Col. Chris Hadfield Phones Home: “Good Morning Earth”

By Jason McRobbie

With those three words, Colonel Chris Hadfield began his Twitter feed and woke the world daily for over five months as the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2013. By the time he strummed the opening chords to his zero-g performance of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’ he had anchored another first—becoming the world’s first viral astronaut.

Raised on a corn farm in southern Ontario, his career aspirations were set at age nine when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon. Unlike millions, Hadfield trained himself to think like an astronaut, and never lost sight of his goals.

Since returning to Earth in 2013 and penning An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Hadfield has remained as accessible on planet as off and remains affably on mission—sharing with others the lessons learned throughout a remarkable career in the fields of leadership, teamwork, collaboration, science and technology. As closing speaker for the 52nd Annual HRMA Conference + Tradeshow, Hadfield remains guided by a simple guiding ethos: “Be ready. Work. Hard. Enjoy it.”

You recently retired to become one of the busiest people on the planet.  How then does an astronaut approach retirement?

People focus on my retirement right now and it’s probably very much germane to your area. Retirement is almost a negative word. ‘Oh, now you’re retired, so now you’re useless’—as is retirement and unproductive were the same word.  For me, I think I’ve retired five times already and what people need to remember is that since the last time I retired after 25 years in the Air Force, I’ve commanded a space ship.

So I think career leaps are important. Whether you are 18 or 65 you are always going on to the next thing and the important part is to continue to gather the skills, be interested in what you are doing and have objectives in mind—and constantly be willing to learn new things.

I think that quintessential drive of interest and staying involved and being unafraid of new information—that’s what makes life interesting.

Having inspired children of all ages with your use of social media, what inspired you to record and share your acoustic rendition of David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’?

I’ve been a musician my whole life and I’ve fronted bands for the past 20 years and played all sorts of music, but I’d never covered Bowie. Nobody covers Bowie. He’s complicated and very individualistic. It was really my son’s idea, but it was really the manifestation of so many other things; it was just, popular. It was an extension of what I have always done. It just had a wider impact than normal.

Prior to that I had 750,000 people following on Twitter and I had done a live song with the students across Canada; 700,000 students sang a song at the same moment, live. So music was just an integral and intrinsic part of what was going on. I recorded a whole CD’s worth of original music on the Space Station, as well as covered a couple covers.
It was really important to not just be technically competent and do our job and get all the science stuff done—and we set records—but at the same time to show that it’s not just robots up there. This is an extension of human culture and human understanding and that comes at all different levels, including the arts; it is not just science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). A lot of people stick an A in there for arts and think more of STEAM.

The arts predate written history with music and the cave paintings. I’ve crawled into the caves in the south of France that those people thought were so important that they gave us our first written history. From then on, we’ve recognized the importance of art.

So doing Space Oddity was not any great deliberate attempt to accomplish something. It was just a very iconic, space-themed song that my son rewrote the lyrics in an interesting and that sort of grew like top-seed. In was probably manifestation of everything I just said—the idea of a cross-over between science and art, and between fantasy and reality. It was immensely contagious—hundreds of millions of people with all the rebroadcast have shared in that as a result.

The Canadian Space Agency worked tireless for years to make this space flight useful for all Canadians and to have a big educational content. We made almost a 100 science and art videos together with the CSA, and they had a major event every week for the half a year I was on the Space Station. It was done deliberately for people across all countries, so they they would have useful, lasting, alternative ways to each their young people.

Of the life lessons you have accrued in your training and space missions, what is the one that speaks most directly to the value of top notch teams?

There are a couple of major ones, but one that might be most useful is to visualize failure and face the basic issue of human fear. How does fear of something dictate your actions consciously or subconsciously?  A fear of failure, a fear of embarrassment or some unique fundamental fear—how does that keep you from doing something or doing it well?

The way to get around it is by visualizing failure. If you say, ‘I am afraid of starting this new project’ or ‘I’m afraid of hiring a new employee or firing an employee.’  ‘I’m afraid of’ is where a lot of people stop, right there. Instead, if you say ‘Okay, why am I afraid of that? Why am I afraid of public speaking? It’s not really public speaking I’m afraid of, it’s forgetting the words so the audience laugh at me. It’s being embarrassed.’

You can pick the actual ‘thing’ out of it.  Then you can visualize that failure that is the root of your fear, and then see if there is a way to guarantee/avoid that failure will never happen—or if it still has a probability of happening, let’s figure out 10 ways to react to that.

And then, the most important part, practice it in as realistic an environment as possible over and over and over again, so that you become used to the idea of dealing with that thing that was giving you fear—and responding in a way that didn’t used to be instinctive, but now becomes your new method, your new instinct. If you can internalize those results, make them your new normal, you change fundamental behaviours into something that enables you to do something better or different.

It’s the only way you could ever fly a rocket ship or do a space walk.

As Commander of the International Space Station, how does such diversity impact the ‘work culture’?

The diversity affecting work culture is everything. If you have clones of yourself, perfect multiple clones, then you would need very little communication to know what needed doing next or how people were going to respond if this go well or badly.  But even the kids you grew up with and know you best, they are not clones of yourself and react slightly differently.

The more diverse your group, the wider the responses are going to be. So as the Commander, the real key to all that is, number one, to recognize that it is an honour and respect it, and number two, to realize that diversity is better. If it’s just a bunch of clones of yourself, you can’t get any better than your own imagination and each of us is limited. If it’s a bunch of people then they are going to know stuff and have different ideas that would never occur to you. One day, you’re trying to draw a fish and you notice the fellow sitting next to you can draw a way better fish fish, and you realize, ‘Holy crap, I have Michelangelo on my team.’

You still have to make sure things are headed in the right direction, so how do you communicate? How do you clearly communicate the vision that you want your team to have and then how do you constantly check back with them, so that you are allowing them the freedom to draw their own fish, while following the direction you need to take the team.  The more diverse your team, the more important communication becomes and the hardest part of communication, absolutely, is listening. No, the hardest part is listening, but it’s actually hard hearing what people have to say.

For me that’s the critical part—recognize the strength of your diversity, give people the common sense of purpose and vision so they can start thinking about decisions and then constantly check back at as familiar and low a level as you can, so you can understand how it is taking you all in the direction you need to go.

That combination worked with the group I had up there from all around the world, different religions, different languages. We set records for everything that mattered up there. We even did an emergency space walk four days before coming home well within our scope of capabilities. To me, that is how diversity impacts the work culture.

How might HR leaders benefit from your experiences to increase engagement, innovation and productivity alike?

Even if you do get to pick your team, it’s like any professional hockey team. At the start of the season, everyone is going to win the Stanley Puck this year. Then when those actually start doing their jobs, you realize that they are not exactly the way you thought they were.

It’s like the difference between an chose marriage and a chosen marriage. Some people think arranged marriages are a terrible thing, but there are countless chosen marriages that fail and arranged marriages succeeding. The real key is what happens afterwards.

So, the real key to HR or any leadership is to take the people you have, whether that is on a spaceship, inside your home or that you’re inside and elevator with, and figure out how to make that group of people accomplish a specific objective or a set of objectives as efficiently and completely as possible. That is the key part I focussed on through my years as a leader in the space industry.

Take an interest, but don’t direct. Go around see what people are up to and chat with them while they’re doing what they do, so that they know you are taking an interest, but also that they have the autonomy of decision at the lowest level possible.

On the other side, celebrate success whenever possible—and consider people’s expectations. If you have a fundraising goal of $50,000 and you have your team all hyped up around that figure with a big thermometer on the wall that tracks how far along the way to $50,000, what happens when your raise $49,300? If you have set everyone up the wrong way, you have failed even though you have raised $49,300 for a charity. If you have set the expectations wrong for what constitutes success, you have set your team up for failure by definition.

Instead, you should celebrate all the time. You should celebrate every small success at the end of every day you need to celebrate the good things that happen. Despite life, bad things happen, but good things happen every day too. You know, the sun is shining in Vancouver. Have a good time. Take your whole team for five minutes out to get some sun on your faces, whatever. Celebrate the small successes because those make up your life. Whether or not you raise the $50,000, those two months leading up to the total, that was your life.

On the Space Station, heck if someone’s daughter had a birthday or someone’s son lost his first tooth or if somebody on the crew did their first space walk or captured a photo of their home town in Russia, we celebrated. Why wouldn’t you? Recognizing the necessity to recognize small successes is key.

When you look at the workplace today, do you ever think, “If they only…”

What’s interesting is that I speak at a lot of places now and have heard about corporate culture my whole life. Everyone is always talking about how they’re going to change the corporate culture or they need to define their corporate culture. To me it sounded like a lot of buzz talk, after all it’s just a bunch of people working.

Let me tell you, and you probably see it in HR more than anybody, but speaking to all sorts of industries across Canada where I see them all on a similar stage, corporate culture is wildly different from organization to organization. It’s a surprise to me just how palpable it was, and just how much it affects the behaviour of the people and often the success of that particular business.

It’s been reinforced to me the impact of good leadership, of good management, of a well understood common vision and the devolution of responsibility, the giving of trust and decision-making authorities to the lowest level. That culture, I’ve seen it beautifully done and horrifically done over and over as I go across the country.

To me, the very essence of corporate culture is very important and is worth addressing internally. If you don’t think it has an impact then look the best and at what they are doing better than you are and see how you can incorporate that.

HR clearly has a huge role in that, in getting the people to all respect each other, to communicate more clearly, to set up the structures within that allow that clear communication, and to get the right people into the right jobs. It’s not purely HR or course, but HR but is pivotal in that role of helping to build the structure and the mechanisms by which you can improve your corporate culture.

One of the first steps is solving problems is recognizing that you have one, and a lot of organizations don’t. So someone in the organizations needs to effectively show that things could be done differently—and the older and more established the organization, the harder it is to change.

Someone has to affect that change and its probably not going to come from the very lowest level—apart from revolution—nor is it going to be coming down from the very top because they’ve already been rewarded for their culture. It got them there. It’s going to have to come from within an organization that has a multi-layered authority, which in a lot of cases, will be HR.

Don’t Miss your Chance to Hear Col. Chris Hadfield! Tickets are available for Col. Chris Hadfield’s HRMA Conference + Tradeshow 2014 session The Sky is Not The Limit from 3:30 pm to 5:00 pm on Wednesday, April 16. Tickets can be purchased at the HRMA Online Store or at Tickets Tonight. Tickets Tonight is also selling individual session tickets for three other conference open sessions.

*photo by NASA
(PeopleTalk Spring 2014)

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