Margaret Soda has a hell of a commute. The vice president of human resources and labor relations at PSA Airlines flies to and from company headquarters in Dayton, Ohio, every week and back to her family in Wisconsin, or as she likes to think of it, “a little slice of heaven.” It may seem a steep price to pay for occupational fulfillment, but her passion for doing right by people was ignited at an early age, watching her parents fight for the rights of union workers. It is in her blood to value fairness and understanding—key values that contribute to an HR and labor relations résumé that would do her parents proud.
Soda has cultivated a career working side by side with union reps, business leaders, and the frontline workforce to build the consensus required to do right by both employees and the company. It doesn’t hurt that her commitment to building out HR processes and proficiencies seems like an inherent component of the leader as a person, not so much a skill that needed to be learned.
Over the past four years, she’s helped build a new vision and path forward for a twenty-five-year-old regional airline that is keeping its nose to the ground but taking its plans to the air.
The Right Baggage
Soda came to PSA in 2016 with both a mandate to drive change and a résumé that served as proof of concept in a variety of ways. The VP had extensive regional airline experience at Air Wisconsin Airlines and had also rebuilt employee, executive, and community relations from the ground up at ConAgra Foods.
PSA became part of American Airlines after the merger with US Airways, and its growth kicked into overdrive. There was a lot of work to do from an HR standpoint. “We were a growing company that hadn’t had many resources put into the HR team,” Soda remembers. “I felt like I knew exactly what they needed.” Soda reflects now on the opportunity to get back into aviation and reignite the passion of her early career.
“There are off-the-shelf models that work in manufacturing but just aren’t applicable here, and I think my previous experience lends me some credibility there.”
“When I got here, there was a team of twenty-four. Two of those team members had been here for over a year,” Soda says, painting a portrait of her first day. “I found an old punch clock and timecard station and didn’t even realize they were still used.” That punch clock is still at PSA, but it’s in Soda’s office on a shelf, a reminder of how far the entire organization has come.
One of Soda’s most immediate impacts was her previous airline experience. “From an operational standpoint, I had all of this previous labor negotiation experience,” Soda says. “I understood what team members did and had spent a lot of time learning this industry through the maintenance organization.” Soda attributes her success throughout her career to the time and care she places on learning the business of people and building relationships.
And when it came to the resolution to get things done, Soda had already been through the hardest experience of her career: creating a top-performing HR team for a recently merged food plant, in her hometown no less, just in time for the parent organization to decide to close it. It was a complete turnaround that gave way to Soda having to turn around and lay off the very employees she had helped inspire.
“I had a lot more courage when I came to PSA to lead difficult conversations at the senior level,” Soda says. “To me, if I am putting in 100 percent, we’re going to do this. I was really here to give everything.”
Best in Business Class
The HR organization was able to achieve in one year what many organizations struggle to do in five. The benefits programs were realigned to better reflect the working environment PSA claimed to provide on paper but needed some work on following through in practice. A company vision was created for the first time. A five-year plan was undertaken to create further clarity in alignment and strategic vision.
“We launched our PSA Way, we launched our very first goal-setting; there were a hundred different things going on at any given time,” Soda remembers.
“I had a lot more courage when I came to PSA to lead difficult conversations at the senior level . . . I was really here to give everything.”
The VP helped PSA build out its recruiting organization to try and get a handle on the massive influx of new arrivals. “I committed to educating my team about the industry in which we’re operating, and it’s a challenge,” Soda says. “There are off-the-shelf models that work in manufacturing but aren’t applicable here, and I think my previous experience lends me some credibility there.”
There has been massive and definable change at PSA, and in the process, Soda has been recognized as one of the National Diversity Council’s “Top 15 Businesswomen in Ohio” and received the National Women’s Conference “Most Powerful Women” award. Soda fails to bring up any of these awards because she’s more focused on what still needs to be done.
“We’re in the fourth year, and I feel like we’re just getting to where I wanted to be when I started,” Soda says. “Now that we’re not in this period of hypergrowth, we’re launching a refocus on how we talk about our main operating principles. When you’re in a period of change, you have to be more forgiving of imperfections, and now it’s a time to shift to focus on accountability.”
It’s yet another problem to solve on the plane ride somewhere between Ohio and Wisconsin. Be assured, Soda is on it.
Congratulations Margaret Soda for this well-deserved recognition! Margaret has steadily increased the overall value of strategic policies and benefits to the PSA Airlines team. Alera Group is proud of its relationship with PSA Airlines and looks forward to providing you valuable employee benefits consulting as you pave the way for innovation for your company and employees.