You don’t move up the ranks at NASA without being driven. “High achiever” isn’t an accolade; it’s an assumption. But even with an exceptional pool of talent, there’s room for improvement. In 2006, Johnson Space Center (JSC) Director Mike Coats charged Natalie Saiz, JSC’s director of HR, with improving the organization’s ability to prepare the best and brightest for large, complex program- and project-management roles.
“Program managers at NASA have the most difficult jobs,” says Natalie. “These are huge, multi-year, multi-billion-dollar programs. Program managers have to lead across the NASA centers, across functions and internationally. How do we develop our people so that they have the functional skills and experience as well as the leadership ability to be successful in these challenging roles?”
Natalie and her team developed three 18-month programs, each with a leadership component provided by CCL. The Space Systems Engineering Development Program is for lead systems engineers looking to move on to larger, more visible strategic projects. Similarly, the Project Leadership Program is for experienced technical professionals and administrators preparing for assignments that are larger in scope. Finally, for senior-level managers who are on track for program-management roles, NASA created the Program/Project Management Development Program.
All program participants are experienced leaders. They have significant and proven technical skills. They solve complex challenges, make effective decisions and are agile learners. “Developing a program for this audience isn’t an off-the-shelf process,” says Natalie. “We need to give them powerful experiences, and our partners have to establish their credibility in a very short amount of time. It was clear from the start that CCL had done its homework and understood the cultural context.”
That up-front work by CCL staff, led by Cindy McLaughlin, helped effectively tailor the program content and processes. During the programs, CCL could easily address issues that were significant to each group. “If you create that sort of learning environment, our leaders are receptive. They will take risks, talk in a group, try new things and learn,” Natalie notes.
At the individual level, the in-depth feedback and coaching have been extremely valuable. JSC is seeing “vast improvement” in collaboration. Taking this “win” a step further, Natalie brought in McLaughlin to facilitate a leadership retreat with Coats and his senior staff.
“NASA continues to be seen as a very important agency. Even so, we are constantly responding to political dynamics and shifting priorities,” Natalie explains. “But JSC’s commitment to improve our program and project-management leadership and to work effectively as a senior team is unwavering. We have had excellent leadership in the past, and our job is to continue that legacy.”