The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The NASA approach to keeping employees engaged

In 1984, Mission Specialist Bruce McCandless II is seen hovering farther away from the confines and safety of his ship than any previous astronaut had ever been. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

The end of the space shuttle program has created much uncertainty among workers at NASA as the organization charts new directions. Jeri Buchholz, NASA's chief human capital officer and assistant administrator for human capital management, has played a key role in communicating with the employees, developing the agency's workforce strategy and assessing its needs. Buchholz spoke about the NASA workforce and leadership issues 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. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q. How has NASA been able to manage leadership and program transitions while maintaining high levels of employee engagement?

A. The number one thing is to focus on the mission. Many employees who come to work for us tell us, “I’ve wanted to work at NASA since I was a little kid.” We are one of the preeminent exploration entities in the world, and we do work that nobody else can or will do, so that draws a particular kind of person. Those people are often very engaged and can maintain that engagement for many years. We also work hard to maintain a great work environment. We try to remove administrative barriers so that people can be as innovative as they possibly can. We also work to promote a good work/life balance and make sure employees have the opportunity to connect with and work with other people who share their same vision.

NASA was the top-ranked large agency in the 2012 "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" rankings. How do you keep your finger on the pulse of workforce?

We encourage employees to fill out the employee viewpoint survey, and we promote it as each individual employee’s opportunity to tell the NASA administrator how things are going. Our administrator takes the survey very seriously, and we make sure that our employees know that their individual voice matters in that respect. This year we had employees suggest additional questions for the survey. Then we allowed the NASA workforce to vote on which questions they would like to see included. That was a good way to get feedback from the workforce about what they think is important and what agency leadership should focus on. We’re really trying to create more virtual collaboration and virtual interaction between agency leadership and the workforce.

How have pay freezes, furloughs and sequestration affected employee morale at NASA? 

We certainly made adjustments to NASA programs. I was concerned for our workforce, but our employees understand that we are part of a larger federal government that is experiencing some challenges at the moment, so I don’t think that they view pay freezes and furloughs as personal. We’ve also done a pretty good job of keeping them informed, giving them all the information that we can so they can make good choices. I think the key to keeping the workforce engaged through these tough times is keeping them informed about what’s going on.

What are some obstacles to attracting science, technology and engineering talent into public service?

The call to serve is a very personal calling. I think that really smart people understand that the current environment, while not ideal, won’t last forever. And I think that if you’re someone who has wanted to work for NASA since you were a little kid, the fact that the budget situation is uncertain won’t keep you from your calling. In science and engineering fields, there is a symbiotic relationship between the federal government, academia and the private sector, so you can work for different communities at different points in your career.

I always encourage people in technical fields to consider spending a portion of their career with the federal government, because there are opportunities to work on really interesting and challenging work, and to meet and work with fascinating people. There is certainly a lot of personal reward in public service.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I would describe my leadership style as social. For me, it’s about building personal relationships with people, really understanding their needs and responding to those in a way that is meaningful to them. We spend a lot of time at work, so it's really important for me, as a leader, to try to create an environment that's enjoyable, creative, innovative, forward leaning and social so that it's a place that people choose to come to.

How did you develop this leadership style?

I’ve worked with some great leaders who showed me qualities I wanted to highlight in myself, and I’ve met others who served as horrible warnings. I’ve also spent time going to leadership development courses and I have been introduced to different leadership models, but the true measure of leadership development is if you can take all that information and integrate it so that it's uniquely yours.

Read also:

The federal agencies that rank best and worst on leadership

Like On Leadership? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.