A recent panel discussion about leadership with women who’ve been pioneers in three different fields underscored the importance of being both genuine and flexible in moving forward through uncertain times.

The panel was part of a January 2021 weekly leadership update hosted by ABM’s Aviation Group for leaders and managers. ABM’s Aviation Group provides an extensive range of integrated support services to more than 75 airports around the globe, cleaning in excess of 1 million aircraft and 30 million square feet of airport properties in an average year.

However, 2020 was anything but an average year for airlines and the companies that serve them. As air travel dropped in the wake of the pandemic, ABM’s Aviation Group faced a parallel loss of business and steep layoffs. At the same time, ABM launched a redesign of their cleaning protocols to meet the rigorous new standards needed to safeguard against a highly infectious disease.

To meet these and other challenges, Alex Marren, president of ABM’s Aviation Group, initiated weekly meetings with her global leadership team. A 25-year veteran of the aviation industry, Ms. Marren is responsible for all aspects of ABM’s global aviation business. The intent of the meetings has been to encourage information flow and dialogue to lead successfully in a fast-changing environment.

Joining Ms. Marren in the online discussion on January 14 were Cady Coleman, a former U.S. Air Force colonel and retired NASA astronaut who flew multiple missions to space including a six-month tour on the International Space Shuttle, and Ann M. Drake, former Chairman and CEO of DSC Logistics, who is now focused on non-profit leadership supporting women in business and the global supply chain after her 25-year career in transportation systems and logistics.

Setting the tone for the discussion, Ms. Drake observed that, “More than ever, I think authentic, values-based leadership is important. Yes, there will be different times for different faces. But it still needs to be the real you leading. Because being authentic is one of the most important—if not the most important—quality of a leader.”

All three women confirmed that their respective careers had taken numerous unexpected turns. Noted Ms. Marren, “There’s only one guarantee in life, and that's change.” The panelists explained what paths they had taken in responding to that change.

I learned to just say ‘yes’ to any kind of opportunity, whether you feel ready for it or not,” said Ms. Drake. Ms. Coleman added that her byword for moving ahead was “be prepared” so that she could seize the moment when it came. “There’s a certain amount of luck in being in the right place at the right time,” she added, “but I was also ready to take advantage of opportunities that appeared.” Ms. Marren said that “following her passion” had guided her choices as she rose through the ranks in the fast-evolving aviation industry.

Asked how they got through their most trying times, the women named different resources that had supported them.

“I had a mom who taught me I could be anything,” said Ms. Coleman. “What has gotten me through has been a strong sense of mission. You don’t always get to choose your job, and sometimes it’s difficult. But when you have a sense that it’s essential, you keep going.” Ms. Marren said that she relied on her colleagues and the support of loved ones when times were tough. She also credited being part of a community of women leaders as critical support. Ms. Drake affirmed the importance of teams and relying on others: “We are all counting on so many teams in this global world now,” she said. “Particularly as we deal with COVID, paying attention to the team and motivating teams is part of what we have to do.”

All three leaders agreed that, no matter how big the challenges get, continuing to give your best can make the difference. “If one path doesn’t work, try other paths,” said Ms. Marren. “You don’t always win,” she admitted, “but you get back up and give it another go. If it's something you want and you're passionate about it, look around; there are people to help you get there.”

“And sometimes,” added Ms. Coleman, “you lead from behind. I like to think I’m part of the change that’s putting a new face on who our astronauts are. I love seeing more and more women astronauts doing spacewalks now. I never actually got to do a spacewalk, but I qualified and trained for it, I had a suit, and I was ready. That was really important.”