A manager’s job may seem straightforward enough. After all, the dictionary defines management as nothing more complicated than “the conducting or supervising of something (such as a business).” But what if you’re trying to blast that “something” into outer space?
That’s not science fiction for the more than 1,000 people working on NASA’s Mars 2020 mission. Their goal: to design, build and safely launch an exploratory rover onto the surface of Mars, have it drill for rock and soil samples, test a method for producing oxygen from the Martian atmosphere, and search for resources that may include subsurface water.
The rover’s launch is scheduled for July 2020 — that’s when Earth and Mars are both in good position — with the landing expected to happen some 7 months later. Assuming all goes as planned, the rover will keep busy for at least one Martian trip around the sun, which will take nearly 2 years down here on Earth.
For the mission’s managers, that’s one tough assignment. They must not only coordinate the efforts of all their workers and produce deliverables along a series of tight deadlines, but also maintain the highest possible levels of quality, reliability and safety. For these leaders, the task of management pretty much is rocket science.
“How effectively a team works … is a huge determiner of how effective their product is,” says Adam Steltzner, a chief engineer on the Mars 2020 mission. Steltzner is also the author of a book, The Right Kind of Crazy, in which he describes the level of teamwork, leadership and high-stakes innovation that a mission to Mars requires. Steltzner knows of what he speaks, having also worked on the Mars mission of 2012.
“We may, as individuals, have a good idea,” Steltzner says. “But if we ever want to do anything [on this scale], we have to band together.”
It’s almost impossible to overstate the sheer complexity of a project on this scale. Every aspect of the mission must work perfectly, safely, reliably and efficiently. That requires highly specialized teams — quite a few of them — working on subprojects too numerous and complex for any one person to easily track.
Leading these supertechnical teams requires an unusual mixture of curiosity, stubbornness and humility. “The first step of a leader is to listen, to learn about who your team is,” Steltzner says. “Then you can understand what their strengths are, where their weaknesses are, how to reinforce where they need help, and how to lean on them and expect greatness where you know they can deliver.”
While most businesses aren’t rocket science, their managers can apply the leadership lessons learned by Steltzner and his colleagues to their own operations. Check out this video and hear what he has to say.