build up each other’s skills and abilities to get that.
  • All team members have to be trustworthy, meaning that each has to take responsibility to do their job to the best of their abilities
  • Set the rules and make sure everybody knows, follows, and aligns with them.
  • Designate a “wingman contract” or have a “charter” to unite all of you in the same mission.

The wingman contract, she said, is amazing. Translated to the business world, we can build a mission, vision, and values charter to unite the team members in the same direction. It is important that each of them believes in that charter. And then, you’ll be able to build the trust that is required. 

One last piece of advice on this matter: when it comes to your actions, you always have to follow the wingman contract, meaning the charter. And, when in doubt, you need to follow that charter because that builds a culture that has everybody doing the right thing in alignment.

Don’t miss: What an astronaut can teach us about businesses


3. Vulnerability

You need to be able to expose yourself, share your weaknesses, and be accepted by the team around you to help you get stronger. 

What this value entails is embracing a culture in which a team member can open up and share when they did something wrong. And further beyond, not only to acknowledge that but to ask for help and have people willing to lend you a hand. 

Creating this environment opens the possibility for anything because then you’ll be able to build each other up, progress, and improve. 

Nicole mentioned a great phrase to explain this: “Steel sharpens steel”. What this phrase embodies is a simple premise: we grow stronger when we work with others who are strong and will help us become even stronger

She builds the team around her on this basis. Because this particular premise gives you the ability to not only be vulnerable and to share what you need to improve… If you do get better, you do your part and you become trustworthy, so your team trusts you. And when there is trust, you obtain the courage to try and achieve anything!

That's what's so important to surround yourself with great people

Discover how the power of being grateful can have an impact on your business!


Do you have a culture of vulnerability where people can raise their hands and express what they don’t know or understand? If they ask for help, does anyone responds to help, train, teach, or guide them in whatever challenges they're having? Do you have that in your organization? 

And if you do, is that building trust in your organization? Are people becoming more and more trustworthy because they're willing to say what they're lacking and are willing to do the work to be better? 

And if you have a team of trustworthy people, do they have the courage to do what's necessary to be excellent? Will they will raise their hands to be the next leaders in your organization

That is how you push the envelope for excellence. Obviously, these are principles you have to embrace and work on every day to be able to achieve that excellence.

I leave you with these thoughts and I hope this gives you a little inspiration and thought about what you can do in your organization to continue to push the envelope for excellence. I know for sure it did for me!

Follow us on our YouTube channel, subscribe to our podcast and find us across the social media to get a lot more knowledge, tips, and information for you to be successful. 


  • How quickly can you get back on course when things don’t go as planned?
  • When was the last time you thanked your team for what they do?
  • Are you building a vulnerable environment where people step up for each other?
  • Is there trust between your team?