Talent Summit – Robert Gibbs, Chief Human Capital Officer, NASA

Robert Gibbs, Chief Human Capital Officer of NASA was quite the hit at Talent Summit, despite lots more (albeit cool) photos in his presentation than he realised, which he handled with humour.

Robert challenged the audience to see if they had better agile/remote working practices – if you had anyone working from further away than the moon, you would have won!

His presentation was about organisational change and preserving culture but he touched on other interesting things too. Here’s our takeaways in brief:


If leadership can’t clearly explain the “why” – they need to start over, clearly being able to articulate why you are doing something is a prerequisite – how can you expect people to buy in if not. People understanding their ‘why’ or purpose is vital. Robert told a story of JFK visiting a NASA office and asking some gathered staff what they did – one answered “I help put astronauts on the moon” – it was the janitor, who clearly was connected to his why and understood the vital role he and his colleagues play at all stages of the process of space exploration.

Assumptions are were change goes wrong. Assuming you have communicated enough (you never have) or assuming what you said will be done, are the two biggest places it will all go wrong.

It’s vital you understand that change occurs on an individual basis i.e. it is the individuals reaction, thoughts, actions, and feelings that matter. An accumulation of all of these micros, make up the macro.

Bureaucracy kills change – it should always be the best ideas that win, not the idea of the most senior person in the room.

You never end a change process in the place you thought you would be at the start of the process so build in feedback loops, and iterations and make sure you are reacting to feedback all the time.

Change requires grit and resilience – it’s not easy!

Other Stuff

Despite NASA being one of the top places to work in the US for the last 7/8 years, NASA leadership never talk about how to make it a great place to work. That is a bi-product of hiring the best people, ensuring everyone knows the why, and letting them work on the best ideas. (I think a lot of people will think “yeah that;’s OK for NASA” but I actually think this thinking should be more prevalent irrespective of how ‘normal’ a company you are).

You should assume positive intentions in all people and conversations. Use this as the starting point with everyone and it will reward you in their actions. (this concept was mentioned by others during the Talent Summit day).