Rocket-propelled leadership: An interview with the director of NASA’s Stennis Space Center

Patrick Scheuermann is the director of NASA’s John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where he is responsible for implementing the space agency’s mission in the areas of rocket propulsion testing and applied science. He has been with NASA in various engineering and management capacities for 25 years. Scheuermann spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Government Leadership.

Is there a particular experience that’s helped shape your views on leadership?

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My first assignment in the Senior Executive Service began the Monday before Hurricane Katrina hit. I was named the chief operating officer to the NASA Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. While I would never wish that assignment on anybody else in life, I will never forget the personal and professional lessons that I picked up in leading that facility. During the next two years, I witnessed the resilience of a workforce in which almost half of the employees lost everything they owned.

What leadership lessons have you learned during your time at NASA?

As I began moving up the ranks to management and senior leadership positions at NASA, one of the most significant things I learned was the importance of listening. During the past ten years, it’s a skill I’ve really tried to hone, in part by just forcing myself to be quiet. What I’ve found is that a lot of the issues exist because of a misunderstanding or lack of communication. I understand that good communication between employees and their leaders is important. Everybody brings value to the table and has a perspective that should be appreciated.

The Stennis Space Center has been remarkably successful motivating its employees. How do you inspire commitment and engagement?

We’ve focused on developing a culture of collaboration. At our organization, new ideas and diversity of thought are highly encouraged. I believe that when employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas and giving their feedback, they also feel a sense of empowerment and professional courtesy in the workplace. That snowballs into a culture where people ultimately say, “This is where I want to work.”

As director, I’ve prioritized activities that allow us to come together, in and out of the workplace. For example, every year when we plan our retreats, I always schedule the next day as a service day. Last year, after our retreat in New Orleans, we, as a leadership team, spent time at the children’s hospital. We set up all of the NASA exhibits so that all of the kids could see how our robots work and what kind of space food our astronauts eat. I’m proud, not only because of the great job we do, but also because we don’t forget to give back. We never forget our attachment to the people.

What is your biggest day-to-day challenge?

It’s no surprise, but the biggest challenge is a lack of resources. You can fill in the blank on what resources you’re talking about, be they physical assets or money or people. Things aren’t likely to get better any time soon, but the unique thing we understand is that we are an investment opportunity for NASA headquarters. What I keep trying to reiterate here is that we need to concentrate on efficiently and safely doing the job we’re doing. Then, we can rest assured that we’ll be rewarded when the agency makes its resource decisions. My philosophy has been and will continue to be, “Do the best we can with what we have.”

Have you had any mentors or role models?

 Two people come to mind – one professional, one personal.

The first is Roy Estess, one of the former center directors here at NASA and one of the most respected statesmen in our agency. For whatever reason, he picked me out of the litter, along with a few other people, to sit on the side wall and listen to how decisions were made. This was during a time when I was still a test conductor. I didn’t quite understand why this guy was pulling me in. But I’m thankful he did. The ability to watch how he interacted with other people was truly impressive. To this day, his leadership style is one that I try to emulate, on a daily basis.

The other mentor I had – who, unfortunately, our family lost a couple of years ago – is my dad, Karl. The two of them, Mr. Estess and my dad, taught me that balance is so very important in leadership, between giving it your all at work and never forgetting you have a family.

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