| Twice in my NASA career I
have had the opportunity to mentor young assistant mission
managers. The first experience occurred when I was mission
manager for the International Atmospheric Laboratory for
Applications and Science (ATLAS). ATLAS was a series of
four missions to map the earth's atmosphere over the period
of one solar cycle. This was the first of the four, a
$60 M project with a three-year launch schedule that was
extended to four due to Shuttle manifesting slips.
One day shortly after I was assigned the mission management
role, my supervisor called me into his office and asked
if I would have any problem if they offered me a young
woman assistant manager. In the early days of Spacelab
missions, there were not as many women engineers in project
management at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) as there
are today. I was uneasy with this request at first until
I found out who the person was. As it turned out, I had
met this young woman, Teresa Vanhooser, in the ground
operations discipline on a previous mission. She and I
had similar ground operations backgrounds. Also, I felt
that we could have a good working relationship.
|In my mind,
three conditions must exist right away between a
mentor and mentee.
In my mind, three conditions must exist right away between
a mentor and mentee. First, they have to be able to get
along with each other. Second, both have to make up their
minds at the start that they want this experience to work.
Third, both have to be open and completely honest with
each other. Understand, if all hell breaks loose around
them, it's going to be the two of them against the world.
My approach to working with Teresa was relatively simple.
She shadowed me in several key areas, for example, scheduling,
budgeting and communications, and as I gained confidence
in her I gave her more responsibility. The activities
were routine. We started each day by going over the monthly
calendar. I assigned her the job of updating it every
day. The monthly calendar contained all scheduled meetings,
major milestones, deliverables, reviews, and personal
We also forged a daily plan in these meetings. We covered
what we'd accomplished the day before as well as what
we hadn't, and we made sure to reschedule any unfinished
business. I also asked her to develop the overall master
schedule for the mission. The master schedule is the road
map that the whole project team uses to understand where
we are and where we're going. I assigned her these jobs
thinking it would be an effective way to bring her quickly
up to speed on all aspects of the mission.
As the project progressed, the time I invested in Teresa
decreased significantly, while her contribution to the
project increased markedly. Initially, we went to every
meeting together. We spent the first year going over every
meeting afterwards in the privacy of my office. I felt
we needed to do this so as to develop a common mindset
as to where we stood on such things as mission problems,
costs, and the schedule, and we also discussed personnel
relationships. Effective project management is not just
about how to use the tools at your disposal, but how to
interact with people and how to understand how others
interact. Teresa has excellent people skills and I felt
comfortable trusting her intuitions about members of the
After a year or so, the schedule of activities proliferated
to the point that conflicting engagements prevented us
the luxury of both being present at all meetings. This
was difficult for me, I have to admit. Although I had
no doubt Teresa was capable of representing us at the
meetings, it was the first time things really were out
of my control. I had to remind myself often that letting
go was unavoidable. Indeed, the mentor must allow the
mentee to take on more responsibility. It's the only way
she will gain independence and learn for herself. Mentors
may find this difficult to do, but it is absolutely necessary.
|I had to
remind myself often that letting go was unavoidable.
I handled her involvement with the budget the same way,
giving her responsibility as we went along. After two
iterations working together to develop the budget with
our mission budget analyst, I gave her the responsibility
of working individually with the budget analyst, and then
had both of them walk me through it line item at a time.
In preparation for major reviews, we first worked on the
presentation charts together. Later, she would build some
of the charts and I would build others. We would review
the package and make appropriate changes as required.
Most of the time we had dry runs with upper office management
prior to presenting review data to the Center management.
At first I had Teresa sit in the back of the room and
observe the presentation, and if I were directed to make
changes in the presentation material she would record
that. This gave her a feel for the people in upper management
whom we had to work with. Eventually, when she was on
the block herself making these presentations, she already
had some experience by watching me take the heat for mistakes
and getting grilled by management.
As the mission progressed, and I gained more confidence
in her, I gave Teresa signature authority in my absence.
In fact, during the final phases of the mission, she chaired
several major engineering and operations meetings on my
behalf. During the Launch and Flight Mission, which operated
24 hours a day, I managed the flight team on one shift
and she managed the team on the second shift.
We completed ATLAS 1 successfully. Afterwards I shifted
to a new mission with a new assistant, and Teresa was
named Mission Manager for the remainder of the ATLAS series,
and she has become an outstanding project manager.
passed on their knowledge to the next generation
Working with Teresa, and with my next assistant too, was
a rewarding experience for me, and I believe serves as
an example of how mentoring can be an effective approach
of transferring project management knowledge. Once craftsmen
passed on their knowledge to the next generation through
apprenticeships. Why should it be different with project
Teresa Vanhooser says:
The ATLAS-1 mission was very successful and was an outstanding
learning opportunity, preparing me to move on to be Mission
Manager of the ATLAS-2 mission and later the MSL-1 mission.
The mentoring I was so fortunate to experience has influenced
many decisions I have made. One important thing I learned
and have implemented in my current management style is
that every person's opinion is important and all members
of the team should have the opportunity to express themselves.
I think it is important for the mentor and mentee to have
compatible personalities. It is also critical for the
mentor to show confidence in the mentee and if possible
provide increased responsibilities where appropriate.
I was given responsibility as well as authority to make
decisions regarding the mission without the fear of retribution
if I made a mistake.
- When mistakes are made, the mentor should accept
responsibility for the mistakes and both the mentor
and mentee should plan corrective actions to recover.
- For mentoring to work, the mentor and mentee must
have mutual respect and trust in each other. They
must be committed right from the start to being open
and honest with each other.
- Mentoring includes many activities, such as meeting
one-on-one, conducting team meetings together and
eventually separately, using project tools (e.g.,
monthly calendar, master schedule), discussing people
and relationships, etc.
- The mentee gains valuable independence by gradually
assuming more individual responsibility.