Vol. 4, Issue 2
Four senior NASA executives shared what it means to step away from their technical roots and move into an executive position.
Chris Scolese, associate administrator at NASA Headquarters, and Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of Space Operations, faced a leadership challenge when a pinky-sized poppet fragment cracked off during the ascent of the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 2008. (Read the case study.) Once the shuttle and crew returned safely, focus shifted immediately to the upcoming STS-119 mission. With a tight launch schedule, no understanding of the problem, and no appointed NASA Administrator accountable for keeping stakeholders informed during the Presidential transition, the agency could not afford to fail.
Scolese and Gerstenmaier took the initiative to build an informative relationship and rapport with their stakeholders, which helped to avoid a political backlash during the Presidential transition. “A little bit of action early in the problem pays big dividends,” said Gerstenmaier in a panel discussion that examined the factors that determine executive success at NASA.
Christine Williams, director of the Systems Engineering Leadership Development Program at NASA Headquarters, hosted the panel, which featured Langley Research Center Deputy Director Stephen Jurczyk and Goddard Space Flight Center Director of Engineering Dennis Andrucyk in addition to Scolese and Gerstenmaier.
Taking on an executive position often means leaving one’s technical expertise capability behind. But, said Jurczyk, “it’s not about your personal success…it’s about the team’s contributions, building the team.” Jurczyk said that he sits on review boards to get his technical fix. Gerstenmaier shared this sentiment. He now finds joy in watching teams rise to the occasion and finding new and exciting challenges for others to tackle. “It’s hard to give up the technical side,” he said. “I’m a recovering engineer.”
Constant, clear communication in an executive position is imperative. “We have to remember that what we’re doing, we’re doing it for the first time,” said Scolese. Shielding individuals from bad news or potential road blocks is counterproductive. “You have to be appreciative of bad news,” added Gerstenmaier. Create a culture where it is safe to bring up new ideas. If it is perceived that individual opinions will be rejected, the system shuts down fast, and you run the risk of not knowing what you need to know, he said. “All you have to do is shoot one messenger and you’ll hear what people want you to hear,” said Andrucyk.
Decision-making at the executive level reaches new levels of complexity. “We try to parse the problem into smaller pieces,” said Gerstenmaier. Sometimes a good decision comes from knowing when not to act. “This doesn’t mean that you don’t make decisions,” said Scolese. It means letting people go off and do their jobs. Trusting your people is critical, remarked Jurczyk. “In the end, it’s not about being right, it’s about understanding how to make your group or team successful.”
An audience member asked the panelists how they address team or individual weaknesses, despite being surrounded by talent. Gerstenmaier responded that it comes back to openness. “Can you talk to your folks about the weaknesses you see?” he asked.
When asked if he wanted to become an executive leader, Scolese said he’d think about it. Technically focused in his early career, he felt fulfilled by his work at Goddard Space Flight Center. He took the weekend to make the decision, determining that moving up was worth trying. “Before you say no, really take some time to think about it,” he said, “and try and decide that it may be worth trying your hand at it.”