How A Former Top Boeing Manager Set Aside Fears And Smashed The Glass Ceiling

Jun 18, 2014

Editor's Note: “Senior Thesis” is a special week-long series that brings together venerable veterans in various fields with university students hoping to forge a career in the same field.

Jaime Katzer showed up at the studio in her best business attire, excited but a little nervous. The University of Washington senior was here to meet a woman who from the outside appears fearless.

Carolyn Corvi entered Boeing in 1974 armed with nothing more than a bachelor’s degree in history. But through grit and intelligence, she soon took on more and more responsibilities at a very male-dominated company, earned an MBA at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and rose through the ranks of management, all the way up to senior vice president of airplane programs and supplier management when she retired in 2009.

“Was it scary for you not having the technical background?” Katzer asked.

Credit Justin Steyer / KPLU

It’s not often that you get to hear top executives confess to feeling insecure, but Corvi answered with candor.

“At the beginning it was — I guess it always was, yeah,” Corvi said. “I think until the day I retired, I was always a little bit intimidated by the people who had more technical expertise.”

But Corvi gave Katzer a piece of advice about how to handle that lack of knowledge: Don’t be shy about asking questions. In fact, she asked so many questions, Corvi’s coworkers soon gave her a nickname: Ms. Why.

Corvi (right) examines the inside of a fuselage with a Boeing mechanic in 1990
Corvi (right) examines the inside of a fuselage with a Boeing mechanic in 1990
Credit photo courtesy of Carolyn Corvi

'I Could Call Anybody'

“The great thing about a company like Boeing is that I could call anybody,” she said. “If I had a question about how thrust reversers work, I could find somebody at the company, and nine times out of 10, they would have me come to their office and they’d have drawings out all over the table, because you know what people love to talk about is what they do.”

“So I always felt like I was lacking because I didn’t have that knowledge myself, but on the other hand, I always felt like I could find someone to help me and then use that knowledge to make better informed management decisions,” Corvi said.

'Sometimes You Just Have To Summon Up The Courage'

Katzer is entering a two-year engineering rotation program at Boeing, armed with quite a bit of technical knowledge already. She just graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering from the William E. Boeing Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Her interest in the science of flight developed while she attended Aviation High School, where she was class valedictorian.

Taking flying lessons at age 16 helped spark that interest.

While a student at Aviation High School, Jaime Katzer took flying lessons in a Diamond DA-20
While a student at Aviation High School, Jaime Katzer took flying lessons in a Diamond DA-20
Credit photo courtesy of Jaime Katzer

“I had no idea what was going on with the airplane, really, so I was fascinated,” she said. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to do aerospace engineering was to figure out why everything I was doing to manipulate the airplane was working.”

Corvi told Katzer that although she never got her pilot’s license herself, she did get a taste of flying through a program at Boeing that aimed to help executives better understand how their clients use the airplanes.

“I had never flown an airplane before, and in fact, when I went in the Cessna, I had never even been in the simulator yet,” she said. “So I went to Boeing Field and met the instructor pilot and went to get in the right side of the airplane, and he said, 'No, no, you’re going to get in the left side. You’re going to fly.’ Talk about being intimidated. So we did, and it was great.”

Katzer wanted to know what it was like for Corvi to persevere even when she encountered people at the company who didn’t want to work with a woman.  

“You know, sometimes you just have to summon up the courage,” Corvi said.

Going Rogue — To Grab An Office

Credit photo courtesy of Carolyn Corvi

Corvi described a time early in her career when she was assigned to a new boss and was excluded in a pretty fundamental way. She was given an office so far away from the rest of the team, it felt like Siberia.

“They put my office way far away from everybody else out in the factory, and there was nobody else working there,” she said. “It was completely dark.”

So one day, one of her coworkers she had befriended told her a man with an office close to the rest of the team was moving to a Boeing location in Auburn.

“I said, 'I’m moving into his office,’” she recalled. “And he said, 'Well, I think you should come and ask first.’ And I said, 'I’m not asking anybody. I’m moving this weekend. Will you come in and help me?’”

So she spent a weekend boxing up her belongings, including her computer, which the company said no one was supposed to move without authorization. They grabbed a cart and staked out the new prime office location for Corvi.

“Monday morning, I was in that office,” she said. “Well, there were a lot of really surprised people there, but there I was. So now I had to go to the staff meetings because I was right there. So sometimes you just have to have the courage to do stuff because you know it’s right.”

Career Advice

Jaime Katzer in front of her senior design project at the University of Washington
Jaime Katzer in front of her senior design project at the University of Washington
Credit photo courtesy of Jaime Katzer

Katzer asked Corvi if she had some general career advice for young graduates. The answer turns out to be useful for anyone, no matter where you are in your career.

“So often in a big company, I think, or any company, you’ll see people kind of sucking up, I’ll say, or trying to ride on the coattails of a person above them who they think is influential,” she said. “First of all, it kind of alienates them from their peers. And the second thing is, you never know what’s going to happen to that person anyway. They may not be there in six months.”

The people whose respect you should work hardest to earn are your peers and the people who work for you, Corvi said.

“Don’t ever discount that,” she advised. “Those people are really, really important to you, and you are important to them.”