Shoot for the Stars

with Brady Pyle, Deputy Chief Human Capital Officer at NASA

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Brady Pyle

Episode 8

“I began to challenge notions about leadership.  I’ve experienced that you can be yourself and be an effective leader. You need diversity in leadership styles.”

Brady Pyle is the Deputy Chief Human Capital Officer for NASA, responsible for supporting the Chief Human Capital Officer and leading Human Resources Services for NASA.  For this Headquarters role, he works from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX. Brady oversees the Executive HR Directors for NASA’s 10 field centers nationwide in the development, execution, and integration of HR services, programs, processes and policies.  In this episode, he talks about expanding their workforce with contractors, the unique experience of working for a federal agency, and what goes into picking the next NASA astronauts.

“Inclusion is a big value at NASA, because we believe inclusion then drives innovation.”

Listen in to hear

  • Embrace your own leadership style.
  • Offer ways to engage past, present and future employees.
  • Harness contractors to allow for flexibility in manpower.

“Our attrition rate is extremely low. We run 5% attrition and on average our scientists and engineers at NASA stay about seven years after they become retirement eligible. And so, people come to NASA, stick around and want to continue to contribute. And so we offer them that opportunity even after they leave the agency.”


Brady Pyle aspect ratio

Brady Pyle

Deputy Chief Human Capital Officer | NASA

Brady Pyle is the Deputy Chief Human Capital Officer for NASA, responsible for supporting the Chief Human Capital Officer and leading Human Resources Services for NASA.  For this Headquarters role, he works from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX.  Since March 2018, Pyle has led the Executive HR Directors for NASA’s ten field Centers across the country in the development, execution, and integration of HR services, programs, processes and policies.

Episode Transcript

Narrator: Many of us have dreamed about what it would be like to go into space.  To feel weightless, bouncing around the International Space Station, sipping on some Tang.  But only a select few will have that privilege.  That’s because not only do they have to undergo rigorous testing and training, but they also have to be the right fit for the team.  To get along with everyone, in a small space, for long periods of time.  The good news is that once they make team NASA, they won’t want to leave.  Today we’re taking employee experience through the exosphere to new heights.  We’re talking with someone who helps choose who gets to go into space.  That person is Brady Pyle.

Brady Pyle: Uh, other astronauts are involved and they’re constantly asking the question, can I fly with this person? Can I live and work with this person? Um, a lot of psychological assessments, a lot of medical screening, very rigorous. Um, 2017, uh, we had about 18,000 people apply, uh, which was a record for NASA at the time. Um, and that was also right at the time, um, Matt Damon’s, uh, Movie, The Martian came out. So that added some extra excitement, um, around that selection time.We ultimately selected 13 out of that class.

Narrator: Brady is the Deputy Chief Human Capital Officer at NASA.  And helping pick the next astronauts is only part of what he does.  He helps lead human resources services for NASA.  And though NASA has about 18,000 employees, that expands to include 50,000 contractors from companies like Boeing and Lockheed Martin.  So put on your space suit and prepare for liftoff because Brady’s sharing how he creates an out of this world employee experience.  Welcome to Cruising Altitude. On Cruising Altitude, we talk about employee experience lessons from leaders at companies with over 30k employees. A lot like reaching Cruising Altitude at 30k feet, things look a little different when you’re managing 30,000 people. On this podcast, we bring you insights from the leaders who inhabit that rarefied air. Today’s episode features an interview with Brady Pyle.  But first, a word from our sponsor.

Brady Pyle: It’s a little different title. So I’ll give you a little bit of history. Uh, in the mid to late nineties, the federal government was going through a bunch of downsizing. And at the time they just did comprehensive buyouts. So whoever took the buyout left, and a lot of agencies were left without critical skills. So Congress stepped in, in 2002 and they passed the Chief Human Capital Officer Act, requiring a C-suite role for agencies to, to be more strategic in how they manage their people. I think at the time Congress thought that that human capital would, would take on as an organizational title, uh, it never did with industry. So the role is similar to what you see in industry of a Chief, Chief HR officer. So my, my role as deputy is to, to ensure that NASA has the workforce capabilities that we need, um, to put the first woman and the first person of color, uh, on the moon, uh, that’s, that’s really on our minds and on our agenda. And then exploring further into the solar system. We ultimately want to put humans on Mars someday as well. Uh, and then another big aspect of the role is to, to steward the agency’s culture and really make sure that we’re, um, leading, leading NASA and leading the culture that we want to have at NASA. Uh, specific responsibilities, we’ve got about 400, uh, human capital professionals, HR professionals across the agency and an operating budget of about 80 million. So this is a, you know, traditional HR organization where, uh, we support the employee life cycle from hire to retire. And, um, we have been very decentralized at NASA in our HR operations. So, uh, each field center, there are 10 field centers across the country. Uh, each had its own unique, uh, HR office that operated very independently. Uh, but about three years ago, the NASA made the decision, hey, we want to manage, um, HR, functionally and, and all of our support organizations, functionally, and we want to drive more cost savings across the agency so we can pour more money into the mission. This is at a time where NASA, uh, is, is in a mode of flat budgets, which in the federal government environment is, is actually a good thing. A lot of agencies are in a declining budgets. But with the flat budgets, uh, you lose buying power, uh, over time. So part of what they were looking to, the support organizations to do was to, uh, be a little bit more efficient and, and buy back, uh, buying power for them, for the mission, uh, in mission focus. So these decentralized HR offices, we’ve, we’ve been working to kind of standardize our operations, meet local customer needs, but, but have a more enterprise approach to human capital. So, uh, we’ve developed kind of a common talent acquisition strategy, common learning and development strategy, um, workforce planning, uh, we’re doing a little bit more, um, across the agency now instead of, uh, decentralized to those, those, uh, field center locations. Um, so that’s a little bit of, of our operations.

Narrator: Now that we’ve gained some altitude while Brady told us a bit about his role, let’s hover right where we are and take a look at NASA as a whole in our first segment: The Flight Plan.

Brady Pyle: NASA is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. So on the aeronautics side, we’re, we’re looking at flight and certainly on the space side, uh, human space flights a big part of what we do. But at NASA we’re majority about two-thirds of our workforce are scientists and engineers. Um, NASA is a federal agency. And so we have roughly 18,000, uh, government employees. And then we do contract for a lot of our services. So big contractors like Boeing, uh, that helps us with the international space station, uh, Lockheed Martins a big partner that, uh, they’re working on the Orion spacecraft right now that will go into deep space, uh, in, onto the moon and on the Mars. Uh, we have a lot of other private industry partners as well, kind of the new space partners like Space X and Blue Origin, um, that have developed, uh, on crewed capsules to go back and forth to the space station. And then a Space X is, is close to their third launch of crew, uh, crewed missions, uh, up and down to space station. So, um, but about two thirds of that 18,000 are scientists and engineers. Um, the other third is a mix of, uh, business professionals. Um, and, and we have very few technicians on the government side. A lot of the hands-on work is done by the contractor workforce. Contractor workforce estimate is probably about 50,000. Uh, we’re somewhere between two and a half to three to one ratio between our, our contract workforce and our civil service workforce.

Narrator: If you’re wondering how NASA finds its people in the first place, there are a few different launch pads.

Our, our strategy for, um, for the workforce is basically, um, we do a mix of hiring about half of our hiring comes in out of the colleges and universities, and we have a strong, um, internship program, uh, we’re scientists and engineers get to do multiple tours at different places, uh, within NASA. And then, and then when they graduate, they’re able to, to have different job opportunities. The other half comes from that contractor base. So we see kind of, uh, you know, who, who are the top talent and the contract workforce that wants to come on the government side. It’s a, it’s a different kind of work. Uh, you’re setting requirements, setting policy, um, you’re doing less of the hands-on hands-on work. So, you know, on the contractor workforce, they’ve got an opportunity to kind of pursue those different paths. The, the experience we’re trying to bring is, is starting at the recruitment, uh, You know, really handling, uh, recruitment well and, and managing our brand. Uh, we just, in the recent survey that’s conducted each year by Universum, um, NASA was the, the top employer for, uh, engineers this year. Uh, we’ve held that mantle before, but it had kind of fallen off the last, last few years in that regard. And we’ve been very intentional about, um, digital recruitment strategies and other strategies to get us there. And then once people get on board, it’s, it’s helping them kind of understand, um, the culture. Uh, we’re we’re trying to build a very inclusive culture. Inclusion is a big value, uh, at NASA, uh, because we believe inclusion then drives innovation. And, uh, try to try to make that tie and then show, show employees, too, um, you know, what their different options are from a career perspective. A lot of our workforce wants to be technical and wants to stay technical. Others want to be in leadership. And so we try to develop workforce and, and give those dual career path opportunities as well. Um, and then frankly at the, at the end of careers, we also have Ameritas programs. So folks can stay in touch with NASA even after leaving. We have an interesting dynamic. Our, our, uh, attrition rate is extremely low. We run, you know, 5% attrition and, uh, on average our scientists and engineer at NASA stays about seven years after they become retirement eligible. And so, uh, people come to NASA, stick around and, and want to continue to contribute. And so we offer them that opportunity even after they leave the agency.

Narrator: That says something about the employee culture at NASA – that people don’t want to leave, even when they could retire.  So NASA is continuing the employee experience even after that employee is gone.  But there is a downside to that low attrition rate.

Brady Pyle: So the challenge at times is because of that low attrition, when, when we have a shift in mission, it’s really hard to make an impact, uh, to our capabilities. So we, we saw that about 10 years ago when the, the space shuttle stopped flying. And when you’re flying in space, so we’ve got the space station flying now, you need engineers who have kind of the operational, uh, experience. When you’re pivoting to like our strategy with the moon right now, you need folks who, who have more experience in the development part of the, the project life cycle. And so what we found 10 years ago is wow, we had a lot of folks with operations experience while we really needed more with development experience. And so it’s really hard. One of our challenges, it’s really hard to change that skill mix and to pivot over time. Cause we don’t have, we don’t have a lot of tools in, in, and how to do that. We can, um, we can offer buyouts and incentives. But, uh, in a lot of cases when, when Congress sees these big shifts happening they’ll, they’ll tie our hands, like not enabling a reduction in force, for example, uh, because that, that would mean job loss and in congressional districts. So there’s a, there’s a dynamic, uh, being part of a federal agency. The other dynamic there is, um, you know, presidents tend to take a lot of interest in, in human space flight in particular. And so what we’ve tended to see with presidential administration changes is a drastic change in our strategy and in our approach. Um, interestingly, this last transition to the Biden administration, uh, they’re, they’re keeping a lot of the human space flight strategy in place. They want to be more intentional about, um, our Artemis program, which is putting a woman and a person of color on the moon. Um, and, and do that, uh, in the, in the coming years. So that’s really exciting for our workforce.

Narrator: We’ve talked about how NASA hires engineers and scientists.  What about astronauts?  Brady has a hand in choosing who will be next to go into space.

Brady Pyle: There there’s a lot that goes into our, our selection process. We, we want to make sure that we’ve get, um, astronauts who can, who can live and work together. If you think about a mission to the moon, um, you know, that’s at least, uh, uh, mission time, that’s at least two to three weeks. Uh, a mission to Mars is going to be, could be anywhere from, uh, up to three years. Uh, both, you know, they, they project roughly a year to get there, a year to get back and you’d want to stay, uh, at Mars for a year. So if you’re thinking about how you’re going to live and work during these extended periods of time, you’re in a confined space, um, you know, you can’t like, like you and I can do, we can, we can walk outside and, and, uh, get away when, when things might be crazy. And certainly you can’t do that in space. So, so it’s a huge effort to understand, um, one the psychological makeup. Can, you know, can the applicants, um, handle, uh, the confinement and the confined space and then two, how would they mesh with their fellow crew mates? So we have a very detailed, lengthy process. You’ve got traditional interviews. Uh, other astronauts are involved and they’re constantly asking the question, can I fly with this person? Can I live and work with this person? Um, a lot of psychological assessments, a lot of medical screening, very rigorous, um, 2017, uh, we had about 18,000 people apply, uh, which was a record for NASA at the time. Um, and that was also right at the time, um, Matt Damon’s, uh, Movie, The Martian came out. So that added some extra excitement, um, around that selection time .We ultimately selected 13 out of that class. Uh, we’re going through a process now, uh, uh, this year. Uh, we had about 12,000 apply this year. Um, this is the first time we required a master’s degree. Um, so previously our minimum requirement was a bachelor’s degree. Typically your selectees have, uh, very advanced degrees. Um, and so this year we decided, hey, we’ll, we’ll narrow the pool and the qualifications and at least, uh, request a masters. We’re anticipating, uh, 10 to 12 selections. And, uh, that could be public here within the next few months. So, uh, definitely an exciting time, but it’s, it’s very competitive as you see, it’s, you know, your shot at making it is, is, one in a thousand or one in 1500, depending on the, the, the, selection’s a very competitive process. For the space station, there, there was a lot of work to develop, um, exercise technology. So a treadmill where, you know, where you’re strapped in and able to run on the treadmill, um, you know, work, do work on, on legs and arms. And so there’s a lot of exercise equipment that, that is on board and the space station. And they’re testing, you know, some, some of that equipment on the space station, you’ve got, uh, some big capsules and a lot of living space. A mission to Mars, or even to the moon, um, you’re going to have less space and then weight becomes an issue. So. Uh, when you think about launching a spacecraft to Mars, you gotta really minimize your, your weight requirements. So there’s a lot of work being done on, okay, how do we get the same, uh, exercise benefit from equipment that’s smaller, lighter, uh, easier to carry. So that that’s a constant challenge. Um, you know, working through those physical requirements. And that’s a, that’s a big challenge with a mission to Mars. The, uh, you know, we, we know the, the longest crew members that have been on space station have been about a year. Uh, so that’s about a third of the time of the mission to Mars. So we’ve been able to study some of the effects. Um, in fact, we had, um, uh, one, one mission where Scott Kelly was a crew member. His twin brother, Mark, was also an astronaut and they did comparative studies between, um, Scott being on board, the space station for a year. What did that do to him physically versus Mark, who was here on earth, uh, during that time. Um, so a lot of, a lot of lessons learned through that process as well. We’ve got a strong culture and core value around teamwork. So, how do you operate within teams? Um, I can tell you some folks don’t make it through the astronaut selection process that are, um, that may be the best in the world at what they do or where they are, but they know it and they’re hard to be around. So, so that’s a big part of it. Can you be a, can you be a team player? I mean, the, the folks that get selected are just, uh, you know, they’re amazing people to, to have made it that far in the process. And there’s a mix of, um, you know, confidence and humility, uh, that that is needed when, when you get into that kind of role, another unique part of the astronaut selection process is okay, you, you get the formal interviews, the formal assessments, you’re you’re meeting with medical doctors and you know, other astronauts and executives. But, uh, a big part of our screening process is, hey, how did, how did the candidates treat the nurses? How did they treat the receptionist? Because we are, we are a team and everyone is important and there have been people screened out of the process who, um, didn’t treat, uh, certain members of the, uh, the team as, as well as they did others. Um, you know, didn’t realize that was part of the, uh, the screening process, if you will.

Narrator: Speaking of being part of a team, NASA has teamed up with SpaceX and Blue Origin.  Contracting out workers from companies like these lets NASA have that flexibility in manpower.  So their workforce can expand and contract as needed.

Brady Pyle: Space X and blue origin, for example, have, um, they have contracts with NASA to do certain work, and then they are also are doing some of their own work, um, in, in developing that new space. But, but a lot of their work was started, uh, through these, these contracts with NASA and, and providing them, them focus and the ability to have a seed money to get started. And, and that was a very intentional strategy of trying to, to expand the, the, the base of the aerospace industry, because your, your giants in the industry had been around a while. And, and I, I think there was a strategy to try to, uh, try to broaden that interest and then you get the, uh, the billionaires coming to play. And, uh, like we, we recently selected a Space X for our lunar lander contract. Um, but Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin came back and, uh, protested that award and they offer, uh, you know, they offered to pay nearly $2 billion and in fees on the, on the contract, if they could have a shot at the, at the work as well. And so there was a lot of, you know, discussion about, um, you know, about that. And this is a very unique, uh, kind of offer, but there, there also are, the federal government has very specific rules about procurements and acquisitions that, uh, the tighter hands somewhat there, but, but, um, we’re excited to see kind of the energy and the investment, uh, coming from that, that sector. And we need Space X and Blue Origin and kind of the new space to succeed. Cause I, we will go farther. Um, uh, if, if they’re successful in their efforts as well. A big part of what we see from, you know, these, these companies that are, that are coming in and being successful, is they’re they’re very innovative and they’re able to take a new approaches and new ideas. Um, they’re attracting a lot of, you know, young talent, uh, that’s that’s coming in and, uh, with, with that energy and with the ideas and, and frankly, uh, a big difference between what you see, uh, in Space X and Blue Origin, NASA is they, they have not experienced, um, loss of crew. Uh, so, so frankly, the shuttle accidents that happened in 1986 and 2003 layered on a bunch of additional requirements. You know, we, we didn’t want to repeat the mistakes that led to that. Um, we added a bunch of requirements and in some cases that slows us down. That, that, um, Uh, you know, ties our hands on some innovative approaches. So seeing folks with, with kind of a blank sheet of paper, looking at challenges and problems differently, um, is very helpful. And, uh, frankly, what we’re trying to do right now is we’re trying to create a porous, what we call porous borders, uh, between ourselves and an industry, uh, where we can have people in the workforce go back and forth. Um, you know, we can hire folks from SpaceX and Blue Origin, they can, they can bring folks from NASA and, and we can, uh, kind of learn from one another and grow the workforce in a new way. Now, some of that requires, um, some Congressional flexibilities. And so we we’ve actually, uh, have some flexibilities and our Senate and House subcommittees have taken those up. So we’re hoping to get some bills passed that make that even easier in the future for us to do. We want kind of that similar flexibility to, uh, to have people go back and forth between industry. You, you can do it now. It’s just, it’s very clunky. Uh, you know, someone has to resign and leave NASA, go work and then you can reemploy them later. But it’s, um, it’s not part of a systematic, uh, kind of program or strategy. And that’s really what we want to, want to develop. And totally agree with you. I mean, the, the perspectives you can get from, you know, industry or other organization, I have spent, um, little over 25 years at NASA and had an opportunity a little more than 10 years ago to work at the World Bank, um, and get a, get a perspective outside of NASA as part of a development program. Um, and then 2013 timeframe, I had an opportunity to go work in an engineering and kind of walk in the shoes of a frontline leader. Cause that’s, from our perspective, that’s where, uh, culture and engagement happen. It’s at the frontline leadership level. And so it was, it was fascinating to walk in those shoes for a period of nine months and really see the challenges and, and, uh, the perspectives, which were very helpful. Then coming back to HR and kind of understanding that a little better.

Narrator: NASA providing Brady with opportunities for professional development is a prime example of how they’re always working to improve and cultivate an excellent employee experience.  It’s time to upgrade to First Class and talk about the best practices for an out-of-this-world employee experience.


Brady Pyle: Our, our strategy for a long time, uh, would be described as a mission first and people always, and that’s now flipped. Uh, frankly, the, uh, COVID and our response to it has, has flipped our HR strategy to, uh, people first and mission always. And so, um, we, we shifted that very intentionally is as an agency leadership team, because we wanted to take care of people first and make sure people were safe. So we actually shifted some mission milestones, um, you know, to really, to really make sure that the folks were safe in this environment. Um, and then we also very quickly pivoted, uh, toward 95% of our team was working remotely, uh, in the early stages of the pandemic. We’re still at about 75%. Um, but a lot of our leaders, you know, our, our culture and, um, organizations have grown through in-person teamwork. Uh, If you saw the movie Apollo 13, you saw how the people came around the table. They came together to solve the problems and that’s that very much epitomizes NASA. So one of the things we found from an HR perspective is, wow, our leaders don’t have any experience in leading those virtual remote team. So we, we developed a regular series for supervisors, um, gave them content about how to lead in that environment, how to deal with what we called the virtual sweatshop. Um, one of the challenges we’ve found in this environment is a lot of people at NASA are so committed to the mission and so excited about their work, that they’re struggling with boundaries between work and life, you know, and, and turning off work. And so talking to our supervisors about how to help with that, how do you get people to unplug and to take breaks? So that was a big, big part, but what we found is the supervisors, uh, they not only appreciated the content, but what they really liked was a forum where they could come together and interact together. So we would see during the sessions, a lot of side chat going on, and then relationships built between supervisors who, um, came from different locations, may, maybe didn’t know each other, that wow, we’re all, we’re all fighting similar challenges. So, um, it’s been exciting to see kind of this, the cohort of supervisors come together, um, you know, and work together and, and we’re definitely living out the, the, the people first, uh, mantra now.

Narrator: We haven’t talked about the digital part of employee experience yet, and there’s a reason for that.

Brady Pyle:  I think a lot of, a lot of listeners may be surprised to know that, that NASA, we’re probably lagging in the digital world from the HR perspective. And, and frankly, some of that is intentional because we don’t, we don’t get the same investment dollars that we do on mission. So, um, I would say we’re in the very early stages of, uh, looking at digital transformation, looking at, um, you know, how, how technology can, can really help us. Last 15, 20 years, uh, what we have from a, from a digital experience from, from the employee perspective and working with HR, were a lot of homegrown systems. So 15, 20 years ago, they were state-of-the-art. Today they’re, uh, they’re very costly to, to maintain and keep up. 

Narrator: So Brady is hard at work strapping a couple rocket boosters to his digital employee experience, especially when it comes to communicating with everyone across the organization.

Brady Pyle: Using multiple channels and multiple methods to reach the audiences is really important to us. So, uh, you know, we’ve, we’ve, we’ve at least moved forward, uh, speaking of digital experience, we move forward from, you know, just email or website communications to, um, we try to leverage too, um, a lot of talking points to supervisors, particularly around, uh, big agency strategy or different initiatives or from an HR perspective, um, you know, things that we are pushing out there. Really try to leverage that frontline leader in, in carrying the message to their team. Uh, and however their teams reached that. So there, there tend to be a lot of, um, staff meetings and, and certainly now in a virtual environment, folks are coming together like this, uh, screen to screen. And, um, uh, so try to get the message out in a variety of different ways. Um, we do a lot of video messages. So I think others are using different, different solutions and platforms, but, um, yeah, those are, those are some of the ways

Narrator: I wonder if Zoom works in space? Anyway, when it comes down to it, Brady says every employee’s experience should include a few things.

Brady Pyle: They, they understand at NASA, they understand the mission and the culture of the agency. Um, they understand the options they have from a learning perspective. They understand the options they have from a career growth, uh, perspective, um, and, and how they can ultimately get to, to reach personal goals. Um, and then I think, I think just how, uh, from an HR perspective, uh, how they interact with us and, and get the information they need, get the advice that they need and the support that they need. Um, so it’s a, it’s a feeling of being, uh, being supported and, and getting what’s needed.

Narrator: But as anyone who’s seen Apollo 13 knows, things don’t always go perfectly smoothly.  In fact, we’re about to get into the choppier parts of employee experience in our next segment: Turbulence.


Brady Pyle: In HR, I think you, you, you see a lot, I think you see the, the, the underbelly of the organization at times. And so I I’ve been involved personally in, in harassment investigations or where people are not treated well. Um, if you’re, if you’ve stepped back and you’re thinking about customer experience working with HR, um, I’ve seen several examples where gosh, it took us way too long to make, uh, internal promotion decisions. So you’ve got, you got people waiting on pins and needles of, hey, am I getting this promotion or not? And, and just radio silence from HR and from the hiring manager. Um, and so that’s, that’s something that I’ve really tried to emphasize as an HR leader. If, if, if we’ve got a, um, we’ve got an action or something that we’re supposed to do that impacts someone’s pay, uh, whether that’s a promotion or other in an award or recognition that always needs to be at the top of our priority list and push for that. But I know there are times we fall down on that.

Narrator: One way to mitigate turbulence is to have solid rocket boosters that generate more than 2 million pounds of thrust at lift off. Another is to have a strong workplace culture.  But neither of those things is easy to build.  It’s something Brady says they’re focusing on.

Brady Pyle: What you see in NASA is you see, um, a variety of subcultures. So the Johnson Space Center, where I work and we’ve talked, alluded to different movies about mission control, um, you know, in the, in the movie, Apollo 13, they come together kind of real time, solve a problem. So the, the culture of Johnson tends to be a very action oriented, fast paced, but then one of the downsides of our culture is we probably don’t do as well with long range planning, um, and with process, uh, control. Uh, the Kennedy space center that processes our launch vehicles are very process oriented and, um, uh, you know, little bit more long range in their thinking. And our research centers are certainly very long range in their thinking and, and, and approach. And so that permeates. Those, those subcultures permeate, the support organization. So you see your HR professionals, like at Johnson, they’re very action oriented, you know, working to take action. Your research, HR professionals are, wait a minute, you know, what’s the long range plan? Your, your professionals at KSC are looking at process. And so I know from an HR perspective, one of the things we’re trying to do is, you know, how do we pull that together as a, as a NASA culture? And, and it’s, um, that’s, that’s challenging work right now because we are so influenced by the, the local mission, uh, driving the culture. Um, and I think that gets, that gets reinforced through a variety of ways. Our, our leaders, um, you know, speak the language that they want of culture. Uh, they model the, the culture and the behaviors they want to see. Um, and then we try to do a bunch to, uh, to reinforce that through a variety of communications as well. Uh, and as part of our leadership development strategy. But, um, I would say we’ve done that well with the subcultures. What we’re wrestling with is, you know, how do we bring those cultures together, uh, as an asset culture now?

Narrator: Through all of this, Brady says he leads with kind of an unconventional style.

Brady Pyle: When I was growing up as a leader in NASA was part of a development program and they told me, hey, you need to, you need to be louder and get your voice out there more. And, uh, at the time, uh, Tony Dungy had written a book called Quiet strength. He was a NFL football coach, the Colts had just won the Super Bowl and he, he published this book called Quiet Strength, where he talked about as a leader, he never raised his voice, which is very unusual, I think, in the NFL culture. And, uh, so I began to challenge, uh, some of those notions, um, around leadership. And, um, I have seen, I have observed and experienced that, uh, you can be yourself and, and, uh, be an effective leader. I’ve seen effective introverted leaders. I’ve seen effective extroverted leaders. I’ve seen ineffective, introverted and extroverted leaders. So, um, you know, I, one, I was getting the sense in that leadership development program is we were pushing toward one style of leadership and, and, uh, I don’t think that’s, I don’t think that’s effective or, or the way to go. I, I think you need a diversity, um, in your leadership styles as well. So quiet leadership is about, um, asking questions, uh, you know, not always giving answers. Uh, it’s about listening more, um, uh, as well. So be, be a good listener, um, as a leader. 

Narrator: No matter how strong leadership is, everyone has been challenged by the pandemic.  Luckily, NASA was already on its way to allowing remote work. And they’re still on that path to a more tech-focused environment.

Brady Pyle: We were very fortunate in that, um, you know, probably a year before the pandemic and, uh, and then even leading, leading into that, um, we had set up a lot of the workforce with, with tools to be able to, to collaborate more virtually. So we were, we were trying to push the last several years, more collaboration across the agency. So that the tools were provided, I mentioned Microsoft Teams being one, um, earlier where, where we were trying to encourage more of that and more meetings, um, virtually. Folks had started dipping their toe in it. Uh, but, but certainly everyone at a moment in time was, was forced to operate in that model. And, um, Having the tools and the platform was huge. Cause I know when we were, we were part of larger, um, uh, government consortiums. a lot of agencies were caught, um, not having the ability for their, their workforce to work, uh, that didn’t have the tools or the capabilities. And so that was a huge lesson for us of that was helpful having that platform. And so that’s a real credit to our CIO and an IT organization for putting us in that position and having us ready. Um, but then I think too, it’s interesting. Like I mentioned earlier, the Microsoft Teams we’re the, we’re the biggest user at NASA, and I think that’s because we have built such a collaborative teamwork culture. So what you see is people’s meeting calendars are filled, um, cause we’re, we’re constantly, uh, talking with one another, meeting with one another and we’re very intentional by keeping that going, uh, in this virtual environment to stay connected and have that sense of team as well. We’re looking forward into the next five to 10 years recognizing that, um, we’ve got to pivot more and more from a high people touch to a tech touch strategy, where, um, you know, your entry point to, to HR services, we ultimately want, want to be on a, a technology platform and then directing you to the people, resources if, if you can’t get your, uh, advice or your, or your questions addressed through the technology. So as part of that, we actually, um, NASA has as part of its CIO governance, they have different, um, management boards that support different functions. So I partner with my CIO counterpart in running a management board, looking at, uh, technology advancements and our overall technology strategy. So we’re, we’re kind of developing that and then, and then partnering with them on a, how does this connect with the larger strategy of the agency from a technology perspective? And, um, making sure that we’re in agreement about the technology investments. As you, as I mentioned earlier, the, the investment pool, uh, for technology for the support functions is very small. Um, NASA invests heavily in technology for mission and, uh, as, as we should. Uh, so, you know, we’re, the support organizations are hoping, hoping for some crumbs off the table, if you will. It’s a big pivot for us as an HR organization. We have been so people oriented and high touch. For so many years, it’s, it’s a pivot for us to think about kinda the, the, you know, the prospects that the technology offers, um, you know, for direct access for our customers.They, they ought to be able to do some of the work we, we have either held their hands with or done for them. Uh, technology gives them the ability to do that on their own. So that’s a hope, hopefully that’s, that’s where our future is headed. That’s, uh, certainly our strategy right now.

Narrator: Brady has shared with us a lot about what he strives for in the NASA employee experience.  And hopefully it’s prompted you to reflect on how you can take your own EX into the stratosphere.  Maybe you’ll think about providing your former employees ways to remain engaged with the company.  Maybe it’s helped you embrace your own leadership style.  But with all that Brady has taught us, he still has one last word.

Brady Pyle: I it’s an advice I would give to, to a lot of leaders it’s, um, uh, listen, uh, both to your team and then try to learn from, uh, from others. I know that’s, that’s a big part of what we try to do is get out, uh, understand where industry leaders are taking HR, where is the state-of-the-art in HR and, um, uh, try to learn from that. So we’re, we’re out talking to the Googles and the Facebooks and, and others, and trying to learn from them. So listen and learn would be, and I think that’s true of, uh, advice for, for any leadership role. NASA is going to continue to shoot for the stars and I would encourage your listeners to do the same, keep shooting for the stars.

Narrator: So never settle for a mediocre employee experience.  Be their solid ground, providing plenty of support and clear paths for growth, and help them shoot for the stars.  Because focusing on an out of this world employee experience is one small step for employees, one giant leap for EX leaders everywhere. 

Thank you for listening to this episode of Cruising Altitude. This episode is brought to you by Firstup, the company that is redefining the digital employee experience to put people first and lift companies up by connecting every worker, everywhere with the information that helps them do their best work. Firstup has helped over 40% of the Fortune 100 companies like Amazon, AB InBev, Ford and Pfizer stay agile and keep transforming. Learn more at


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Cruising Altitude

Lessons from companies over 30,000 employees

Conversations with leaders who are designing the best digital employee experiences in the world – from the front lines to the back office. Life is different over 30,000. Welcome to Cruising Altitude.

Hosted by Firstup Founder and CEO, Nicole Alvino.

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