William Harris: “Leaders who manage with compassion get better results, it’s scientifically documented.”

Chair of the board

7 min read

William Harris is president and CEO of Space Center Houston, a non-profit educational foundation and the official visitor centre of NASA Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center — the famous “Houston” where NASA’s human spaceflight training, research, and flight control are conducted. He also sits on the boards of the Association of Science and Technology Centers, QueensCare Foundation, and the Greater Houston Partnership. Prior to this, William held leadership positions at the RAND/UCLA Center for Soviet Studies and the AIDS Action Committee of Massachusetts.

NASA has long been associated with the “Failure is not an option” mindset of the Apollo programme. What does that requirement for perfection mean in the boardroom?

NASA’s decision-making has evolved a lot over the years — as it went from an agency with a virtually unlimited budget designed to counter the Soviet Union to a scientific organisation working hand in hand with space agencies from around the world.

There’s been one constant throughout, however: whether you’re trying to catch up with Sputnik or collaborating on the International Space Station, as a board you’re asking some of your people to trust you with their lives. And the only way they can grant you that trust is if they know that the mindset supporting your decisions is right.

“As a board you’re asking some of your people to trust you with their lives. And the only way they can grant you that trust is if they know the mindset supporting your decisions is right.”

I wouldn’t characterise this mindset as a quest for “perfection” — you’ll never have the perfect scenario, and you’ll never have the perfect combination of skills and experience around the table. But it’s a search for “excellence” and for the processes that bring you closer to it.

That requires a clear and shared vision at board level of what the organisation actually wants to achieve. And so, NASA’s executive leadership programme focuses on three tenets:

  1. We should be expeditionary, curious, and always want to learn new things. You can’t inspire people solely with cold science — you also need wonder and awe.
  2. We should embrace the overview effect — a psychological phenomenon that astronauts experience when they go to space and look back at Earth. They see our planet as it really is: a small, fragile spaceship in the blackness of space. This breaks down national barriers — we’re part of humanity, and we should seek feedback from across the world and make collaboration our modus operandi.
  3. Finally, we need to embrace challenge and should never be self-satisfied. From Apollo to the Space Shuttle, NASA’s leadership faced some catastrophic failures and terrible loss of lives, and it would have been tempting to abandon their aspirations. But we went back to the drawing board, reassessed and re-examined every aspect of these programmes, and turned them into incredible successes.

You’re part of an institution that, on one hand, is profoundly American, and, on the other hand, often acts in the name of mankind. How do you bring these diverse viewpoints into your boardroom?

NASA wasn’t “designed” to be diverse — diversity wasn’t much of a concern back then! — but it became so out of necessity. The agency was falling behind in the space race and its mandate more or less became, “I don’t care who, but we need the best and brightest.”

“NASA wasn’t ‘designed’ to be diverse but it became so out of necessity.”

That’s how they ended up hiring people like Katherine Johnson — a black woman and mathematics prodigy who was instrumental in calculating the trajectories astronauts should follow during their launch and re-entry. NASA was one of the first government agencies to have women and BAME people in senior roles back in the 1950s, and it showed how diverse teams enable excellence.

At board level, that’s not easy to achieve — as evidenced by the fact that most art museum board members in America are middle-aged, Caucasian, and male. This is not because they deliberately exclude others; it’s the way traditional board recruitment works. Most of the time, you ask, “Hey, who do you know?” to other people in your social circles and these tend to be full of people similar to us.

We are wired to seek out those we share things with — it’s linked to survival and our instinct to reduce risk by sticking with what we know. And so, you end up with boards that may wish to improve, but think, “We don’t know anybody” or bring someone in and feel threatened when that person starts expressing different views.

“The challenge isn’t to bring new ways of thinking into the boardroom, but to create an environment that allows them to participate fully and enables you to hear what they’re saying.”

There’s a saying I like: “‘Diversity’ is inviting people to dinner; ‘inclusion’ is giving them a seat at the table.” The biggest challenge isn’t to bring different walks of life and new ways of thinking into the boardroom, but to create an environment that allows them to participate fully and enables you to hear what they’re saying.

   THE BOARD INTELLIGENCE PLATFORM  Keep Your Stakeholders In Focus  Find out how the Board Intelligence platform can help you embed stakeholders  into all aspects of your board reporting. Find out more
 

You sat on the board of the AIDS Action Committee at the beginning of the HIV crisis. What lessons did you learn then that other CEOs could use in today’s pandemic?

First, you need to focus on separating fact from fiction.

There was so much stigma associated with HIV at the time. Because no one really knew what was happening, it generated a climate of fear — not unlike the past year. Back then, we did a lot of work on education — basic things, such as “You’re not going to catch HIV by touching someone or sitting on the same toilet seat.” Again, not dissimilar to what we’re seeing today around mask-wearing.

Second, you can’t give up hope. It’s been over 30 years and we still don’t have a cure for HIV — but it’s now a manageable disease. It will be the same with Covid-19: even if the first crop of vaccines doesn’t work as well as we hope, we’ll find new ways.

“Be mindful of how much you ask of your team — because, over time, everyone runs out of energy, especially when you’re dealing with emotionally draining situations.”

Third, you have to be mindful of how much you ask of your team — because, over time, everyone runs out of energy, especially when you’re dealing with emotionally draining situations. Right now, we’re all reaching a point of “screen fatigue”, and as a CEO you have to make sure everyone sets aside time to recover and rejuvenate — you included! Take time to do things that bring you joy, engage with your family and pets, and spend time in nature.

What book is on your bedside table?

How We Work, by Leah Weiss — a lecturer at Stanford and an expert in compassionate leadership. Her point is that concepts like “work/life balance” are a myth: you don’t live separate lives; you bring your whole self when you go to the office, just like you bring your work with you when you go back home. And now that we’re all permanently connected and working remotely, we better learn to manage that.

She’s researched how our performance at work is linked to our general happiness — and that’s incredibly relevant to an organisation like NASA. When you’re asking people to get into a sealed can, away from their friends and family for six months, in an environment where there’s a not-insignificant probability they’ll die, and you want them to be productive that whole time, you need to consider their happiness. Leaders who manage with compassion get better results, it’s scientifically documented.

“Leaders who manage with compassion get better results, it’s scientifically documented.”

In fact, it’s hard to overstate the impact your brain can have. For example, in space you don’t need bones to support you because you’re just floating. So, after a little while in microgravity, your brain tells your bones to stop regenerating — and they start dissolving in your body, which can lead to health issues including kidney failure. That’s why astronauts have to exercise two hours a day, so they can let their brain know they’d like to keep their bones, tendons, and muscles where they are!

Was there a moment in your life that defined you?

Going on a day trip to Boston when I was 10 years old.

I grew up in the Berkshire Mountains in the US state of Massachusetts and had an amazing elementary school teacher, Mrs Powers, who believed that every student should experience a high-quality science museum before going to middle school.

So, we sold candy bars and holiday cards and eventually raised enough funds to rent a bus for a 100-mile journey to the Boston Museum of Science. It was the first time in my life that I was in a proper city — and a major museum — and it changed my life. I can still remember that day in full colour.

What is your Golden Rule?

“Actively listen.” You can’t really hear what people are telling you if you’re not being empathic and don’t understand their perspective and where they’re coming from.

“My job as CEO isn’t to come up with all the solutions; it’s to be the enabler.”

My job as CEO isn’t to come up with all the solutions; it’s to be the enabler, to allow others to come to these solutions. And, most of the time, all that’s needed for that to happen is to truly listen to your team so you can help guide them.

This interview was conducted by Raphaelle Benabou and Maximilien van Gaver.

What you need to know, when you need to know it

Register for our newsletter to get a monthly compilation of our latest chair interviews, governance research, and upcoming webinars and events, along with weekly round-ups of the top news that matter to board members.

Register