On August 10, 2001, I completed Marine Corps Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant. I had recently completed my bachelor’s degree and was looking forward to spending the next six years completing my payback as a Marine aviator, before continuing with a career in astrophysics. A month later all of that changed due to the events of 9/11.
Fast-forward 21 years, and I am a retired Lt. Colonel, and founder and CEO of Nova Space, who spent half his military career leading Space operations for one of the US military services. How does this even happen?
While it was not my original plan, I was fortunate to be given a variety of opportunities throughout my military career: leading Marines in combat as a helicopter pilot and maintenance and operations officer, attending graduate school for Space Systems Operations at the Naval Postgraduate School, leading Pentagon Strategy and Policy for Marine Space, being a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Service Chief’s Fellow, and leading the Marine Corps Space Cadre.
The lessons I learned throughout these assignments, from those junior and senior to me, provided a wealth of experience in how to develop a high-performing organization, as well as what sometimes caused the same teams to fail. I learned from first-hand experience how to motivate and lead teams in the most stressful of environments, to reach peak performance, and to accomplish whatever task was at hand.
These experiences have suited me well, and I applied many of them while transitioning as an entrepreneur. That isn’t to say I didn’t have plenty to learn, and still do, but there was never an obstacle that couldn’t be surmounted. The most important lesson I learned was that the key to accomplishment in any organizational goal is the people.
I will say it again: There are plenty of things that business leaders must pay attention to including markets, business metrics, team velocity, return on investment, time to close, etc., but the most important aspect to success is people.
Developing competence, trust, and performance in the people supporting your organization will trump the above business metrics in the challenging moments that matter. It is the insight of the sales expert that will close the challenging deal, the foresight of the financial planner that will find the successful strategy, and the fortitude of the operations lead that will shepherd the team through a crisis. People matter. Culture matters.
Towards the end of my military career, I was tasked with supporting the Space Force in the development of their capstone doctrine. There were four Marines invited to the conference held at what is now Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs. All services were represented, but the majority of those in the room were Air Force personnel who would be transitioning to the new Space Force.
At the beginning of the conference, those in the room were asked what would uniquely identify a member of the Space Force, a guardian. The room started discussing phrases like space expertise, technical proficiency, and other capability- focused items.
The Marines in the room immediately interrupted the conversation. In writing a capstone doctrine for an organization, we argued that identifying the mission and culture of the organization was the most import aspect of the document. The primary publication of the Marine Corps is Marine Warfighting Publication: Warfighting (MCWP-1), and it has not been updated since 1997.
This is because the nature of warfare or the key components of people do not change with time.
We argued to that while technology and capability will change, the principles involving warfare and the culture of the organization should not significantly change over time. We further argued that the document should be simple, so that any member of the organization can read and understand what it contains, regardless of rank or experience.
A year later, co-founder Christopher Allen and I began the journey of building Nova Space to take these lessons and apply them to maximize the benefit of training and professional development for the Space Industry.
We recognized that compared to other more-mature industries, Space was lacking a coherent career strategy to recruit, retain, and promote the current workforce. On top of that, the astounding growth will require a much larger talent pool than currently exists to accomplish goals across industry and governmental organizations.
I have carried over this experience regarding people and culture both to Nova Space and to the clients that we support. Our goal is to accelerate Space professional development through industry-leading training courses, and to provide the preeminent Space professional programs.
We accomplish this by helping Space organizations develop their internal professional culture, to understand the broad fundamentals of Space operations and astronautics, understand how their organization fits within the spectrum of missions and capabilities, and understand how to best communicate internally and externally regarding their specific purpose or value.
There is a significant amount of growth within the Space Industry, largely due to a rise in commercial applications. Morgan Stanley predicts that Space will be a $1 trillion industry by 2040. With all this investment, accelerated development of capabilities, and synergy with other industries, the true lynchpin to success will be the human aspect.
The companies that realize this and invest in their people will be best able to develop and adapt to the needs of their customers and the marketplace. They will understand where and how to utilize capital and maximize the return on investment for investors and stakeholders.
This is why, at the end of the day, the people matter most.