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National Association of Counties • Washington, D.C.      Vol. 34, No. 9 • May 6 , 2002

The H.R. Doctor Is In

Shuttle Diplomacy

The HR Doctor recently had the pleasure of visiting the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. to watch a scheduled lift-off of the Space Shuttle Atlantis. NASA and Right Management Consulting were great hosts. A pre-launch briefing, tour of the facilities, view of the launch pad and interaction with NASA staff was wonderful.

However, what was of lasting value were some reminders of important strategic management skills which I saw amply demonstrated during the event. First, the organization had a vision of what it can be and where it wishes to go. No, I don’t mean into orbit. I mean a vision of the kind of organization NASA wants to be. The vision, like all excellent visions of the future, is simple and eloquent. It is designed to convey an excitement and a commitment.

Vision statements should contain
few words, but should convey
passionately held, long-range values.

In NASA’s case the overall vision, as interpreted by the HR Doctor, is to harness space sciences to benefit society — in health care, education, economics, exploration and innovation. There was no mention of this or that particular project, such as the Hubble Space Telescope, or the International Space Station. There was no mention of the budget trouble of the day or the year. There was no mention of who the agency head is, was or will be. Rather, the vision is universal. It can be understood in many languages and by multiple generations.

Many counties and cities adopt vision statements. It is a popular thing to do. However, some seen by the HR Doctor are multiple paragraphs long and appear to have been written by an actuary, rather than a visionary leader. Vision statements should contain few words, but should convey passionately held, long-range values.

NASA is subject to the same budgetary constraints as counties …nowhere near enough funding to meet the needs the staff sees out there…not enough money to make the kind of difference the dedicated team members know they could make — if only — if only Congress would understand and be more supportive.

If only the president would raise the priority for space sciences funding. If only, if only. Sound familiar? Any local government official can share similar frustrations about how much better the health care system, or criminal justice or education would be under different circumstances.

However, what struck the HR Doctor about the approach NASA has chosen as a model — a model which many local governments should adopt — is that the vision is being translated into reality by innovation and challenge rather than whining. NASA is building business and education partnerships to demonstrate the tangible value of space sciences to everyday life.

An international business park will be springing up as part of a “new” Kennedy Space Center where corporations will be able to directly harness the knowledge being developed by the traditional work of the Space Center. The organization is the steward of about 140,000 acres of wildlife and wetlands preservation, making NASA a major environmental conservation organization.

The tourism impact of the Space Center is obvious. The job creation, the partnership with state government and the economic impact are less obvious, but ironically will be as important in the long run as the space missions themselves. Twelve-thousand employees work at the Space Center, although only 2,000 are government employees.

NASA has learned that it is not only acceptable but commendable to use words like “outsourcing” and “core functions,” so the agency can focus on the essential functions. Even some of the HR functions are managed by contractors — a situation the HR Doctor sees as a marker of things to come.

Finally, the importance of educating the public about the vision and the innovation going on behind the scenes is critical and well understood by NASA. What made this trip particularly wonderful was the clear understanding that the vision will not succeed without the team members who sign on to be part of the effort. The people of the organization are the guardians of vision and the single key component that will make it a success.

Every host I met, from the consultant’s great leader Tom Shea and his event-planning agent Lucy Hardy to the NASA staff members, knew his or her objective and business. They conveyed the sense of confidence — not arrogance — respect and perspective, which we should all adopt to be successful. The trip was more than a space center excursion for the HR Doctor. It was a reminder that behind organizational success is human resources excellence.

Here’s to the closet space explorer inside every bureaucrat!

All the best,
Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •