One of the great pleasures about working at TSA was the people that I encountered. It was enormous fun watching the people walk by the checkpoints on their way to their destinations. Every manner of people walked by our locations every day. Because I was a Manager for the last 8 years I had more flexibility than most in determining my location. I walked around my terminal all day. I was also specifically called to interesting situations to assist.
Most of the people that I got to observe were just people, but some were celebrities. Because O’Hare (ORD) is so big, varying between the busiest and fourth busiest airport in the United States, anyone could be walking through the terminals. I ran into Sen. John McCain, Patton Oswalt, Jackie Joyner Kersee, Chef Mario Batali and many others. We saw TV and movie stars and athletes, beautiful women and famous chefs, and just normally interesting people. Your head could be on a swivel if you weren’t careful.
We also had enormous diversity in the workforce, and it was something that we, as an organization/Agency, celebrated. Nearly 25% of the employees were ex-military or law enforcement. Many TSA Officers are in the Reserve and still give required service. Every October TSA nationally celebrated Diversity Day with a celebration of food and culture, culminating in the dissemination of an ORD Officer cookbook. We gathered to celebrate the food and music, dance, and arts of the many cultures that are represented by TSA employees. We also celebrated that diversity throughout the year by acknowledging the numerous cultural heritages in the US, like May being Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. It always felt richer when we acknowledged the many groups that make up this country. There was no room for discrimination. There may have been individual prejudices among Officers, but there was no room or tolerance for acting on those prejudices. And when it came time for sampling some national or regional cuisine during a holiday potluck there was no discrimination.
Interacting with such a diverse group of employees made me a better leader. As a TSA Manager I could be responsible for as many as 200 employees. You can’t always treat people as individuals when there is a crisis, but during normal working conditions the diversity was an education. There is no distinction for people based on gender, national origin, religion, disability, or sexual preference or any other “category”. But I learned to understand and be comfortable with all types of people. We had people whose origin was from around the world. This made them more interesting. They provided an opportunity for me to learn about different cultures. I always tried to find out why people act in the way that they do. This made listening a more valuable skill than speaking my mind. I really loved working in Terminal 5, the International Terminal. While there I tried to learn key phrases in different languages to become more approachable. I pioneered a request at ORD to enable Officers to get credit for foreign language skills.
I was also trained by TSA to be a conflict management coach. This gave me an opportunity to work one-on-one with people to understand what makes them tick. I was fortunate enough to be recognized for my coaching skills, and I worked at TSA Headquarters for nearly nine months out of my thirteen years. I was also flown around the country to coach and assist Officers that had difficulties adjusting to their environment. This enabled me to see not just the diversity inherent in the workforce at O’Hare, but also to experience it nationally. I can’t say that I had previously only worked in lily-white environments, but TSA was a unique experience, and one that was very personally rewarding. I became a better leader by encountering the salad bowl that was TSA ORD.