At NASA, Open And Trusted Leadership Is As Important As Technical Prowess – Forbes

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Reaching for the stars is a well-grounded team effort.
You’re not going to find an organization anywhere in this galaxy more data-driven and technologically savvy than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. But to have everything work in sync, NASA needs to foster a highly collaborative and communicative corporate culture. The space agency’s experiences with nurturing its people — and potential leaders — is a great lesson for all those who want to rise through the ranks to lead today’s emerging digital enterprises.
For insights on how NASA supports leadership growth within its far-flung and diverse organization, we caught up with Ron Thompson, chief data officer and deputy digital transformation officer at NASA, who discussed the leadership qualities all organizations should encourage among its managers and executives in this digital age.
Q: What qualities are required to lead in the 2020s that were not as essential in previous decades?
Thompson: “In the past, we were always focused on niche solutions rather than looking broadly across the enterprise. But this broadness is important to advance our work. Before, we would specialize in specific domains. However, cross collaboration is now front and center – exactly where it needs to be, especially for sharing data. To do this successfully, you have to reduce complexity, think globally and act locally. It’s not just about the solution but about the transformation as well as driving mission outcomes.”
“It’s imperative to ask why. At NASA, the why is often to benefit mission outcomes. Take the time to explain the why to the entire organization, at all levels. This sets the context and helps everyone understand where they fit into the picture. You have to help your people understand where they fit into the bigger picture and why they are doing the things they do.”
Q: What leadership qualities are tried-and-true timeless, regardless of decade?
Thompson: “I’ve been in my career for 35 years, and the common thread I always see is honesty. The best leaders make sure their actions are true to their words. They are open and transparent as much as they can be.”
“The best leaders are trusted advisors. Rather than just being a direct supervisor, they nurture careers and make sure there is a fit for the organization and for the individual for growth. Honesty and transparency are core to every leader. While you can’t share everything with everyone, it’s important to be as honest as you can and help your people to have the courage to address issues. For example, I’ve had experiences with individuals not performing in a role. I had to turn on the feedback dial and even move them to better fit roles. Staying positive in these actions and honest in my feedback helped them to thrive.”
“I have been fortunate to have wonderful leaders throughout my career that I can role model. These leaders exhibited openness, led with transparency and focused on furthering both the organization and its individuals. The most powerful example of this was during my time at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Working for Secretary Bob McDonald, I experienced firsthand how he made everyone feel included and valued and like they had an important role to play. I was at the VA during the scheduling crisis [of 2014], and seeing how Secretary McDonald worked through this very difficult situation has always been a special time for me to reflect on. He has become my north star as a leader, and helped me see the importance of prioritizing your people, being an inclusive leader and making everyone feel valued.”
Q: What kind of training or education is necessary to advance up the corporate ladder, or to lead one’s own venture?
Thompson: “In my experience in both the private and public sectors, as you begin your career, it’s important to have a technical base with a strong engineering and science background – this is also true at NASA. But, as you move up the corporate ladder and into the C-suite, you need to be able to speak in business terms – being able to distill complex information to the most salient points without losing meaning is crucial. It’s important to understand what drives the business, the outcomes and the results. Being able to both comprehend and convey this is key to success.”
“It’s equally important to be an empathetic and servant leader. As a leader, it’s not always about what you do, but how people felt when they were engaging with you. To retain talent and attract more, focus on making people feel valued – and it is truly amazing what the team will accomplish.”
“Some great trainings I have done throughout my career to help me develop these skills include Arbinger Institute’s Outward Mindset, 360 Feedback, and The Speed of Trust Transformation Process by Franklin Covey. We recently did the Outward Mindset course at NASA, which is focused on shifting from thinking about yourself and your experiences to making more of an effort to see and understand others – their objectives, their needs, their challenges, and their circumstances. I find 360 Feedback is also imperative to growth. But you should seek not only feedback from those who manage you, but also those you lead, and create a safe space for the latter to share candidly. The Speed of Trust drives a scalable, simple methodology that guides individuals, leaders, and organizations to become explicit and deliberate about creating a high trust, highly engaged culture focused on results.”
Q: What technology skills are required? Will the need for tech skills accelerate as digital transformation accelerates?
Thompson: “As digital transformation accelerates, the need for tech skills will absolutely accelerate alongside it. Specifically, we need more data science skills to look at things more holistically and transparently. This is becoming an increasingly critical mindset.”
“For example, the younger generations entering the workforce have no qualms asking a lot of questions – this is a strong data science mindset. Currently, we have domain experts who specialize in certain areas, but they aren’t looking at a problem broadly or connecting disparate data sets for a purpose. Data scientists can mine information that brings out the value of what the data is telling us, adding tremendous value to any organization. They answer questions you haven’t even thought of.”
“Digital transformation is like a lever. It’s more than just the technology, however. It’s transforming how an organization works – by looking at the operating model and determining how and what digital technologies to bring in to improve it. It’s not just about a single tool or capability or functionality. Everything is connected and must be looked at holistically.”

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