People-Centered Leadership at NASA with Dr. Ed Hoffman

Barry O’Reilly opens Season 2 of the UnLearn Podcast by commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. He welcomes special guest Dr. Ed Hoffman, NASA’s first ever Chief Knowledge Officer. Ed is a Senior Lecturer at Columbia University School or Professional Studies, and serves as Strategic Advisor for the Project Management Institute. In these roles he works with industry leaders to develop capabilities in leadership, projects, teaming, and future of work dynamics. He is a sought-after consultant and speaker, and the co-author of Shared Voyage: Learning and Unlearning from Remarkable Projects

People-Centered Leadership at NASA with Dr. Ed Hoffman

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Knowing Why

Knowing what you’re doing is important, but it’s also critical to know why. Ed has always believed that NASA’s work contributes to the good of humankind. His thoughtful response to the interesting test Deputy Administrator Dr. Hans Mark put him through during his internship,  proved that he knew why he was there. Barry comments that we can achieve amazing outcomes when we are connected to mission, when we know why we’re doing what we’re doing. [Listen from 4:10]

It Starts With The People

The best organizations have thoughtful, effective leaders; they build teams who are themselves leaders, and they share a common mission. Ed says that when you work with people that you respect and care about, when you have a sense of purpose, and you feel that your skills are being utilized, then work feels like a special place. Barry asks how leaders can build such high-performance teams. Ed responds that the best leaders create – and are part of! – the best teams. “It starts with the people aspect,” he says. A sense of pride, appreciation, and gratitude, and commitment to the dream are components of the best teams. Only then should the management part come in, Ed says. [Listen from 16:50]

A Lack of Communication Leads to Tragedy

Ed relates how a lack of communication and collaboration at NASA led to the 2003 Columbia tragedy. When you’ve had a period of success, it’s common to feel pressure to produce faster results. Communication between teams often suffers and that’s when danger happens, Ed says. The Discovery mission six years later was successful because of the high level of communication and collaboration. The psychological safety to talk about anything is the most important ingredient in teamwork, Ed insists. Barry adds that information-sharing is crucial because making good decisions depends on having high-quality information. [Listen from 22:25]

A Process of Unlearning

Putting yourself in an uncomfortable environment, where you have to actively learn, synthesize information and present it back for feedback, is a form of iterating, and a powerful mechanism for personal and team growth, Barry says. Ed had to go through this process of unlearning when he assumed the leadership of NASA’s Program Project Management Initiative. What he had in his favor, he says, was that he knew what he didn’t know. He has learned that knowledge is profoundly social: the answers are out there in the community, so the best teams learn from each other. Ed says that he is in awe of his technical and engineering colleagues because they’re doing work that he can’t understand. Enjoying the people you work with, appreciating them and the work you do together helps the whole team grow. Be in tap with what you enjoy, Ed advises. “It’s not work when you love something,” he says. [Listen from 28:10]

A meaningful interaction with a mentor was another powerful unlearning moment for Ed. Thanks to his mentor, his approach to finding solutions now involves setting up boundaries to know whether something is working, as well as the tools to recover. All of this has to do with an emphasis and commitment to building reflective leadership skills for learning and unlearning.[ Listen from 38:10]

Looking Ahead

Ed is looking forward to the future of leadership in organizations. He believes that we will get better at working together effectively. We will tackle issues of people and culture and embrace leadership that is engagement-oriented, he says. The idea of collaborative and collective intelligence has him very excited. [Listen from 44:35]

Resources

Dr. Ed Hoffman 

Listen and subscribe to the Unlearn Podcast at
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