NASA is freakin’ awesome (why science geeks are leading the way for engagement)

The other night, after being woken up by a particularly loud dog turning over in her crate, the TV was turned on and I ended up watching an hour long program on NASA’s Curiosity mission to Mars.  It was awesome, and if you are not in awe of the things that human beings can do when focused on a common cause, shame on you.  I’ve been a space nerd from a very early age.  The Right Stuff is still one of my favorite movies. I really wanted to be an astrophysicist (then I hit ‘Intro to Complex Variables’.  Oof.) and I watch documentaries all the time (hence the Science Channel on at 3:00am).  I love that stuff.

As I lay there, not sleeping like I should have been, I was struck by how geeked (shout out to Steve Browne!) everyone was about the work they were doing.  And I couldn’t help think that any corporation would be lucky to have such an engaged workforce, and how any workforce would love to be that excited about going to work every day.  The NASA geeks obviously love that stuff, too.

I know NASA has come under fire in the past for their culture of cover up that resulted in deaths (Challenger, Columbia) and other leadership blunders.  I’ll address that side of the culture in the future. But for those people working on the Curiosity mission, the culture gave them exactly what they needed in order to love their jobs AND be successful.curiosity

What is it that got these NASA people so jazzed (other than the obvious fact that they are working on AWESOME SPACE STUFF)?  Here are a few things that I think contribute to the high level of NASA employee engagement that corporations can learn from:

  • People get to apply their skills and interests towards really cool work: Engagement surveys keep telling us that people want to be able to put their strengths to work on interesting projects.  You’ve probably said once or twice in your career, “I just want to make a difference.”  Well, these people are doing that – they get to use all their training and years of gazing up at the stars to help explore a distant planet.
  • Everyone is working toward the same massively difficult, but inspiring, goal: NASA is all about throwing down the gauntlet.  It started with Kennedy’s assertion that we would get to the moon by the end of the decade in the ’60s, to Apollo 13’s shifted mission to bring the astronauts home, to landing the most ambitious rover safely on Mars to conduct science experiments.  This singular focus drives all decisions and actions, keeping the teams focused on the common target.
  • Everyone’s role is well-defined: As you can imagine, a project like Curiosity has a LOT of different teams working on specific aspects of the mission.  There’s the experiment team, the landing team, the communications team, the power team, the SAM (sample analysis) team, etc.  Each person knows what their specific goals are, what the expectations are, the timeline required, and the potential impact of failure.
  • Everyone understands how their role contributes to the overall mission: I didn’t hear anyone say, “I don’t know why I do what I do – I just take orders.”  These are people who are driven to succeed because they know the rest of the mission is relying on their success.  They are given the big picture to provide context and truly believe they are a part of something greater than themselves.
  • They prepared…and prepared…and prepared…and were ready for anything: The level of testing and simulations the teams underwent before launch, during the journey to Mars, and right before landing meant the team felt they were able to handle any contingency.  Leadership understood the importance of gelling as a team, practicing skills until mastery, and throwing in trouble scenarios so the team could learn how to handle them in a low risk environment.  This level of practice lent skills and cohesion that resulted in a successful rover landing…even though the method used to land the rover had never been used before.
  • The work captures the hearts as well as the minds: One of the project’s scientists told the story of when he was a kid and the first Voyager photos from Mars were published in the ’70s.  He said, “That’s the day I became a planetary scientist.”  He basically is working on the project he dreamed about when he was little. The ability to emotionally connect with one’s  work is powerful. Simon Sinek’s excellent TED talk and book Start With Why discusses the need to understand who you are as a company and then let all things flowing from there.  The scientists working on Curiosity knew why they were there, and the long hours and stress were truly a labor of love.
  • They celebrate their wins: Just watch the reaction of the team once Curiosity safely touched down on the surface of Mars.

True, most of us will never get a chance to work on a project like landing a rover on another planet so far away that it takes 14 minutes for radio signals to reach it.  But when you think about it, none of the things that make those NASA geeks so excited are really out of reach for companies.  It’s about letting your people use their strengths to move the company forward on ambitious goals that everyone understands and connects to.  Each person knows what their role is and why it’s important.  They can be emotionally committed to the work.  And everyone can celebrate their wins and learn from their mistakes.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

“Other duties as assigned” (why it’s a good way to work)

I had a streak of bad luck at one point in my career.  Three of the companies I worked for either went out of business or closed the office of where I was working.  I was the William H Macy of business.  I could have been hired as a cooler for competitors.

After the third company went down and the job went away, I wanted to take a little bit of a mental break and just do some temp work until I figured out what was next.  So I was assigned to a small company to do data entry.  About a week into that, I started asking questions.  Why were the forms all hand-written?  What about a web form? Wait, you don’t have a web site?  Well, why not? And who the heck is managing the network?  And shouldn’t you have a single point of contact for general questions?

All of that question-asking led to a full-time position building the company’s web presence and setting some communication infrastructure that’s still in place today.

I share this story not because I want to brag about my mad skillz and the fact that I landed on my feet.  I share it to illustrate that I landed on my feet as a result of asking questions that were outside of my assigned responsibilities.taking out the trash

All too often, I hear employees use the phrase, “It’s not in my job description.”  Or I encounter managers who want a copy of the job description to prove to an employee that there is a task or behavior that they should be doing.  And it sticks in my craw a bit because I find it SO limiting…and it’s so indicative of where a company’s culture currently is.  Employees who think they aren’t responsible for the success of the company will limit themselves to the specifics of their job.  Managers who can’t explain how an employee’s actions contribute to the overall success of an organization rely on job descriptions to “prove it”.  It handicaps both parties…and hinders the business.

There’s a reason that other duties as assigned is included in job descriptions – because there are times when the unexpected happens and the business needs its employees to step up and do some things that are outside of their normal day-to-day.  No business can promise exactly what your daily routine will look like (maybe some manufacturing jobs can get close, but there are still variables).  The company needs some flexibility to succeed in an ever-changing business environment.

Other duties as assigned should be the way you approach your job every single day.  Yes, there are actual job responsibilities you need to complete (duh).  But this phrase is a license for innovation!  You are responsible for adding value – if you can add value outside of your ‘job box’, you will be successful.  For those of you who complain you’re getting burned out or want more development, here’s the phrase for inspiration.  Look around you and find a problem to solve.  If you’re always complaining that one department doesn’t seem to talk to another, call a meeting with the offending parties and see what you can do to help.  Maybe it’s not “technically” your job…but if you see a way to add value by doing it, by all means – do it!

Now, there is some risk inherent in performing other duties all willy-nilly, so here are a couple of suggestions on how you might do it successfully:

  • Tie your other duties to a business need: It’s harder to fault an employee when you’re helping the business achieve its goals.
  • Target pain points: The others will thank you.
  • Don’t make it all about you: Sometimes the problem/pain point you’re solving benefits you…but what would benefit others?
  • Let people know what you’re doing: No one likes an end-around.  Keep your manager up to speed on what you’re doing and why.

So when you’re tempted to grumble or make fun of other duties as assigned, change your mindset.  You may just land on your feet.

Got an example of a time when an “other duties as assigned” mindset helped you?  Share in the comments!

If you’re not stubborn, you’ll give up on experiments too soon. And if you’re not flexible, you’ll pound your head against the wall and you won’t see a different solution to a problem you’re trying to solve.
― Jeff Bezos

Who engages the engagers?

In an earlier post,  I wrote about the importance of your employees caring about what they do – not just for discretionary effort, but some effort of ANY kind.  What I didn’t really talk about was whether or not YOU as a leader care,  and whether or not someone cares if you care.

It’s tough to be a leader/manager/boss.  The Man isn’t supposed to get tired or frustrated, and isn’t supposed to want to throw his hands in the air and say, “To hell with this.  Screw you guys…I’m going home.”  No, when you’re the Head Honcho, you are expected to maintain a level of polished professionalism and be a pillar of inspiration for your people in times of stress and woe.  After all, your ability to stay focused and on message in the good times and the bad is why you get paid the big bucks and why you have a “World’s Greatest Boss” mug on your desk.  As the boss, you are gifted with the remarkable talent of letting stress and disillusionment pass over you without any of it sticking on your Teflon-coated psyche.

Well, that’s a bunch of crap.  You and I both know that leaders can often hit burnout long before their employees do.  This is due to a number of factors:

  • The leaders know more about what’s going on than the average employee (and sometimes the news isn’t good)
  • The leaders are keeping the crazies at bay so the team can get some actual work done
  • The leaders ARE working hard to keep the team motivated and inspired during down times (and it’s really exhausting)

In some ways, it’s like being a secret agent (stick with me here).  Like a spy, leaders must compartmentalize their professional existence – there’s one persona for peers, there’s another for dealing with the boss, there’s another for handling stakeholders, and still another for interacting with employees.  Leaders must filter their communication for each audience, ensuring they are creating the right context and providing the appropriate information at the right time.  It’s no wonder that some leaders start to feel detached.

Yup. Cheesy Star Trek reference – “Engage.” What did you expect? Oh, and the title of this post is based on a ST:TNG episode. So there.

Engagement studies continue to support that the longer an employee/leader is with the company, the higher the engagement level.  They also suggest that those in leadership positions tend to be more engaged than those in lower levels (presumably because they have more visibility and autonomy).  However, when you look at the data, you also see that while engagement goes up, the number of people who are classified as “crash and burn” stays pretty constant.  This is worrisome, since we DO look to our leaders as voices of reason, sanity and stability when things go south.

I’ve talked before in passing about the fact that as you ascend in an organization, you tend to get less feedback and support.  This is particularly true when it comes to keeping you, the leader, engaged.  There seems to be this unspoken rule that once you’ve joined the management ranks, you no longer need someone else to help recharge your batteries – we gave you a promotion…it’s YOUR job to stay committed.

So what’s a disillusioned, disengaged leader to do?  A few suggestions:

  • Don’t let work be your only identity: Some leaders burn out because they make The Job their everything.  It’s not.  Find a hobby that lets you burn off some steam.  Exercise.  Take up knitting.  Be a LARP-er.  Whatever floats your boat.
  • Find an “engagement buddy”: There’s a good chance other leaders are feeling the same way you are and just need someone to talk to about it.  Find a trusted peer who knows you well enough to call you on your bullshit when you get whiny, and who you feel comfortable calling out when THEY get whiny.  I know from personal experience that this support system can get you through some really awful situations.
  • Regularly assess your engagement levels: Engagement isn’t an on/off switch.  it’s a continuum that changes often…sometimes minute to minute.  There are a lot of scales you can use to help assess where you are on that engagement continuum (seriously – Google it).  Pick one that works for you and self-monitor.  Neuroscience tells us that labeling a feeling or emotion helps us handle it better.  Label your engagement level so you can deal with it.
  • Talk to your boss: This suggestion isn’t for everyone, but hopefully you have the benefit of a leader who will listen to you when you have an issue like this.  Now, this isn’t a conversation that starts with you plopping your butt down in the chair and saying, “I HATE MY JOB.”  That probably won’t go well.  Start the conversation by stating that your goal is to continue to add value to the organization and that you’re concerned that you may be losing a little bit of that drive and need some feedback on how things are going.  Depending on your relationship, you might even share your engagement continuum scale, share where you see yourself more often than not, and then BE SOLUTION FOCUSED.  Come with some ideas on how you might re-engage, and share what you need from your leader.
  • Decide if it’s worth it: If your engagement levels are constantly in the “about to go postal” range, AND you aren’t getting the support you need, AND you see no end in sight…it may be time for you to decide whether or not you’re in the right role and/or right company.

No one said being a leader was going to be easy (hence the name of this blog).  So much of what leaders do must be intrinsically motivated, and it’s easy to forget to self-monitor your own state of engagement.  Take some time to keep the batteries charged – because if YOU’RE not engaged, your team will definitely see it.

What suggestions do you have for keeping yourself engaged?  Share in the comments below!