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Ilana Golan: “Not only survive the crisis — but thrive”

Stay calm and positive. Focus on doing vs. just thinking (or panicking). Clarity comes from action not just ideas. So the more you take action, the better you will succeed. Not only survive the crisis — but thrive. In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The […]

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Stay calm and positive. Focus on doing vs. just thinking (or panicking). Clarity comes from action not just ideas. So the more you take action, the better you will succeed. Not only survive the crisis — but thrive.


In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of dealing with crisis and how to adapt and overcome. The context of this series is the physical and financial fallout that resulted from the COVID 19 pandemic. Crisis management is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases, it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ilana Golan.

Former F-16 Flight Instructor and first woman commander in the squad, turned engineer, tech executive, entrepreneur and investor. Selected top 40 women to watch in 2016 and Business Insider Silicon Valley Women of influence in 2017. She is now helping executives reinvent themselves, leap their careers or start their own revenue-generating businesses.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up in Israel. Sort of a shy girl that slowly found the leadership within her.

And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?

Today I work with professionals and executives who feel stuck in their career or want to do more, reinvent themselves, leap to leadership or start their own business so that they gain the pay, reputation, impact and balance they want and deserve.

For example, I had a tech executive reach out a few months ago. She was burned out from her corporate job. She tried a bit of consulting but couldn’t make it work for her. She wasn’t passionate about it and it didn’t pay the bills. She needed change and she felt lost, not clear what her next career should be. She joined CareerLeap program and within a few weeks realized she was hiding a passion deep down for vegan but she never dared to pursue it. We gave her the courage to take her first steps, experiment and within 60 days she started her own vegan business and her life changed. She became more motivated, passionate about what she does and truly happy. She is proud of her achievement, wakes up energized again every day and feeling the best version of herself!

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

At age 18, like most Israelis, I joined the military and was accepted to the Air-Force as an F-16 Flight instructor. Back in the days, women were not allowed to become commanders in my squad and I made a decision to prove them wrong. I worked day and night to prove myself, but breaking barriers is extremely tough. You are constantly out of your comfort zone and you really don’t have many examples to look at.

After many ups and downs, successes and mistakes I eventually broke the barrier and I became the first woman to ever become a commander in charge of training of all F-16 pilots in Israel within the simulator.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

One of our pilots had a severe emergency during a night flight. He did some attempts to solve it and eventually, the flight tower called me to come quickly to assist. It was the very first time I realized that I was dealing with life and death. This isn’t a simulator where “you can crash and it’s ok”. I panicked but knew I had to keep myself calm for the pilot because he needs me at my best now. He is stressed enough not knowing if he can land or will need to go eject in the sea at night.

What happened in the next few minutes (which felt like hours) changed me forever.

I needed to make a quick decision and decided we should try to get him to land. With an amazing teamwork of tower personnel, ground emergency and more, we brought him to safe landing that night.

What I learned about making decisions, the power of a clear mission and the importance of a team has been game changers for me in business and the basis of many of my keynotes and workshops in corporates and conferences today.

We are interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.

There are countless of hero stories when you are in the military. Here is one I will never forget. In 1997, 16 Israeli naval commandos entered Lebanon for a special mission when they were ambushed. It was clear that something horrible happened, but the exact situation and numbers of injured/dead were unknown at the time. It wasn’t clear if they can be rescued because the region was under severe fire.

A few extremely brave helicopter pilots decided they must try and go into one of the most difficult evacuation missions in history.

The pilots landed in Lebanon under fire and waited as the rescue forces were trying to find the wounded and dead soldiers and bring them to the helicopter. The fire was getting worse and the helicopter was severely at risk if they didn’t take off immediately.

The Air-Force commander was already giving clear instructions to take off but they didn’t want to risk leaving any soldier or body behind.

On the other hand, some of the wounded need to get to the hospital asap and the helicopter had to take off. The pilot was trying to get the last of his rescue team on board and one of them said decisively that he is not leaving until he finds all the remaining soldiers. He instructed the helicopter to take off to bring the wounded and dead to a safe place. As the helicopter took off, 3 amazing heroes from the rescue squad were left deep behind enemy lines, under fire, to look for their friends.

Overall 12 soldiers died but countless showed they were heroes that were willing to do anything to save lives and bring their friends to safety.

Based on that story, how would you define what a “hero” is? Can you explain?

Doing things for others that you would never do for yourself, putting others first.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business or leadership? Can you explain?

Military had a big impact on my leadership style and the way I build and run businesses.

You learn to make fast decisions, to understand the importance of ownership and team.

As you deal with some pretty complex situations, you also learn to debrief on what worked and what didn’t and strive to keep getting better. This is probably one of the most important skills for a leader. No matter how great you are, you’ll make countless mistakes. But if you are honest about what didn’t work, and you are constantly learning and improving — the sky is your limit.

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?

Of course! I am grateful for many but there was one exceptional boss in Intel that truly leaped me forward. He didn’t treat me as a junior engineer (even though I was) and certainly didn’t look at me as a woman engineer. He just saw me for who I was — a super driven, high achiever who wants to learn as much as possible and make the biggest impact I can. He gave me a chance and pushed me as high as possible. He made me believe I am in charge of my own destiny and if I want to push harder — I will reach higher. “Dream big and make things happen.”

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out how to survive and thrive in crisis. How would you define a crisis?

A crisis is an event that will lead to an unstable and dangerous situation affecting an individual, community, or whole society.

Before a crisis strikes, what should business owners and leaders think about and how should they plan?

Leaders should always try to predict a few steps ahead. Just like in chess. What will happen and what do I need to do now to be ready for what’s coming? The idea is to analyze as fast as possible with as many data points as you have, make decisions, and execute. Do not just think about doing something but really take concrete action!

There are opportunities to make the best of every situation and it’s usually based on how you frame it. In your opinion or experience, what’s the first thing people should do when they first realize they are in a crisis situation? What should they do next?

First, learn as much as possible. Sometimes you really don’t have much data but gather whatever you do have. Then think, what can you do today, based on this data, to stay ahead? Another way to look at this is ‘What can I do now, based on what I know, to help others?’

These questions will force you to think of the crisis as an opportunity. Once you have some ideas — act and move fast!

What do you believe are the characteristics or traits needed to survive a crisis?

Stay calm and positive. Focus on doing vs. just thinking (or panicking). Clarity comes from action not just ideas. So the more you take action, the better you will succeed. Not only survive the crisis — but thrive.

When you think of those traits, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

I personally act well at the time of crisis so answered based on my own belief and actions but there are of course many amazing examples. See what Eric Yuan, CEO of Zoom did in the beginning of this pandemic — he offered Zoom for free for teachers and k-12 students which clearly was an incredibly smart decision. It helped immensely but was also a brilliant marketing move on his side.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

In 2014 I left my job to start a tech company with my co-founder. Right when we raised money, he took the money and kicked me out of the business. I was left with no job, no startup and my ego deeply crushed. I needed to figure out what I want to do next with my career and the downhill spiral wasn’t easy. But, now I can say, it was the biggest gift I could have asked for. Since then I start my own tech company, sold it, became an investor, board member, international public speaker and I took all this knowledge and experience to now help executives leap their careers.

CareerLeap program has already changed dozens of lives and careers and I couldn’t think of anything better than helping remarkable individuals become the best version of themselves. Seeing them making a huge impact, growing businesses and being publicly recognized for their outstanding achievements.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Crises not only have the potential to jeopardize and infiltrate your work, but they also threaten your emotional stability and relationships. Based on your military experience, what are 5 steps that someone can take to survive and thrive in these situations? Please share a story or an example for each.

5 Steps to survive and thrive in times of crisis:

  1. Keep focused and calm — The worse thing you can do is panic because then our brain shuts and we can’t think straight. Sometimes this means you will need to force it. Go on a walk, be outdoors, go do something fun or fake a smile. In the military, you learn to just close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, focus on your mission and goal and not let anything else get in your way. If you’ll lose your focus, there could be serious consequences, so you just don’t.
  2. Gather Data — learning fast and gathering as much data as possible is crucial so you can make decisions quickly. This is also why diversity of thoughts is so critical and having personnel from various backgrounds in the military was key. In businesses its just as important. So really listen to the voices around you. Then act based on the data you have. You will make mistakes and when you do, you will change course. But the worse thing you can do is to not make any decision at all.
  3. Prioritize and do the most important thing first — Many times when we are afraid or the action we need to take is big or scary, we may keep differing it ‘for later’. But this is only preventing us from the success, impact and results we want. So, each day decide what is the most important thing you need to do today and do it! Get it done. Concentrate and don’t let fear, doubt and small tasks get in the way. In the military, as well as business, you will be constantly prioritizing. It’s impossible to have everything in the highest priority. So as a leader you will define clearly which task goes first.
  4. Lean on your team and encourage diversity of thoughts — You are not alone. There are always people around you that can and want to help. They can be employees, partners, friends and even your kids. Diversity of thoughts is crucial and the more you listen, the more data points you will gather, and the smarter the decisions that you will make. This is also a great way to make other people feel important, motivated and impactful. I’ve seen it clearly in the military. The more motivated my team was, feeling the ownership I am giving them and my trust — the better they performed. And together, we managed to drive huge changes that impacted generations to come.
  5. Execute fast and keep experimenting to see what works best for growth — Don’t expect to get things all perfect. That’s not how we usually grow as businesses or individuals. Try something, see how it works, adjust and repeat. For example in the Airforce, when a plane has an emergency they go through a clear set of emergency procedures they need to take: Try one thing, look at data, if didn’t work try another thing, look at data and so on. This is the same in our business, in our career and in our own personal growth and life.

Ok. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I already did. I started a movement to help professionals become the best version of themselves by finding the best career direction for them and leaping to it. Today I mainly work with silicon valley executives but If I could broaden it to colleges and schools and spread the word faster — that would be a dream.

I believe that every individual on this planet deserves to feel happy every day of their lives and its possible for most with the right guidance. I want them to know that its OK if the priorities of your career change throughout life (sometimes its money and sometimes its impact, reputation, or balance). I want them to know its ok to experiment to find the right career direction for you and there are ways to do it successfully. Plus, once you know where you want to go, there are quite simple techniques to get you there even if you didn’t graduate from some fancy ivy league. Bottom line, think about it as the school of the future for topics that aren’t taught in schools today but are critical for most professionals.

This mission is already changing countless of careers and lives. Who wants to join my mission?

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders 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? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

Well, many have shown me what’s possible and for that, I am extremely grateful.

When things get tough, I think of these incredible leaders and it pushes me higher.

Elon Musk, Tony Robbins, Marshal Goldsmith, Brene Brown are examples of leaders I am in deep owe for their determination, perseverance and ability to dream big and make things happen.

Each in very different spaces and that why it’s amazing that no matter what your industry is, you can make magic happen, and reach for the stars if you put your mind to it!

How can our readers follow you online?

https://www.linkedin.com/in/ilanagolan/
https://www.facebook.com/ilanagolan2010

Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.

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