Originally published in the October 2019 Women’s Issue of Local Profile
The Integrated Operations Center for American Airlines is the heart of the worldwide aviation giant, according to Senior Vice President of Customer Experience Kerry Philipovitch. It is there that she supports all customer-facing operating groups in the company, like airport operations, flight attendants, call centers, service recovery, customer planning and cargo operations—all of which make up more than 70,000 American Airlines employees across the globe.
“For the airlines, we know that the most important thing to our customers is to get to their destination safely, on time and with their bags,” says Kerry. “We really focus a lot on reliability and the customer experience. The world is made up of millions of unscripted interactions every day between humans, and I think that what really defines an experience is the interactions customers have with our team members. How we make customers feel is something I always like to talk about to our team members, particularly ones who are just joining the airline. The opportunity they have to make an impact every day on someone’s life is really profound. It is probably one of the most exciting things about working here.”
Kerry began her career with American Airlines in 1996 when she worked with their commercial groups. Seven years later, she moved to the operations side of the company where she has been ever since. A self-described adrenaline junkie, Kerry has grown her career thanks to her quick problem-solving acumen and professional flexibility.
“I always tell people to take on challenging assignments that nobody else wants, work on things that are important, do a great job at it, and the rest will come,” Kerry says. “I think that people sometimes fall into a trap of trying to chase promotions and chase titles, and you really should have them chasing you.
When it comes to time management, Kerry admits she doesn’t quite have that figured out. “We have this thing that we do at American called Emerge Genetics. It measures your thinking preferences—if you’re analytical, social, conceptual, structured, etc. I’m super low on the scale for structure, so I don’t have a great strategy for time management,” she explains. “I try to focus on the things where I feel like I can add the most value. My portfolio of work responsibilities is pretty broad, so I try to spend my time on where I’m needed the most. The challenge is really to make sure that we don’t just get caught up in the moment and that we’re working on things that will bring value to the business long-term. I try to stay out of a lot of the day-to-day management, until somebody needs my help. But I also try to be intuitive about when I can really be helpful and when I’m really just in someone else’s way.”
While she thrives on challenges, her steadfast dedication to customer service means she takes professional missteps very seriously.
The worst day of Kerry’s career happened almost two years ago when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) issued a travel warning that deemed American Airlines as unsafe for African Americans after a high-profile customer felt that they were being racially discriminated against by their employees. Though American Airlines quickly jumped in to remedy the issue, it was hard for Kerry to move past it.
“It was out of my control, but I feel very personally responsible when things go wrong,” Kerry says. “In the end, we wanted to use it as an opportunity to figure out how we could do better and recover for her, but also to make sure that all of our customers really felt like they would be served well and treated fairly. It really set us off on a journey of inclusion and diversity that isn’t over yet, it’s something we’ll be working on for a long time.”
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One of Kerry’s biggest strengths is her intuition about what people need from her. She learned early on that she can’t use the same leadership techniques uniformly with every person, as American Airlines employs more than 130,000 professionals serving more than 500,000 customers each day.
“I think that you need to focus on your advantages; looking on the positive is always better than looking on the negative,” Kerry says. “Through my career I feel like because I am often the only woman in the room, I feel like with the men that I work with that my voice and opinion have been uniquely valued because of the different thinking that I bring. And I know that my boss and my close colleague and I run the operations together, I feel like they will specifically seek me out on certain things that they know I’ll have a perspective on. I think right now women have an advantage, especially women who are trying to pursue advancement in their careers. I think being a woman is absolutely an advantage. Now, there’s so many companies that are focused on building diversity in senior leadership, building diversity on boards. Places are passing laws about women on boards, and there’s just this week there’s been media about companies. I think Chicago is encouraging people to make a pledge for gender equality by X year. And I wouldn’t lead with your gender, lead with your accomplishments and your achievements, and your gender will work in your favor. I would say the same for people of underrepresented races as well. Like you don’t need to lead with that. It’ll be an advantage right now.”
When asked what advice she has for fellow women in business, Kerry says, “just do something that you’re passionate about. People always ask women about work/life balance, and you don’t hear people ask men that. I think it’s interesting, but I actually kind of reject the notion of work/life balance; I think of it more as a work/life integration. Because if you’re doing something you love with people you love, work is a really important part of your life, and there doesn’t need to be a bright line between your work life and your personal life.”
When she isn’t working, Kerry loves being outside, hiking, and seeking sunshine on the weekends, but her true (and relatable) passion is wine. She also loves traveling with her husband to explore new places and takes any opportunity on an airplane to survey the operations and get to know employees. She even picks up napkins and trash in the isle on her way to the back galley. And after 23 years with the one of the largest airlines in the world, Kerry has garnered numerous invaluable experiences that she likes to pass on to others.
“The best piece of advice I’ve received is that the only thing you can control in life is your attitude. For me, that’s something that’s been really important because I think you need to figure out how to stay positive. In stressful situations, you have to be methodical and break things down. I’m a good cheerleader and I think that’s an important part of my role, to be able to get out the pom poms and keep other people up even when the chips are down.”