Lessons from NASA

As you read this, the International Space Station is currently traveling at 17,000 miles per hour about 250 miles above Earth’s surface. The astronauts and cosmonauts who work aboard the ISS get there (and back, a few months later) via Soyuz spacecraft launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, and NASA broadcasts each launch live on its website.

Even though the launch itself is pretty amazing to watch, I’m equally fascinated by the videos that NASA streams in the hours before each launch. In them, we see some of what the astronauts and cosmonauts do as part of their pre-launch preparations. They give video interviews and have their photos taken. They meticulously check the equipment (including their custom-fitted Soyuz seats and spacesuits) that will protect them during their upcoming journey. They practice docking simulations and review procedures. And they participate in many, many  preflight ceremonies and rituals, such as visiting various Russian memorials to space exploration and signing the door to the quarantine area as they leave it for the last time and head to the launch pad.

In short, they’re busy pretty much every waking moment in the last few weeks before a launch. What I find particularly striking whenever I see these videos, however, is just how many people are present in them. Only three people can ride up to the ISS in each Soyuz, but it takes thousands of people to get them there. Space exploration is the ultimate team effort.

It’s staggering to think about how much time, money, and effort go into putting people in space. There’s a reason people say, “Hey, I’m no rocket scientist!” when faced with a task beyond their abilities: rocket science is hard! I won’t pretend to claim that staffing a job is anywhere near as difficult as taking a trip to space. (So far, I’ve yet to meet a staffer who’s had to use materials science, avionics, or propulsion studies in his or her staffing work.) But the two events do share one important thing in common: they both require the effective involvement of more than one person.

Just as astronauts and cosmonauts can’t do their jobs without plenty of support staff (including the engineers who design their spaceships, the physicians who prepare them to spend half a year in microgravity, and the technicians who strap them snugly into their Soyuz seats before launch), recruiters and staffers, too, can’t do their jobs alone. Try placing employees in positions when you have no requisitions because you have no clients. Or, conversely, try filling clients’ requisitions when you have no employees. And unless yours is a one-person shop, you yourself definitely depend on others (e.g., business partners, bosses, office staff) to help you get your own day-to-day work done.

But merely interacting with other people won’t enable you to succeed in your work. When it comes to finding and placing employees, you need the best people you can get. Just as every single person involved with a space mission needs to be excellent at what he or she does in order to insure the success of the mission, every single person you place must be the ideal fit for the client’s “mission.” True, shoddy work from one of your employees isn’t likely to result in death or the destruction of multimillion-dollar equipment. But the stakes are still high: poor quality can harm your clients and undermine their confidence in you, make your clients less willing to give you business, and jeopardize your professional reputation.

Even though your organization probably isn’t planning to get into the space exploration business, it can still take a few pages from NASA’s playbook. Specifically, never forget the interconnectedness of the various people who make your job possible. And don’t never underestimate the importance of finding, hiring, and placing the best people you can find. When you’re in the space exploration business, you want the best astronauts and rocket scientists for your mission. When you’re in the staffing business, you need the best people you can find in the area needed to fulfill your clients’ missions.

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