Francesca Molinari of Wheels Up: “There are seasons in your career and in life ”

To me, great leaders are great leaders. I have a hard time dissecting what to advise great female leadership versus male. Of course, there are typical gender norms, but the qualities of great leadership are agnostic. I would say, listen and learn, but trust your instincts and experience. Make decisions. Own them. As a part of […]

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To me, great leaders are great leaders. I have a hard time dissecting what to advise great female leadership versus male. Of course, there are typical gender norms, but the qualities of great leadership are agnostic. I would say, listen and learn, but trust your instincts and experience. Make decisions. Own them.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, we had the pleasure of interviewing Francesca Molinari.

Francesca Molinari is the Chief People Officer of Wheels Up, a leading brand in private aviation. In this role, she leads all aspects of human resources and culture at Wheels Up including organizational design, talent acquisition, development, and retention, as well as diversity and inclusion functions.

Molinari most recently led Human Resources Business Partnering for Adobe’s Digital Experience marketing cloud business, with a focus on driving organizational growth, scalability, and transformation for more than 5,000 employees worldwide. She successfully achieved high levels of employee engagement and retention while supporting the business’ organic growth and the back-to-back acquisitions of Magento and Marketo. Prior to her time at Adobe, she served as Chief Human Resources Officer at Magento. Molinari also held leadership roles in people management for major corporations including eBay, GE Capital, and Macy’s.

Molinari holds an undergraduate degree from Hofstra University and a master’s degree in Human Resources Management from The New School University.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I’d be lying to say that my career success has been the result of beautiful architecture and years of pre-planning. In hindsight, it has worked out as if I planned it, and led me to this incredible role at Wheels Up, but it was not a straight path. When I entered college, I was really focused on education for education’s sake instead of it being a means to an end. My passion for the subjects of marketing and sociology ultimately led me to where I am today, as they represent the fundamentals of human resources — even though I didn’t know this at the time.

After college, I started my career as a Department Manager at Macy’s, but quickly gravitated towards motivating and hiring employees — the rest has been the result of hard work and focus on continuing to grow while doing what I love. I don’t believe in picking one job for the rest of your life the moment you turn your tassel. Rather, pick your passion and it will become your life’s work. I never dreamed about being a Chief People Officer, but it has become my dream job.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I consider the time I spent at Macy’s as a formative experience in and of itself. Retail can be looked down upon in the HR industry, as it is not thought to be the most sophisticated sector. However, this was not true of my experience at Macy’s — we were blazing industry trails in the 90’s. I always like to tell people that we were HR business partners before that was a term!

At Macy’s, my senior leaders taught me how to use data and analysis as a weapon of influence. Each week, we collected open job reports from 88 stores via fax, and my job on Thursdays was to crank it out in Lotus 123 to create a cogent story of where we were doing well in terms of recruiting and also what priority stores or departments needed more focus or new strategies. I owned a very significant recruitment budget and decided where across our nearly 90 stores the resources would be best placed. Being given this type of responsibility by the leadership team, especially the store’s VP of Human Resources, Linda Martin, enabled me to grow quickly and learn the power of data at an early stage in my career.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

As a business leader, no day is exempt from stress or a high stakes situation, which is why I endeavor to prepare myself for optimal performance every day. I try to eat right, stay hydrated and work out regularly for my body and mind. A critical daily ritual is my gratitude journal. Each day, I sit and write down five things that I’m grateful for — some days those things are harder to identify than others and there have been points in my life when I didn’t think I could possibly find all five, but each day I always try. On most days, I list many more.

These habits help me maintain balance and perspective because you never know when you’re going to be put to the test and leaders must always be prepared for the unexpected.

As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

I believe in diversity fundamentally — and when it comes to this topic, I like to talk about it as Diversity with a capital D, and diversity.

First, an organization needs to attract, value and support Diversity with an ethnically, racially, gender, sexual orientation diverse team at every level of their organization.

I also believe that diversity can mean a diversity of thought — which is partly driven by Diversity — with a mix of perspectives from different industries, backgrounds, socioeconomic classes, and walks of life. This creates an environment where ideas are manifold, and businesses are better off for it.

As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society?

As businesses we must get our own house in order first — and set an example for society at large. As business leaders we have an expansive sphere of influence and great resources available to us that enable us to create an environment that is inclusive, representative, and equitable within our four walls (virtual as they may be these days!). The steps to be taken to do so will differ greatly organization to organization. One place to start is with developing a North Star — what do you aspire to have diversity, equity and inclusion look like at your organization? From there, honestly assess where you are — and then start to build a multi-year action plan to close the gaps. If every business does their part, achieves their North Star, then society will benefit as a result.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what a Chief People Officer does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

Three words: it isn’t different. A CPO, like all leaders, must drive the business and support the key objectives of that business, ultimately creating value for shareholders. That said, the CPO has a special lens through which we contribute and that is through the employee lens. Human capital management is a specific craft and, when performed well, an art. I must work with all leaders of the business to provide them with the experience, perspective, and support of my expertise so that all departments benefit from strong human resources principles and practices.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a Chief People Officer. Can you explain what you mean?

In some way, HR has been a flawed industry, and in many ways we deserve the reputation we have for out-of-date practices that need to be changed. We are not the policy police or cheerleaders, nor should we be all about intangible contributions without measures of success. We have come so far in HR from where it was when I started, but there is a long way to go as we aim to better our collective reputation as business partners that enable the greater success of the company as a whole.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I have been very fortunate in that I have always been treated and paid fairly, felt safe and had a voice that influenced change. I drove initiatives and my opinion was sought out, which speaks to the environments I was in and how they empowered women — and to my own ability to make myself heard as well. I have a 20-year-old daughter now and hope her opportunities are even better.

As a leader, what’s incumbent upon me is that the employees at Wheels Up have the same positive experiences I have had — and fortunately there are already many strong female and male leaders at the company to share that desire and help set that standard. My commitment now is to listen, learn and evolve to continue championing women in the workplace and enabling them to grow.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?

To me, it’s less about a type of person who should avoid or aspire to be a leader, but an important first fundamental — do you really want it? The responsibility of leadership is heavy, and it’s important to understand the position you aspire to, and if you’re willing to make the trade-offs in life that it takes to reach that level of success. Come with no illusions that you will not feel the yolk of responsibility for your team, your customers and your company.

While it starts with self-selection and first wanting to give what it takes, there are certainly qualities that help make a good leader; being able to listen and learn, having humility, receiving feedback graciously and being able to make a decision and take accountability for it. Leadership takes grit, but as the saying goes, “No grit, no pearl.”

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

To me, great leaders are great leaders. I have a hard time dissecting what to advise great female leadership versus male. Of course, there are typical gender norms, but the qualities of great leadership are agnostic. I would say, listen and learn, but trust your instincts and experience. Make decisions. Own them.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

For me, with my own financial success, I’ve done a number of volunteer vacations in El Salvador. Recently, my family was able to fund a project to bring water to a town that didn’t have it previously through Project FIAT. The project was completed by paying a reasonable living wage to the professionals working on that project as well as those in the town that assisted. This was one of the most rewarding and important pieces of work I’ve done, and it took place very far outside of a meeting room or office.

What do you wish someone told you before you started, and why?

There are seasons in your career and in life — there are ups and there are downs. I wish I understood earlier in my career that the downs will come — and they will pass. There are gifts to be found, in even your toughest career moments, perhaps especially in your toughest career moments.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I would encourage others to consider their own entitlement — and to seek exposure to how others live — things that might make you uncomfortable. These are things I try to do myself. Many of the problems we believe we have are champagne problems, and the pandemic has put that into sharp focus for so many. We should not forget that there are many people who live without the basic human necessities and in areas where terrible violence is the norm. Seeing and experiencing lives so different from our own allows us to open our minds, which in turn generates gratitude, shifts perspective and inspires action. Your worst day could be somebody else’s best.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

A quote I love is from Audrey Hepburn — “Nothing is impossible, the word itself says ‘I’m possible!’” This is something I try to remember when faced with something that seems insurmountable.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Given my new exposure to the aviation industry, I’d love to have a private breakfast with the collective individuals who had the ideas that now enable us to fly. It’s incredible to think about how this seemingly incredulous and impossible thing became an integral part of our everyday lives and the global economy. Relationships, family, culture, race, science, art — all have all been set on a different course because of aviation. It is one of the most incredible and life changing innovations in our history — and to learn about what that inspiration and process felt like first-hand would be quite the topic to discuss over coffee!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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