Former Air New Zealand CLO, Dr. Sydney Savion was named Chief Learning Officer of the Year in 2020 for her work with Air New Zealand but her journey to corporate success involved a leap of faith out of a distinguished 20-year career with the US Air Force. We talk to Dr Savion about the power of making a leap and the danger of being comfortable.
How do you take that leap from 20 years with the US Air Force into a very different world of IT/Corporate?
How do you take that leap? It’s called faith. There’s something for me since I believe in purpose and providence. I also believe in serendipity. It’s a whisper and people will get this feeling, you know when it’s time. Even with the weight of pressure trying to keep me in the military, because I was on a very successful trajectory in the military and I’m very, very grateful for my time. I take great pride in my experience and the opportunities I’ve had.
It was just one of those inflection points that led me to it and the whisper saying, ‘it’s time to explore other things in life’ and take everything that I’ve earned and the gifts that God has given me, whether it’s my experience, my education, or the exposure that I’ve had around the world, and now use that in corporate. So it was definitely an inflection point and then a leap of faith saying ‘everything’s going to be okay’ in a world that was unknown to me, quite frankly.
What on earth goes through your brain? Is there some sort of risk analysis calculation going on?
Oh, man. Yes, a decision matrix is what we would call it in the military; here are the pros and cons of staying and leaving. But if I was going to be really honest with you about what went through my mind is fear. Leaving a known and comfort for an unknown and some discomfort. That’s really, truly what was going on in my mind.
But I was feeling again, this whisper and this calling to step out and believe that I had all of the gifts, I’ve been given everything I need to be successful in this next phase of my life. As I look back over that arc of that period of time, it’s true. It brought me to this place, right here with you. So, every time I have questions about whether it’s the right next step, I just need to just look back and see, I’ve been given enough proof and evidence that it’s okay to step out on faith because I have everything I need for that next chapter to be successful.
Does that faith have any weight in terms of that ‘decision matrix’, when you’re weighing up the fear of what you’re losing, and then on the other side of the scales, the greatness of what you’re stepping in to?
Without a doubt, it shows up in that mental calculation about what’s the next right move. Everybody has a different view on what they might call faith or spirituality, but I believe there is something bigger than myself at work in my life and in this world, leading me to that place where I’m meant to be of service and to be of significance in this world. I think that is what keeps me believing and having faith that whatever I do next, it’s going to be all right. In fact, it might be better in the last chapter, which is what has happened so far.
Could you visualise what that next chapter looked like, and what was so attractive about taking that leap?
Just like high-performing athletes or anyone successful in their craft, you do visualise, and I do visualise my desired outcome. In this case, leaving a known for an unknown I did some research on what was the top role and at some point I realised that is what I want to be. I want to be in that top seat of learning, which is the Chief Learning Officer of a company. So I did visualise that and I knew in order to get there, what was keeping me from manifesting that particular aspiration, was me. That’s the only thing keeping me from that. So what that meant is just being accountable, holding myself accountable for that space between where I was and the arc of manifesting what I was visualising with continuous learning. Going back to what I said earlier, true grit, knowing myself, being open to truth and constructive feedback.
The other thing is building an authentic network. I think that in this life, in order to be successful or be the best at anything, you can’t do it by yourself, you have to have a strong network around you. Iron sharpens iron. So not necessarily like-minded people, but people who are positive forces in your life for good and who you can also be a positive force in their life. So, part of that journey from leaving the military and reaching that top seat of learning, required all of those things and especially a network of people, relationships, mentors, coaches to get to that place.
When you were still at the Air Force and you were looking at this role, was there any part of your brain that could have imagined that you could be the best in the world at it?
I wasn’t thinking about that, to be honest. I didn’t even think about being the best. I just wanted that particular seat and in order to achieve that, I knew I had some work before me to get there, to position myself because oftentimes I think it’s all about the opportunity in life. I don’t believe in luck, I think opportunities in life are when you’re prepared to meet that opportunity. I don’t think it’s an opportunity if you’re not. It’s certainly not a high probability opportunity for you if you’re not prepared to take it.
So always being in a place of readiness for that next new opportunity. If I think about my life now, I’ve finished up with air New Zealand and I’m looking to my next opportunity. I’m ready, whatever that might be, I’m ready for it. I feel very, very comfortable again with all the gifts that God has given me, I feel fully prepared to take on whatever that next calling on my life is and what I’m supposed to be doing in this next phase of my life.
A lot of entrepreneurs talk about not knowing what that next step is, but they know that if they just build on their resilience, build on their network, then they are ready for whatever comes up. That’s very similar to what you’re talking about. Does that conflict with military training, where you know you are prepared, you have things set in place?
I don’t think there’s a conflict because, in the military, the goal is to always be ready for whatever that next thing might be. You’re always preparing, every day is about preparation and readiness.
In civilian life, the way I operate is pretty much the same; always ready. Again, going back to this notion of service before self, excellence, integrity and being ready when you have that opportunity to step into that with high intention and excellence, it’s about knowing that when you step into that next opportunity, that’s the formula.
Those other things we’ve talked about, yes, that comes with it; being a continuous learner, the networking, the knowing yourself, the true grit; all those things are important too. But I think those three, which I learned in the Air Force; service before self, excellence, and integrity, are key readiness elements for any new role.
Can you talk about the power that comes from thinking beyond yourself, when you’re looking at vision outside of yourself?
For me, what feels rewarding is being able to serve others. It’s just like being in the military, you’re serving not only your nation but the democracy around the world, allies. It’s something far bigger than oneself. But it wasn’t the Air Force that fueled that, it was the way I grew up. I grew up in a small farming community, where the community helped each other and lived off of the farmland. It was with the virtual cycle of helping each other and serving one another and serving the community.
That still lives within me and it’s something that gives me immense joy. It gives me immense happiness to know that I can help someone else, whatever that is. It could be in the form of a corporation, because I’m still serving the greater good of the company and by extension, investors and so forth and so on. But in a non-profit role or philanthropic type role, it goes beyond into the community and into being able to help people be something, see something that they could possibly be.
The saying goes, ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’. So being able to get out and serve and be with other people and help them to see their full potential, whatever that might be, because it’s not the same for everyone, I think that this notion of service before self is, is something that is quite meaningful and is something that is quite deep-seated inside of my spirit and my soul and in my mind. I feel like if I do that, everything else will take care of itself.
When you look back at the trajectory of your journey, what do you think your younger self, growing up on a farm, would have made of one day dealing with NATO and getting an email saying, ‘Congratulations, you are the best CLO in the world.’?
That’s interesting. What would I have thought? It’s interesting, my sister, Tiffany, just reminded me the other day of how I used to sit in the floor in my room reading. Many of you guys might not know anything about encyclopedias, but sitting down reading encyclopedias, going from A to Z, was something that really fascinated me and I would do it for hours on end. That’s all I did. That’s what I did in my free time, other than sports and obviously my chores. I think my younger self would not be surprised, to be honest. I think she would not be surprised.
Any advice for how we can raise our children? It’s so hard for them to be able to visualise what the future might hold, but how do we best to prepare them?
I don’t have kids myself, but I do have young nieces. Like I said, you can’t generally be what you can’t see, so I think what I’m doing with them now is exposing them to science projects. I have subscription stem projects going to my nieces every month so that they can explore science, technology, engineering, and math for themselves at very young ages, two and four.
Also, helping them ask lots of questions, exposing them to things other than what are in their current sphere; whether that’s taking them to museums or parks or communities that might be different than theirs. I think allowing kids to see a world beyond their own, that does help open them up to contexts and constructs that are different from their most immediate construct.
Living on a farm in Virginia, out in the middle of nowhere, an encyclopedia took me out into space. It took me into science labs. It took me into museums. It took me to other countries. It took me beyond this farmland into other places that I would not have been able to go to. It fueled my interest in science. I was very good in science, in math, and by extension, my parents and my grandparents also saw that in me and encouraged that. As a result, that’s what I studied in school; biology, chemistry, and behavioural science.
Any advice for breaking away from your comfort zone?
It’s interesting because I view that as a habit, and comfort is basically a habit, doing the same thing over and over again. Why? Because it’s comfortable. There’s a book called Atomic Habits which talks about how you break out of that habit. In this case, sometimes it’s bad habits. For some, smoking cigarettes might be a bad habit or not working out enough. Is there a formula? Sure. The formula is you have to have intent.
I’m going to go take you on a journey into my learning space. This is about unlearning and relearning and opening your mind up to a different perspective than what you hold now. You’re comfortable with where you are, but you can see out there that there are other things that you could possibly do. Being open to just stepping out, taking a leap of faith, you have to pay attention to it and you have to have high intention.
Now that you know you want to do something different, you realise you’re comfortable, you acknowledge you’re comfortable, you have to be very intentional about doing it. It’s not enough to pay attention to it. You have to do something about it. I think that is what a lot of people miss. People acknowledge that they’re comfortable or acknowledge that they have this habit or acknowledge that they need to do something different. That’s a great first step, but the next step is now you have to attend to it and I think that’s what the missing element for most people is when they’re trying to break out of their comfort zone.
I think another thing that underpins that is fear; most people fear being uncomfortable. When they’re thinking, as I was talking about leaving the military and going into corporate, whether it’s a physical threat or it’s a mental threat, you’ve created a fear of leaving the comfort zone and going out into something else. Your brain is in fight or flight mode, right? Keeping you safe. ‘Don’t go, you’re comfortable. You can do this job for 20 years or 30 years or 40 years’.
It’s whatever you believe in. For me, it’s faith, it’s leaping out and stepping out and believing in yourself. I think you also have to have a real confidence, which I think also is part of what keeps people comfortable, they don’t have a lot of confidence in themselves. Therefore, even if they had faith, they question themselves rather than leaning into their faith and just saying, “I believe, I believe”.
There’s this video series called The Secret with Rhonda Byrne and she had this cast of people who talk about faith and confidence and believing in yourself, believing in the higher power, visualising what you want and going and doing it. You can’t say that you want to be an astronaut if you’re in school studying art, right? If you want to be an astronaut, switch your major, go study physics or engineering.
There’s a conflict between what people say they want to do and actually what they do or are doing. There seems to be a gap in that which keeps people from moving closer to leaving the comfort zone or reaching their aspirations. My mother used to say, “I’m raising you so you can grow up and leave me”, so pushing me out of the nest. Sometimes people get forced out of their comfort zone and they don’t have a choice but to lean into faith and their confidence. Sometimes I think some people need that, to be honest with you.
When we’re at that tipping point and we are almost ready, but this reptilian part of our brain creates this uncertainty in terms of our capability, what are some of the things that you can use to override that, just to push yourself through?
I think this is where having other people around you that support you, that can push you, that can help you lean into your truth and come alongside you to help you as you take that first step. I think that’s one of the biggest things that can help, because again, doing anything, you can’t do it by yourself. You do need other people around you who love and care about you, support you, will be honest with you, will push you, and help bolster your confidence.
Also, I think what helps too is celebrating the small wins, which I need to do more. I was just congratulating my sister yesterday, my young niece got into this amazing school. When my sister was filling out the application, she found it dreadful, but I just kept telling her, come on, just do it, think about the end game. The end game is for my niece to get into the school. This is just a paperwork drill.
We’ve just got to get beyond it and I think getting beyond that and in celebrating, “Hey, congratulations, well done.” Because if you didn’t get that paperwork done, no chance of my niece getting into the school. I think also what’s important is people are on that journey to push themselves out of their comfort zone, to have some small goals, celebrate those goals, get your tribe around you to help move you in that direction. I think it’s so important to have people in your life that are fueling you and not draining you. You want eagles around you to help you fly. I’m a big believer in that.
Have you got any regrets about any of the leaps into the unknown that you’ve taken along the way?
No, I have no regrets whatsoever. I’ve been very, very grateful. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t suffered some failures or disappointments or maybe even some wrong turns along the way, but I think that’s the beauty of wisdom. You don’t gain wisdom without some of those wrong turns and failures and bruises. So as a result of that, I feel like I’m even wiser.
I feel like the power and strength and passion towards serving others is even greater than it was, which to me means that I will rise up into my excellence, my service to others and my calling on this earth with even more power, passion and significance. Service and significance; I’m a big believer in that.