Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, July 25, 2022
by Neil Senturia
In an effort to hire better, NASA has researched and developed the “NASA Systems Engineering Behavioral Competency Model.” The document is 27 pages, and as you would imagine, it is detailed, rigorous and deeply annotated. Look, going up in the air is not a trivial matter, particularly if you want to bring the folks back to earth in one piece.
I recently gave a short talk to a group of MBA students at the University of San Diego, courtesy of their professor, Craig Barkacs. Over a drink later, he gave me an article that he had authored, adapted from the original NASA study, and he gave me permission to shamelessly lift some of the themes.
Let’s cut to the chase. What are the three personality characteristics that NASA looks for in a systems engineer? A thick skin, a long fuse and an optimistic outlook. If you have those characteristics, you are ready for a quick trip to Mars. It turns out, of course, that these same qualities are critical to your success at any company.
I was all in because the hardest job for a CEO is hiring. You go to Human Resources, for example, and you say we need a salesperson. You write a spec, you define the job, you think you know what you want, and then you go wandering in the wilderness without a compass, because you are often looking for the wrong thing.
What you need to look for first are those three traits. Let’s do thick skin. Do you think much of America is quick to anger, do you see conflict in your office over minor, meaningless slights or misunderstandings, do you sense that your world is unforgiving, particularly when you had no intention to offend? How fast does it go from “hey, no problem” to “outrage?” What happened to no harm/no foul?
I am not advocating for being a punching bag, but zero to 60 in 2.9 seconds might be suitable for a Lambo, but not for a civil, functioning society.
Next up, the long fuse. NASA reports that “strong negative emotions such as anger have also been shown to reduce decision-making ability.” You don’t say. Try shouting and calling your co-worker an idiot in the next team meeting and see if there is a good outcome. My mother was pretty sure I was an idiot, so I learned to apologize early on, even when I didn’t think I did anything wrong.
The third characteristic is an optimistic outlook. This sounds simple, but as we all know, it isn’t. NASA says, “To be able to see a high-stress situation through to the end, an individual needs to believe the mission can succeed.”
“Houston, we have a problem.” But, being as how we are NASA astronauts with a thick skin, a long fuse and an optimistic outlook, we will just fix it, and be home in time for dinner.
Let’s look again at that Houston problem. The key determinant came from Gene Kranz, Mission Control chief flight director, who remained cool and focused, coupled with a steely determination (you can call it optimism, perhaps) that with all the training and practice that everyone had gone through, “failure is not an option.”
If those three traits are powerful markers for success in a company, the next question is how do you test for them, how do you identify them in an applicant, and how do you promote them within your company?
Barkacs points out the risk of optimism veering off into “toxic positivity,” which is the tendency to ignore legitimate types of stress. You can’t offer real leadership to your team if you are blithely ignoring reality, waving your arms and just saying it’s all going to be fine.
But by the same token, I have also come to think that one of the CEO’s main jobs is to be a cheerleader. Without blinders. Know the truth and know when to share it.
Often some of your highest performers also seem to have the thinnest skin. The challenge for the CEO is how to apply grit and patience without masking the power of their innovation and dedication. The keyword for any company is to believe in the “mission.” That’s what they call it at NASA.
Rule No. 723:
Apply two coats Tuf-Skin. Let dry.