Spy Satellite Office

From the Fall 2009 edition of Vanderbilt Business

secretspysPresiding over a multibillion-dollar spy satellite program for the U.S. government is difficult enough without having to endure the strain of shrinking budgets, engineering problems, schedule delays and balkanized customer relationships. However, those are exactly the problems that our team, the Space Systems Group at the National Reconnaissance Office, faced in 2006. They are also the reason why we sought the expertise of the Vanderbilt Executive Development Institute at the Owen School.

The three-day Executive Leadership course led by Dick Daft, Brownlee O. Currey Jr. Professor of Management, was the catalyst for an astonishing transformation in the culture and productivity of our team of roughly 250 government and contractor personnel. Daft reinforced a simple yet profound leadership principle: Leaders must connect teams to an ideal. In our case that meant delivering perfect reconnaissance systems to protect those serving in the military and the intelligence community.

Although working on a spy satellite program has exciting moments, the enterprise shares similar challenges to busi-nesses across the country. Our group was an acquisition organization sequestered in a comfortable office park in Northern Virginia. It was easy for employees to forget their customers and slip into the daily grind of a federal bureaucracy, keeping busy with staff meetings, budget battles and paperwork.


We combated this complacency by putting our vision statement—“We understand and appreciate the greater mission”—at the forefront of everything we did. This statement galvanized our team of engineers, program managers, financial analysts, contract specialists and technical advisors. It connected us to our customers—the men and women in harm’s way—and to the intelligence imperative of the Global War on Terror. Over the next two years we blitzed our group, and anyone else who would listen, with our vision.

More important, though, we lived this vision as well. We took our team on an overnight trip to the aircraft carrier USS Eisenhower, one of the ships we were entrusted to protect. It was a rare and riveting experience for the engineers, comptrollers and security specialists to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the 3,000 crew members for a 9/11 commemoration ceremony rededicating us to the mission. In the following months we also visited the submarine USS Boise and invited Iraq War veterans to speak to our group about the challenges and spirit of America’s fighting forces.

The effects of our efforts were transformative. The vision statement helped us eliminate competition for limited budget and human capital resources by clarifying our priorities and acquisition plan. With a defined strategy we obtained resounding support from congressional oversight committees and unprecedented plus-ups in our appropriations. We also set a baseline for new programs and delivered a perfect satellite to orbit.

There is compelling quantitative evidence to back up this transformation. In 2007 our group participated in a team climate survey, which used data from three decades and 2 million respondents to define performance benchmarks for high-performing teams. Our team had participated in the same survey in 2000 and 2004 with fairly good results, showing that we had begun to eliminate negative behaviors such as competitiveness and power struggles. The 2007 data, however, surprised everyone. In 27 of 35 categories our team surpassed the benchmarks for A+ organizations.

In fact the data was so remarkable that the survey results were run again to be sure there was no error. The scope and magnitude of climate change was unprecedented. The Space Systems Group had connected to the greater mission and raised the bar for effective and successful organizations.

In a series of return visits to the Owen School, we have provided a living case study that shows how to manage a remarkable organizational transformation despite challenges and setbacks that erode the confidence of most teams. We did it by applying the fundamental lessons of leadership taught by Professor Daft, and our story is not only practical, but inspirational for anyone who wants to “be the change” they wish to see in the world.

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