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Leading the NASA Team Behind the James Webb Space Telescope

By Jill Diffendal                                                                                    Oct 15, 2021

The James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch in December 2021, is the largest space science telescope ever developed. It is one of the most technically complex projects ever undertaken and will fundamentally change our understanding of how the universe works – and it all depends on people. PMI Strategic Advisor Dr. Ed Hoffman recently spoke with Greg Robinson, the Program Director of Webb at NASA, on the Center Stage podcast about leading the teams that made this futuristic endeavor a reality.

Hoffman: What are the biggest challenges that you have and your team faces in ensuring value delivery for Webb?

Robinson: Some of the larger challenges over the years were around performance. And with projects, it’s all about performance, doing really good planning, getting your requirements right, setting your team during development, and getting it done within your constraints.

With that performance, the team is so important. Do we have the right team, the right team makeup? Are we communicating properly, not just talking but communicating? I took over Webb about three and a half years ago, and that was one of the largest glaring weaknesses, that communication was not good at all.

The biggest challenge was really getting the team focused not on the technical, but stepping it up a notch to make sure we were operating as one machine throughout the agency and with our stakeholders.

Hoffman: What are your principles in a leadership position or when you’re part of a team? What do you look for to create a team that’s high performing and successful?

Robinson: You want a good leader. That means a lot of things to different people. Someone who can look at the technical skills based on the work breakdown structure of the project. Do I have good technical prowess, technical leaders, good integrators, people who are not afraid of being challenged.

The great thing about NASA’s history, internally, we’ve always been able to challenge each other. And we tend to end up with a better product. And that challenge has to occur with performance in mind, not taking too long to get it done. Recognizing people who have that skill, or can go deep technically, who are not afraid of being challenged, and often communicate.

In communications also we tend to talk technical language. And when we’re communicating up and out, we have to talk layman’s terms – that’s not an easy skill. Those are the things I look for in my teams.

Hoffman: How did you develop into such a successful leader?

Robinson: Mentoring is a really big deal. A lot of a lot of people mentored me. We didn’t even call it that at the time, but I reached out to other senior leaders, and basically saying, sure in different words, “I want to be like you one day when I grow up.”

Another area that came along a little bit later, the soft skills, which I did not appreciate early in my career at all. Then I took some class that was put together at NASA, and I was sold from that class on. I made sure I continued to develop my social skills through training and other types of development, kept the mentoring going, built networks within the agency.

So a combination of apprenticeship with senior leaders, mentoring, and training and development and networking. I think those were the key. And I continue to work on social skills today, believe it or not

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