For the final edition of In the Lead in 2017, we asked Cady Coleman, an astronaut and member of the Massachusetts Women’s Forum, to lead a conversation with Ellen Ochoa, her mentor and Director of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Ellen is a member of IWF Texas-Houston and the first Latina to travel to space. She was a featured speaker at the 2017 World Leadership Conference. Watch her session here.
Read their conversation below:
CC: You and I have known each other since I arrived at NASA in 1992 to join you in the NASA Astronaut Corps. We’ve each flown in space several times, although regrettably never at the same time! Over the years, I’ve enjoyed working both with you — and for you — on a wide range of NASA projects, most of them extremely critical and complex. My favorite example of “Ellen-being-Ellen” was your skilled leadership during the pioneering days of operating our space station’s robotic arm: Canadarm 2. This state-of-the-art robotic arm played a key role in assembling the International Space Station and represented a major contribution by Canada, our international partner, to building the International Space Station. Your leadership of a team of engineers, mission controllers and astronauts involved complex technical skills and forging international and interdisciplinary teams.
As one of the first operators, you were unquestionably the person that knitted those worlds together and created the basis for constructing our International Space Station piece-by-piece. That space station still operates in orbit around our Earth, and serves as a test bed for groundbreaking science and technology experiments which benefit our lives here on earth as well as future exploration.
You are currently the highest-ranking official at the Johnson Space Center, home of the NASA Astronaut Corp and the thousands of engineers, scientists and skilled professionals that lead human space exploration. What kinds of things are you most proud of accomplishing over the course of your career?
EO: I’m sure I have the same outlook on this that you do, which is it’s about what “we” (we being Johnson Space Center (JSC) and NASA as a whole) have accomplished in human space flight, rather than what I have accomplished, during the time I have been at NASA. I’ve been lucky enough to be here for two-thirds of the Space Shuttle program, and for the entire assembly of the International Space Station (ISS) and now its operation. You and I have both gotten to participate in that, and you in a much bigger way given your long-duration mission on ISS. I saw how we progressed in terms of the capabilities: the ability to perform so many different kinds of science, first on shuttle and now on ISS; the expanded use of spacewalks and robotic arms to assemble, mate, capture, move, and repair items (including your second-ever free flyer robotic capture); and the embrace of a much larger community that participates, including many international partners, commercial companies providing cargo vehicles, and scientists around the world who utilize ISS. And now we are developing the Orion spacecraft to go beyond low earth orbit. It’s been an amazing journey!
CC: What steps can you suggest to encourage women of all ages to embrace their ability to lead?
EO: I’m personally inspired by an oft-quoted phrase (though no one seems to know the pedigree): “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” Leadership doesn’t necessarily derive from a title or position; women in all different positions and situations have the capability to inspire others.
CC: You have always been open about your love of science from an early age. You studied physics and then earned a PhD in electrical engineering. Women and the perspectives they bring are especially needed in STEM fields. Can you share advice on how all of us can encourage women to enter and stay in STEM fields?
EO: At JSC, and indeed across NASA, we have many women in visible STEM roles—astronauts, flight directors, engineering directors and lead spacecraft engineers, center directors, and more. Being in these roles, and talking about the exciting work we get to do is one big way we can encourage other women. NASA also has a Women@NASA website with many stories of women, as well as many outreach efforts. It’s great that you continue to do so much even after leaving NASA to encourage women in STEM, and I plan to do the same!
CC: For several years, NASA has been known as the best place to work in the U.S. Federal Government. Could you share some best practices from the point of view of leaders and team members as well as any comments about how to actively encourage inclusive teams?
EO: At JSC, we focus on both inclusion and innovation, and the connection between the two. What we do is very challenging, and we need the best and brightest from all backgrounds to work together to come up with solutions and new ideas. We also know that we can improve our safety processes when people feel respected and valued, because then they feel comfortable speaking up. Some of the things we’ve done at JSC include supporting our employee resource groups with senior executive leaders, having our senior leaders participate in an Inclusive Leadership Cadre, developing a Transparent Opportunities Program where informal opportunities are advertised and people can raise their hand to show interest rather than being assigned (often to the same people over and over), ensuring that panels for hiring and promotion are diverse in a variety of ways, and sharing best practices among our organizations.
Cady Coleman and Ellen Ochoa speaking at the 2018 World Leadership Conference in Houston, Texas.
CC: I’ve especially admired and appreciated your support and counsel about how to combine family and work. When my son was born and circumstances dictated I take time off, you made it clear that there was room in my life to fulfill my role in the space program and my mission at home. That advice and perspective at just the right time meant the world to me, and it paved the way for me to establish family-friendly policies when I became the Chief of Robotics for the astronaut office. Women leaders often wear many hats, both at home and at work, and they are frequently judged publicly on how well they perform. Can you share your thoughts on how you manage to balance work, home and your personal life?
EO: I’ve also benefited from supervisors (all of whom were men, by the way) who supported me personally and family-friendly policies in general, which has been a huge help in my career. At NASA, we all realize that sometimes our mission requires extra hours and effort; in turn, we do what we can to provide flexibility. At JSC, we instituted a Flex Friday every other week (probably the most popular decision I made as Center Director!); we also try to accommodate people’s requests such as starting meetings a little later in the mornings so people can drop off kids at school, and advertise the ability to go part-time (and encourage an environment where that isn’t detrimental to one’s career).
CC: A fun thing we share in common is that we are also both flute players who continue to play into our adult lives. Do you think that outside interests like music can add to what we bring to the table for an organization like NASA, and do you think that the arts can play a role in helping to solve problems in technical fields?
EO: Music played such a big part earlier in my life (to the extent that I considered majoring in it) that it has remained really important to me to continue it, even though at a much reduced level. I try to practice enough so that someday, when I have more time, I’ll be able to get back into it more seriously and enjoy performing again. It’s definitely interesting to note how many people at NASA are involved in the arts—at the least, I think it shows that we have people who enjoy mastering a variety of things!
CC: Throughout my tenure at NASA, I have admired your unique ability to lead quietly and competently, and I have learned from you. When you share your thoughts with a group or give them direction, it is always clear that you have a firm grasp on both the big picture and the more detailed one. I’d like to think that the ripples from your leadership continue to propagate thru our present and out into our future. Can you share some of the aspects of your personal brand of leadership that have led to the results we see from the Johnson Space Center?
EO: I learned from some of my Marine buddies to focus on two items: accomplish the mission and take care of your people. In essence, everything I do is about those—and of course, it’s often by taking care of your people that you are able to accomplish the mission. As a Center Director, I use a broader definition of “accomplish the mission” than I did as an astronaut; it’s not just about today’s mission but about getting the right people, policies, processes, and facilities so that we can accomplish tomorrow’s mission as well. My goal is to ensure that JSC is leading human space exploration many years into the future, even as we embrace working with many different kinds of partners in a world where technology and methods of collaboration are constantly changing.