What did Ron Thompson, NASA’s CDO want to be as a child? Silly question. An astronaut, of course. “It’s just the romance of it,” he says, “the appealing nature of what space exploration is, of what human exploration is. As a species, we’re always trying to challenge and get out there and try new things. That’s definitely my nature.”
Thompson did not become an astronaut, but he did end up as the agency’s CDO and deputy digital transformation officer. And while that wasn’t where the starward ambitions of childhood were aiming it is, he thinks, a fitting role for his personality. “Did I see that role as a child? No. But I always wanted to make things better. I always wanted to improve and enhance and have a challenge.”
Before joining NASA in 2019, Thompson worked in six other federal agencies. He started out in the 1980s with a stint in the army, an experience he “wouldn’t trade for anything in the world”. Then again, he says the same of his time working in the private sector for a Fortune 50 company during the tech boom of the 2000s. He is the first to admit that he did not plan his career path. “My career opportunities arose, and I walked through the door and was able to learn from each and every one, leading to my time at NASA.”
The NASA job is big and complex, just the way Thompson likes it. “We’re really taking a look at how we can increase our mission outcomes in this complex world,” he says. “Our external partnerships with multiple countries (ESA, for example) are looking to advance aerospace and transform aerospace in an ever-transforming world. We’re taking a look at 21st century business processes and making sure that we are staying in lockstep with what they’re doing.”
Thompson’s approach to leadership ties in with the broader transformation at hand. “The role of leading this programme is for us to instigate and facilitate and make sure we move the organisation forward. We launched listening tours about a year ago – we really went out to each officer in charge of the agency and asked them what objectives they would like to see and how bringing digital transformation to bear would impact on their success. And also, what barriers they saw.
“It can’t be driven from the top down. We have to have the perspective, leading this programme, to hear all voices, and come up with an operating model – or multiple operating models – that would work. Everybody must see themselves in this transformation.”
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“My primary leadership style is trust. That to me is the most important and fundamental part of any effective leadership.”