The National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, is a name that is synonymous with advanced technology. NASA’s mission is to advance the scientific, security and economic interests of the United States through human and robotic exploration of the solar system and beyond.
But like any organization, NASA faces challenges in developing leaders. At present, roughly 13 percent of all employees and 19 percent of NASA’s leadership team are eligible for retirement. In five years, those numbers will be 29 percent and 50 percent, respectively. In addition, NASA is in the midst of a significant organizational recommitment to space exploration. In very literal terms, technology programs at NASA are “rocket science,” and the challenge is to develop leaders capable of directing the organization in its complex and highly technical mission.
NASA’s Leadership Development Program (LDP) is a results-driven activity, aligned with the mission and values of the organization. It is built on three core concepts. The first is alignment with personal passion and vision with NASA’s mission and vision. The second is the identification and achievement of results that support the organizational vision. And the third is the conversion of knowledge into action.
NASA’s leadership competency model is the foundation for leadership development activities. The leadership model consists of six core “dimensions” of leadership — discipline competency, managing information and knowledge, business acumen, leading and managing others, working internationally and personal effectiveness.
These dimensions are supported by 20 competencies, which consist of measurable skills, knowledge and personal characteristics that comprise effective leadership in NASA. The competencies are further defined by skills and behaviors.
NASA LDP activities focus on developing core competencies through the acquisition of knowledge, skills and behaviors. Two important features of the program include leadership assessments and developmental resources. These online resources provide guidance and access to appropriate leadership development activities.
The NASA LDP employs a variety of continuing education offerings through the agency or outside vendors. In addition, some leadership candidates complete advanced degrees as part of their development.
NASA’s LDP also places a heavy emphasis on coaching and mentoring. Mentors are trained in effective coaching and mentoring techniques, and play a key role in the development of the leader as they progress through their rotational program.
Through the mentoring process and project activities, the LDP strives to support the development of leadership characteristics critical to the enterprise. Mentoring, coaching and other program activities help leadership candidates develop their ability to:
NASA measures results in three general areas. The first metric is mission success. Given the high level of complexity and the substantial risk involved in space exploration, mission success is the primary measure of leadership performance.
The second measure is the demonstrated results of project success. Improved leadership and team performance on projects are expected to provide greater than 100 percent ROI.
The final measure is organizational mobility. The promotion or delegation of responsibility to LDP alumni is rigorously tracked.
Through the LDP, NASA is positioning itself for the next generation of space exploration. The program’s mission alignment, tangible results and translation to action have made NASA LDP a benchmark for effective leadership development.