At the October Leaders Connect meeting, I had the unique opportunity to do a Q&A session with Astrophysicist, Thomas Zurbuchen. Thomas is the Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA. Prior to this, he was Professor of Space Science and Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan, where he helped found the Center for Entrepreneurship. Thomas is currently overseeing the leading Earth Science program in the world, where he is involved with 105 missions currently. Since Thomas joined NASA the missions funding increased by 1/2 billion dollars and is now close to 2 billion dollars annually.
I am inspired by his leadership, willingness to take risks, and championing of diversity. I wanted to know what Thomas attributes to his success. Therefore, we had a very relaxed interview which gave him the opportunity to discuss his love for creativity and Earth Science, as well what he thinks makes a good leader. Below are excerpts from the video.
Q: How did you transition from the University setting to NASA?
A: I believe in a career poke, not a career plan. I have plans with phases which include doing tough things. I am the guy who causes the problems, not the guy who brings the solution. When I realized the organization would do better if more people owned it than me, I decided I was ready for a new career phase. I worked with an Executive Coach (which was Rob Pasick himself) for ten sessions and discovered that I love turnaround projects. In big organizations, when people see walls, I see opportunities. I decided to interview with NASA. I was ultimately chosen for that position, not only because I was a researcher but also because I was an innovator. I had worked with and understood private sector companies. That’s what happens when you do things you are passionate about and things you can have an impact on, it leads you to bigger roles.
Q: How do you lead the effort to change and grow at NASA?
A: I came into NASA and said, “I’m not going to change anything for 100 days”. We need to have the humility to learn and admit that we don’t know everything. I began to analyze my team, and in doing so I identified ways to get the whole team involved. This approach has led to me being known as “the champion of diversity” at NASA. At first, the team had three primary people who did a majority of the talking. When they talked, the conversation was shut down. They were confident extroverts much like myself. Knowing my tendency to shut people down, I always hired someone who was willing to stop me. I decided, I would tell my extroverts, “You have great ideas, but when you talk, others shut down.” I asked them to hold their comments to the end. On the flip side, I went to the ones less likely to talk, who were often female or introverted men, and said, “You talked three times this month, and each time you talked, you contributed to the conversation. Please talk more in the meetings.” Diversity leads to better discussions and good solutions.
Q: Tell me more about the roots of your leadership style.
A: As a young university student, I enlisted in military service. That was the most important thing I did because I got to know people. I learned how to motivate people and how to make my opinions known. I also asked people for their input so they owned the solution. I allowed people to tell me that I was wrong. This helped me become a better listener.
Q: What were some of your early life influences?
A: I grew up in an Amish-like setting (strict Mennonite) in Switzerland, which was closed off from the rest of the world. Due to my beliefs, I was kicked out of the family at age 18. I decided that I would not become bitter. From this experience, I was less fearful; I realized that good people often disagree (I have great respect for my father even though we did not see eye to eye); I am independent and I will do hard things; I also found friends, which was an important part of developing a human side. These traits all contribute to developing good leadership abilities. If someone is critical about my decision, but I’ve done it for the right reasons, I’m okay.
Q: How do you keep yourself rooted to family, self-care, and well-being?
A: I have found that it does not help to add more hours to work and meetings. I put real boundaries on my day and carve out realistic time for work. I have a cut-off time for work to transition to my personal life. I ensure my family is part of my day. I also invest in my health by exercising and taking care of myself. I take opportunities to turn overflow into mentorship and growth for others.
Q: Who are your stakeholders?
A: Humanity. I want historians to look at this exact period in time and say that we made huge progress for humanity.
Q: How do you manage self-doubt?
A: It is fine to have doubt. Confidence comes when you realize you don’t have to be great all the time. You only have to be perfect as a team not as an individual. Together we create perfection. Don’t ever lead off with “I’m probably wrong but..”. Your opinion is always valuable. Ask for help. Most importantly get mentored and be a mentor. I have three mentors that I talk to on a regular basis.
Q: What projects are you currently working on?
A: I am overseeing 105 missions right now. Last week the Parker Solar probe flew by Venus toward its rendezvous with the Sun. The spacecraft had drawn close enough to our star that its power-generating solar array wings began to tilt themselves inward – a task directed by the spacecraft itself, based on the rising temperatures – away from the Sun and behind the spacecraft’s heat shield. This is the first time that autonomous, closed-loop solar array angle control based on temperature has taken place on a spacecraft.
Q: How big is the universe?
A: The universe is remarkable in that it is relatively simple. It can be described in less than ten variables. Much of what we know about the universe is based on Einstein’s theories. In science, we set out to disprove these theories – “We try to kill them, but they just won’t die“. We don’t set out to prove, rather our doubt helps us discover.
Q: What life lessons can we learn from science?
- It is important to be curious
- Humility – nature is more important than we are
- Science makes our lives better