Monday, April 24, 2017 2017 Corporate Trailblazer Award
Dr. Wanda M. Austin interacts with winners of The Aerospace Corporation’s high school science competition in 2016. A champion of STEM education, she will accept the Corporate Trailblazer Award at Leadership California's Legacy of Leadership celebration on April 24, 2017 in Los Angeles.
DR. WANDA M. AUSTIN
Dr. Wanda M. Austin is an American businesswoman who is internationally recognized for her work in aeronautics and systems engineering. She is co-founder of MakingSpace, Inc, a systems engineering and leadership development consultant and motivational speaker.
She is the former president and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation, an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to the application of science and technology toward critical issues affecting the nation's space program. From January 2008 until October 2016, Austin led the organization's 3600 employees and managed annual revenues of $950 million at 17 U.S. locations. As the sixth president, she was the first woman and the first African American in the 57-year history of the organization.
Austin served on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology until January 2017, advising POTUS on science, technology and innovation as keys to forming effective U.S. policy. Austin is currently a member of the Defense Science Board and the NASA Advisory Council. She is an honorary fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, a counselor of the National Academy of Engineering and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is a trustee for the University of Southern California and on the Board of Directors for the Chevron Corporation.
Austin is committed to inspiring the next generation to study the STEM disciplines and to make science and engineering preferred career choices. Under her guidance, The Aerospace Corporation undertook initiatives in support of this goal, including participation in MathCounts, U.S. FIRST Robotics, and Change the Equation.
Aeronautic Engineering Leader brings People and Systems Together for Mission: STEM Success
by Carol Caley
April 6, 2017
Dr. Austin, you’ve been a systems engineer and also a corporate leader. A systems engineer needs vast technical knowledge, a president/CEO requires skill in making connections and cultivating relationships. Can you help us understand how these two roles overlap and synchronize? What leadership principles guided your accomplishments in both?
What attracted me into engineering, systems engineering in particular, was having an impact on society, solving complex problems, and recognizing that any problem you look at is multidisciplinary. There are lots of different aspects that have to work together. You need to understand how a change on one side will impact what’s happening on the other.
When you design a satellite, for example, if you change the weight, that impacts how much power you need. If you change the material, that may change the thermal properties. So you have to step back and think before you jump in with a solution.
So you step back to see the big-picture issues when you’re engineering something, right? And of course, people are a crucial part of any system.
Yes, getting people to work toward a common goal means making sure everybody understands the goal. Then you have to help them see how they all contribute to that solution, then figure out a way for them to work together seamlessly. You’re systems engineering complex technical problems, but as a CEO, you’re systems engineering complex organizational challenges. It’s not only about getting people to work together, it’s about making sure you have the infrastructure and organizational support you need for people to be successful.
Going back to the leadership principles you’ve followed, which ones guided your accomplishments in both areas?
One thing I point to is transparency. It’s important that you earn the trust of your team, and share with them what you need them to do. People don’t wake up in the morning and say, how can I screw up or be disruptive? But they do ask me, what am I supposed to be doing?—or what the priorities are. You cannot over-communicate about that.
So it’s communication, above all. Transparency depends on that?
Yes, and you have to be willing to listen. People frequently think a leader has all the answers. If the leader is smart, that leader knows they’ll get the best answers from the team, then put them together in a way that will help us solve a problem together.
Jackie Lacey said to me, you’ve got to be an ‘aerobic listener.’
She’s exactly right. A lot of people want to jump in and get to the solution, just get to the answer. I say, wait a minute, let’s take time to think about the problem and get to a better answer.
||“People frequently think a leader has all the answers. If the leader is smart, that leader knows they’ll get the best answers from the team.”
So, communication is key, listening is key. But it is also about figuring out what you’re not going to do. There are usually more things on your plate than you can effectively do well. It’s key for leaders to step back and say, OK, I’d like to do all these things, but I don’t have the resources, I don’t have the time, I’ve got to figure out my priorities. What is it that I absolutely have to get done?
So it’s a strategy of not-doing, then?
It’s a strategy of making sure you’re doing the most important thing. It’s tempting to say, oh, this is easy, this will be quick, we can do this. You don’t realize you’re siphoning off resources and maybe missing an opportunity to do that which is most important, most transformative, or most enabling for other good things to happen. You’re distracted by having too many things on the radar screen.
Women do tend to over-commit, believing they can multitask and take care of everything, when in fact it just dilutes what your main mission and goals need to be.
It’s the dilution that I’m worried about, which is: you end up doing a “C” or a “B” job, on something very important, when you could have done a first-class job, an “A” job.
Is technical and scientific leadership more challenging than leadership in, say, politics or the arts?
There are significant consequences on both sides of that equation. In my business, it’s known to be a high-consequence, high-risk, but high-payoff challenge. In both science and politics, you have a lot of unknowns—you arm yourself with the best data, the best information, the best tactical expertise that you have. But in the end, you have to assess the risk, and try to decide if you’ve mitigated it.
|“In satellite engineering, once you launch something into space, you don’t get to say, ‘oh, we didn’t get that quite right, let’s change it.’ It’s gone.”
So the challenge is the unknowns?
On the science and engineering side, you’ve got thousands of people working on projects, and lots of different parts and materials and new technologies you’re trying to integrate, so there are lots of unknowns to account for as you go forward. In satellite engineering, once you launch something into space, you don’t get to say, ‘oh, we didn’t get that quite right, let’s change it.’ It’s gone, so you have to live with it.
In politics and the arts, the unknowns are people. You don’t know how people are going to respond, how they will act, or whether they will act, what emotional issues will really energize people, and which ones won’t. As you look across the world in recent elections, people have been surprised.
Leadership California women are always curious about the sources of inspiration for other women leaders. They want to know what lessons they’ve learned, their secrets of success. Did they have mentors, or a special “aha” moment? You’ve said your first influencers were your parents, whom you have thanked for their courage. You also thank Gary Cohen and George Rosenstein for their life-altering impact on you. Tell us why your parents were courageous, and why do you thank Gary and George?
Gary Cohen was my 7th grade teacher. He gave us a challenging math problem, and I looked around the classroom and thought, oh, my classmates have already got it. The next day, when he returned the papers, he said, so everyone could hear, ‘Wanda, you’re good at this. Don’t ever let anybody tell you that you’re not.’ For a young girl, that was really pivotal. You need that confidence, to have someone confirm that you have something special, and not to waste it. Don’t let people diminish it, or tell you that girls don’t do this.
Did you already suspect that you were a math whiz, or was this a revelation, that you were better than you thought?
It was an “aha” moment. Even though you suspect you’re good at it, even though your mom takes you with her to the grocery store so you can calculate exactly how much the groceries are going to cost—remember, this is way before ATMs, credit cards, and pocket calculators. You didn’t want to get up to the check stand and discover that you’re $5 short.
Here’s a teacher who sees thousands of students. For him to single me out, I thought, wow, maybe I do have something here that I need to nurture.
||“Even if you don’t have a role model in your immediate vicinity, you can find inspiration online.”
In what ways were your parents courageous?
They recognized that education would be the key to changing my life. I grew up in the inner city of New York, in the projects. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they would not accept bad grades. They made sure that my sisters and I got exposed to everything that New York City had to offer. So, we went to Rockefeller Plaza, we went to Radio City Music Hall, we went to museums. Most of the kids in my neighborhood did not. Having that clear vision of what was important helped to focus the mind.
And George Rosenstein?
I was in college at Franklin & Marshall. One morning I decided to skip Rosenstein’s 8 a.m. math class and hang out in the coffee shop. He came up behind me and said, ‘hey, you were not in my class today. Don’t ever let that happen again.’
Exactly. But it also let me know that someone cared enough to let me know that I was wasting an opportunity. He was saying, hey, don’t screw this up. I never missed a class from that day forward. I suddenly realized, I have a unique opportunity, and I need to take full advantage of it. He was the one who ultimately advised me to go to graduate school, which I had never considered. That was a major change in direction for me.
He helped you understand that in your career, the lack of an advanced degree would hold you back?
|“When you look into the future, the jobs, the opportunities, are going to require STEM-literate candidates.”
As a woman in a field dominated by men, you’ve said you grew up under a societal assumption that an African American woman from the inner city in the 1960s could not be a leader. What advice can you give a woman who might feel she has reduced chances of success because of her gender or color?
The advantage now is that we have access to much more information. Even if you don’t have a role model in your immediate vicinity, you can find inspiration online. YouTube allows you to see presentations and get insights into people you might admire.
There were no engineers in my life. It’s so important for women to learn from someone who’s a bit ahead of them, who has gone through obstacles that they have to go through. Oftentimes, women are willing to share: Here’s how I dealt with it, here’s how I managed to be a single mom, here are the special needs programs I found for my kids to get the support that they needed, here’s how I found help for my aging parent.
Women have to fill so many roles.
Aside from the challenge of work, you’re also a caregiver, responsible for almost everything that’s going on in the family environment. You cannot do it alone. You have to figure out how to build that extended network.
You’ve been a champion of STEM education—which prepares students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math—and have said that our country’s upcoming workforce is in a crisis of competency in these areas. In your view, what is the source of the problem, and what are some positive ways forward?
When you look into the future, the jobs, the opportunities, are going to require STEM-literate candidates. So if you have a fear of science, math and technology ingrained in you early on, it’s going to severely limit your career options. We have not been emphasizing the criticality of basic science and math skills for our kids. It’s important that we have a standardized curriculum across the country. Our teachers need better support in terms of programs, trainings, tools and labs that they can leverage to give kids positive experiences in STEM. We need to show students that STEM can help solve our society’s problems and make the world better, and preserve the planet we’re on.
Do you think high school kids can embrace STEM as the route to their future job prospects, and saving the planet?
Yes they can.
You’ve said that it’s a big motivator for kids to talk about outer space.
Space is an area that we don’t understand—and we’re curious about it. You go out, look up in the sky, and say, wow, that’s amazing! There are so many unanswered questions.
||“One thing that’s so important is to groom your successor.”
A really good teacher can bring out those unanswered questions from students, make it fun and interesting.
Exactly. And to help them realize that they can figure these things out. I liked the movie, The Martian, where the Matt Damon character used his scientific knowledge to survive. No one could hand him the answers—he had to use math and science, and learn how to get himself out of a life-and-death situation. He calculated how many potatoes he would need to live, then had a setback that could have killed him. It shows how important it is for critical thinking, not panic, to take over.
Do you have any final words for our women leaders?
One thing that’s so important is to groom your successor. If you don’t have a ready successor, it’s hard to promote you. That’s succession planning: continually working on identifying and encouraging people who would be good candidates for your position, so that when an opportunity comes up for you, you can say to your boss, hey, I’ve got this great opportunity—but don’t worry, we’ve got two or three people here who can come in and keep things on track and never miss a beat. It’s something we need to be thinking of all the time.
That’s what we’re celebrating at this event on April 24, the legacy of leadership that you and the other honorees are leaving behind, as your successor takes over those big shoes to fill.
There are things you can do to make sure your successor is getting the right developmental assignments. You nominate them for a challenging special job that gives them a chance to demonstrate their experience and skills. That’s fostering their leadership.
This article has been edited for length and clarity.