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Wayne Hale's NASA Blog: Management Training

Status Report From: NASA Blogs
Posted: Tuesday, January 6, 2009

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I believe in continuous training for your job. It is not enough to have earned a degree at one point in your life. If you are to be good at your work, you need to have continuing education of one form or another.

One of my very best short courses ever was a week-long training session for new supervisors that NASA held right at our center. It was taught by a retired NASA manager and he was spot-on concerning what we needed to know, how we needed to make the transition from worker to supervisor, and how to motivate, encourage, and if necessary discipline our folks. It was a great class, I soaked it all up, and I still fall back on that training from time to time.

My training records fill a bulging folder in my desk drawer and a similarly bulging computer folder in my office PC. Some times this training has been practical (How to write User Friendly Software; How to deal with Difficult Co-Workers). Sometimes it has been mandated (Government Ethics Training; IT Security). Very few cases have been less than useful. But even those classes were an opportunity to network, and to hear from folks in similar circumstances discuss their problems -- which almost always turned out to be similar to my problems.

As a supervisor, I encouraged all my people to get all the training that they could. This was never what you call excessive; at most it amounted to about two weeks a year, and for most people in most jobs it was really a lot less, sometimes just a few computer based refresher courses amounting to a few hours in a year.

But this is a story about an executive training course that I did not appreciate much at the time, but which had implications that I have pondered extensively.

To use the vernacular; most of my work is Left Brain work. Engineering is probably the extreme example of Left Brain activity. Logical, analytical, rational, and objective. Very Left Brain. However, when you work with people, you have to use the other hemisphere: creativity, sensitivity, subjective thinking predominate. How is a poor engineer to make the transition to supervisor?

A couple of years ago my very Right Brain human resources person came to my office and informed me that I was being a bad example to my troops. What?!? While I was encouraging -- even requiring -- my people to sign up for training classes right and left, over two years had passed since I myself had gone to any training class. Everybody gets stale, she said, everybody needs a refresher. And I knew she was right. So I told her to bring me a list of recommended class options and I'd pick one.

And that is what we did.

One class was very highly recommended by several NASA senior leaders that I knew. It was taught by a distinguished professor from one of those big name eastern business schools. Author of several books, well known on the lecture circuit, the professor was somebody you would recognize if you know anything about management theory and practice. And not only that, the course -- a whole week -- was being held at a beautiful lodge in the mountains. They offered a significant price discount for US government employees -- it was within our training budget -- so I signed up.

We got two thick books to read before class started. They were chock full of good management and supervision techniques: organization, motivation, delegation, etc., etc. All good stuff. Good to review even if you had heard it all before.

The class was held out of doors in a big tent in a mountain meadow in front of the lodge. This made it hard to concentrate on the speaker. Class members were from around the world; North and South America, Europe, Africa, Australia, Asia; and they represented many large industries and a number of non-profit organizations. It was a truly eclectic group. Listening to each participant describe the challenges that they and their organization faced was very revealing -- their problems were much like mine. Much creative discussion on how to solve those problems was extraordinarily useful. All in all, a truly good course and I would recommend it to your senior leaders even today. If you could put half of those good management principles into practice it would truly revolutionize your workplace for the better.

But there was this one extra thing. And it is the part that will forever be first in my memory of this class.

Remember that I'm a Left Brain engineer trying to be a supervisor. As it turns out, most of the executives in this class were pretty left brain, too. One guy I kept getting teamed up with was an extreme Left-Brainer, an engineering supervisor from a German engineering firm. Does it get more Left Brain than that?

The extra thing was a new part of the seminar; it came in the form of a modern dance teacher. Seems that the professor had discovered that all of the executives taking the course over the years were pretty much left brain. He felt we needed some right brain stimulation. So he hired a lady who ran a modern dance studio in a big eastern city to come and help stimulate our . . . less developed hemisphere.

She did three half-hour sessions over the course of about four days. The first two session seemed sort of silly at the time; teaching elderly (ok, at least 40-something) managers some modern dance movements. Now remember, this is taking place in a mountain meadow. Do you get the picture? I hope nobody had a camera! But, hey, it was part of the course, so we did it. Amazing what you can get people to do when you drag them off away from anybody they know and put them in a group of strangers.

The very last session on the very last day -- right before we broke up to drive to the airport to go to our respective homes -- was under the dance lady's control. Her instructions were simple: pair up (I got the German engineer again), don't talk, pick a spot in the meadow. Chose one of the pair to go first; that person would make a modern dance move and stop, then the second person would make a modern dance move in response and stop, then the first person would make a move in response, and so on until time was up.

I can't believe I'm telling you this story.

Its all true, and there is no photographic evidence. And if you ask me about it in person, I'll deny it.

It looked just about like what you can imagine it looked like. A bunch of older executives in polo shirts and jeans doing modern dance steps silently in a mountain meadow.

So my very Prussian partner came close by me and muttered quietly so the instructor could not hear us: "Vat are ve doingk?" That is a very profound question. I almost doubled over in laughter. But that looks like a modern dance move. Probably the best response I had all day.

So why would I tell you this story? The embarrassment alone has kept me silent on this subject for more than two years. The reason is the same reason the professor had. If you are going to manage people -- lead them, really -- you must be creative; you must be sensitive, you must be subjective, and you must exercise the Right side of your brain.

Have you ever met a teacher who knew a subject thoroughly and completely but couldn't teach it? I think we all have. Have you ever had a supervisor who was an expert in your job, who could do it better than you even if he were blindfolded and had one hand tied behind his back -- but was a lousy supervisor, couldn't motivate a kid to eat a cookie, couldn't delegate putting a postage stamp on an envelope, couldn't organize people to walk to the cafeteria for lunch? I bet you have. I know I sure have.

So just like you have to go to the gym to improve your tennis serve, I guess you have to dance in the meadow to improve your people skills.

I can't believe I wrote this.

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