Ellen Ochoa is a former astronaut and the first Hispanic women to go into space when she served on a nine-day mission aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1993. She is now the director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which was recently recognized as one of the most innovative agency subcomponents.
Ochoa spoke about her experiences and how they shaped her views on leadership with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Q. What are some of the leadership lessons that you learned as an astronaut that you are applying to your role as director of the Johnson Space Center?
A. Being in the astronaut corps really teaches you a lot about leadership. You have to be both a member of the team and at times a leader of the team. Some of my colleagues in the astronaut office were Marines, and they would tell me that in the Marines they had two goals: accomplish the mission and take care of your people. I find myself coming back to that because I think it’s a great thing to remember. It boils everything down to two straightforward and important goals.
I’m trying to make sure that the people here have the skills and the infrastructure that are going to allow us to accomplish our mission of advancing human space exploration. It’s partly about making sure we’re safe and successful, but it’s also that my center is prepared to carry out that mission for many years into the future.
Q. Have any situations that went awry imparted important leadership lessons?
A. A challenge I think about every day is the loss of the space shuttle Columbia. I had only been in a management position for about two months, and the morning that Columbia was supposed to land was the first time that I was in mission control as a manager. I was there as the crew management representative in case something went wrong. Of course, you never go into a situation like that expecting anything bad to happen. When it did, it was a hugely tragic event for the country, and certainly for everyone at NASA.
We were able to learn some lessons from the loss. When we’re talking about issues or doing a flight-readiness review, I try to deliberately think, “Are we asking the right questions? Do we have the right people in the room? Are we encouraging people who might have some knowledge of the subject to speak up?”
During the investigation report after the loss of Columbia, we discovered there were a lot of people questioning what was happening during the mission, but those questions weren’t getting into an open forum — and as a result, we didn’t address them. That is something we have to continually work on, because it can be human nature to slip into a comfortable routine where we think that, because we have a lot of experience and expertise, naturally all the right information will bubble up. We have to make sure we have processes in place to encourage asking the right questions and we have to continually keep that top of mind.
Q. How has NASA been able to remain innovative year after year?
A. I try to make sure that our team stays focused on what’s within our control. We can’t control exactly how much money comes to us in the budget, but we can be innovative with how we use the money that we’re allocated. I want to make sure that we don’t fall into a mindset where we think that things happen to us and we have to react. I want to make sure that we’re productive and we generate creative ideas — and not only ideas of what to do, but also how to carry things out. It’s important that federal leaders take charge to make sure that people are focusing on the mission of the organization above all else, and realizing the control they have in order to accomplish that mission.
Q. How do you reward outstanding employees?
A. We have an award here at the Johnson Space Center called the Power of One award, which is a peer award where people can recognize their co-workers who have helped their office, our center or even our whole agency. The winners get to choose from a variety of experiences, like going onto the floor of mission control, going out to our large pool that we call the neutral buoyancy facility where the astronauts practice space walks, or getting a ride in our surface exploration rover that we’ve developed here as a concept vehicle. Unless you work in one of those particular areas, you might never get to do that.
We’re trying to do this to reward great work and also as a way of bringing all of our folks closer to the mission. We can’t give our employees stock options, but we do some pretty cool things here and we need to take advantage of how they can help keep employees engaged.