Ask the CHCO: NASA’s Jeri Buchholz
During an interview on our sponsored, “Ask the CHCO” series on Federal News Radio last week, Jeri Buchholz of NASA highlighted the importance of leveraging the organizational culture to accomplish the agency’s mission.
Buchholz entered NASA during a daunting stage in the history of the agency, when the shuttle program had ended and many employees worried about the agency’s future. Buchholz describes a period of overwhelming “uncertainty and mourning,” in which many employees who had spent their entire careers focused on a certain mission saw that mission taken away. Fast forward three years, NASA was rated the best place to work in the Federal government and ranked #1 in innovation. What does she attribute this rapid organizational culture change to?
“You have a choice, you can let culture evolve on its own or you can grab ahold of it and mold it in the direction you think your organization needs to go.”
– Jeri Buchholz
Connect people to each other and the mission:
Buchholz says you cannot just rely on the organizational culture to evolve organically to deliver the outcomes you seek. You must have a strategy to fertilize the organizational culture with intentional actions to engage the workforce. At NASA, members of the workforce, both direct hire employees and contractors, understand how their immediate work assignments are part of the larger mission. People at all levels see themselves as important contributors to the agency’s mission, thereby creating a deeper sense of ownership and investment in the agency’s success. It boils down to four main points:
Nurture a culture of innovation in day-to-day operations:
Buchholz says that innovation is infused into the organizational culture by making it a part of the daily work experience for every employee, rather than a separate activity or event. Leaders must find ways to encourage people at all levels to bring forth new ideas and ways of addressing problems from the grass roots level, and recognize innovation in performance.
Encourage senior leaders to model the behavior they wish for future leadership
One of the most popular forums for connecting people to senior leadership and the mission is through a webinar called, “Ask Me Anything,” in which the NASA administrator spent time just talking with employees at every level, answering any question they put forth. It gave people the opportunity to engage with the top leader of the agency at a personal level and create a human connection. Buchholz also highlights a very successful reverse mentoring program, in which senior leaders are mentored by junior employees in specific competency areas important to the senior leaders. Activities like these foster a sense of transparency and support, and encourage knowledge sharing across the agency.
Focus on front-line supervisors
Buchholz says the best advice she can provide to any organizational leadership is to invest in first line supervisors. They are the most powerful people in the organization, according to Buchholz, because they make the decisions on who to hire, how to assign work, monitor performance, and give feedback. These decisions may seem small, says Buchholz, but they have an immense impact on mission accomplishment. Effective and resilient organizational cultures have highly skilled and committed first line supervisors who accept ownership for creating a working environment in which all employees can thrive.