Former astronaut Dr. Kathryn Sullivan became the acting under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and the acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in February 2013, overseeing an agency whose products and services affect more than one-third of America’s gross domestic product. Sullivan spoke 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 leadership lessons did you learn during your 15-year tenure serving as an astronaut?
A. As an astronaut, you have visibility, authority and influence, but very little if any classical, formal controls in terms of managing or leading. In my 15 years at NASA, I learned a tremendous amount by watching different leaders, and I saw different approaches to talent development and acquisition. I tended to respect most and respond best to the leaders who wore their rank lightly.
There was no doubt who the commander was and the authoritative stature that that individual’s voice had, but they reciprocated to a talented team with a style that reflected recognition and appreciation of those talents. I think this style signals that passion, commitment and talent are recognized and welcomed, but you are also expected to continually develop and improve.
How has your experience previously serving in other positions within NOAA influenced your leadership style and decision-making as acting administrator?
Now that I’m in the lead seat, I understand more clearly the dynamics and importance of stakeholder engagement and the degree to which, in an agency like NOAA, there are many entities that feel they fully share the agency’s passion and purpose and have an expectation of being accorded some kind of participation in the decision-making. The day I took the helm as acting administrator, I had our folks pull together a list of our most valued stakeholders, and I penned a short, handwritten note to each introducing myself, commenting how honored I was to be tapped as acting, and assuring them that I knew of our partnership and their concerns.
I got back emails and personal notes appreciating the fact that a NOAA administrator, acting or not, would reach out – not driven by an issue or a need – just to say ‘I’m here. I know you’re there. It matters to me that we’re connected and that you know I care about that connection.’
What are your top goals for the agency?
I’m focused on three at the moment. A core element of what makes NOAA vitally important to the country is that we provide critical environmental intelligence, from the daily weather forecast everybody knows and loves to more refined products. So sustaining that environmental intelligence, which powers our maritime commerce and aviation sectors and is an underpinning of safety for our communities and families, is critical. At the same time, it’s just as critical that we sustain the depth and excellence of NOAA’s science.
I also want to develop our young, emerging leaders, and I’d love to find a way to include more inter-organizational rotational assignments than we currently do. The third is to keep improving the diversity of our workforce. In some fields, we’re pretty good on gender diversity, but almost across the board, we’re still not seeing the level of success that I would like in bringing underrepresented minorities into our workforce.
What management techniques do you use to engage your employees in the mission and work of NOAA?
I try as hard as I can to get out and meet folks in the field and hear directly from them about their passions, the great dedication they have to the agency, what it looks like from where they’re sitting and what the hurdles and challenges are. With the current budget climate and the unfortunate effects of sequestration, we’re using more virtual town halls as we go through these challenging times. I also have one-on-ones with my senior leaders. I want to know what’s on their minds, get a sense of what opportunities they’re looking at and scouting, what risks or concerns are on their radar screen and how they’re handling those, and how they’re hedging bets to minimize the worst-case outcomes and risks.
Additionally I do brown-bags with our younger folks to hear what they’re up to and to talk about what motivates us to do this work. When I was a younger person coming up, I wish I had more of a chance to actually talk on an informal, open level with some of the people that I worked for and probe a bit about what made them tick. I would have really valued this in my own development so I try to give that to our folks.
How has the sequestration affected NOAA’s ability to deliver vital services to the American public? What advice do you have for federal leaders on how can they can best manage their employees in this current environment?
Sequestration is terribly bad policy and is not the way that the federal government should develop or manage budgets. We had to take a s 7-percent cut for fiscal year 2013, which forced some very painful decisions that put at risk both the quality of our services and the strength of our science.
I think what federal leaders can do is continue to reassure their employees of their value and that their value is recognized. They should also encourage their senior leaders to speak out against the current climate of derision for federal workers. It really distresses me that the fabulous people we have at NOAA, probably more often than not, are hearing snide comments about government workers. It’s uncalled for and doesn’t fit the vast majority of federal workers. So I try to push hard against that climate any chance I can and encourage others to add their voice.