Be More Podcast: Cultivating a Mission with NASA's Brady Pyle

Brady Pyle, deputy chief human capital officer at NASA, shares how to keep people connected to the mission of an organization.


Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast about how everyone can thrive in the new world of work, hosted by Workday’s Patrick Cournoyer. This Week: Brady Pyle, Deputy Chief Human Capital Officer at NASA shares how to keep people connected to the mission of an organization.

Last year was an unrelenting year for many organizations around the world. In the face of a global pandemic, social unrest, and economic uncertainty, many have struggled with the issue of how to keep their employees engaged and optimistic, without burning out.

For Brady Pyle, the solution lies in a mission-driven culture. 

“Up until 2020, our HR focus was: mission-first, people always. A focus on people, but a priority on the mission.”

Brady Pyle

If you want to learn more about how you can apply NASA learnings to your own business, then check out the key takeaways, or read the transcript below.

Key Takeaways

  • Mission has to be an ongoing effort. NASA engineers tend to stay seven years beyond retirement eligibility. The business folks stay three years beyond retirement eligibility. People aren’t watching the clock on when to retire or when to leave the organization. They hold on, and there is a commitment to the mission.

    NASA intentionally acts to incorporate their mission into the everyday lives of their employees. One way they do this is by bringing in people from different areas of the organization to talk about the mission.

    The organization also arranges tours where people can actually see the work being done and connect to the mission in a more direct way.

  • When should people come first? Over the last several months, the mission of the NASA HR function intentionally shifted to putting people first.

    Adopting a new way of working and testing new instruments, the agency leadership shifted mission milestones to enable people to work from home. This was a first in the history of NASA, where previously the mission was always the #1 priority.

  • Addressing the threat of burnout. NASA’s HR function put together a virtual learning session for supervisors, followed by assistance, feedback, and help when needed. They also discussed people challenges that supervisors were facing, and helped them resolve these. The aim was to ensure that employees didn’t work so hard while working from home that they burnt out.

    For Brady, communication is critical. NASA allowed supervisors to converse about challenges with their team in a centralized platform, exchange details, and resolve issues. This communication led to employees feeling that it was ok to take time off regardless of the mission status.

  • How NASA changed in 2020. First, NASA learnt that it is possible to be productive and effective in a remote environment. Second, what they saw was that the more flexible you can be with your workforce, the wider your talent pool becomes. 2020 forced NASA leadership to expand their mindset regarding how their people should work, and enabled the workforce to gain confidence working remotely and cultivating more balance.


Patrick: When I was a kid growing up in the United States, I was absolutely enamoured with space exploration and to be 100% transparent, I still am today. The idea of completely new experiences, a human being going to Mars going outside our solar system. If somebody had handed me a golden ticket to do any of these, I would have done it in a heartbeat. The organization that created this hope and inspiration to do great things beyond what we are capable of today is the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. More commonly known as NASA.

As my career has progressed, I have learned more and more about how NASA works as an organization, how much heritage, passion, and commitment that the team has and how employees are incredibly driven by mission. Quite frankly, they bring the term mission-driven to a whole new level of understanding. Joining me today is Brady Pyle and he’s the Deputy Chief Human Capital Officer at NASA.

Brady has built an impressive career over 25 years at NASA with a focus on the people that make these hopes and dreams a reality. His core passion is helping others, especially leaders to reach their full potential. He himself has been the recipient of NASA’s Outstanding Leadership Medal twice in the last decade. He also coaches leaders around the world with his Serve Leaders who Shoot for the Stars philosophy.

Brady, wow. I am so excited about this conversation today. Thank you so much for joining me.

Brady: Thank you, Patrick. That’s quite an inspiring story. It’s interesting because NASA was really not part of my life growing up. In fact, when I was in graduate school was really the first time I considered NASA, and I had the opportunity to become a cooperative education student as a grad student and work in human resources at NASA. I seize that opportunity and haven’t looked back over the last 25 years.

Let me tell you briefly how my career has unfolded. When I started at NASA back in 1995, I was a human resources representative, that’s an internal management consultant. I supported various organizations around NASA, including the early stages of the International Space Station program, that’s our 16-country partnership. I was pleased to be their HR rep when we put the first crew aboard the space station. Earlier this week on November 2nd, we celebrated 20 years of continuous human presence in space. That was exciting to be at the beginning stages of that program. After 10 years, as an HR rep, I moved into first-line leadership roles, first of the HR reps and then I moved over into training and development. Then I got to spend a year in Washington, DC, at our headquarters office, and then also working at the World Bank.

I worked outside of NASA for about six months, gained experience, learning HR from a different perspective which was very helpful. I came back to NASA, ultimately, became our Deputy HR Director at the Johnson Space Center, which is where the astronauts train, where mission control is, if you’ve seen the movie Apollo 13, about mission control. Over a period of time, as deputy, before I stepped into an HR executive role, I read in a book called the chief human capital or Chief Human Resources Officer that a lot of HR executives have worked outside of HR. My whole career has been within HR.

In 2013, I spent nine months as a leader in our engineering organization working outside of HR, getting to walk in the shoes of a front-line leader, which we believe are really pivotal to culture and leadership and employee engagement. That was a very helpful experience. Then I came back, I was ultimately selected as the HR Director at the Johnson Space Center, and was in that role a couple of years.

Then a couple of years ago, NASA decided that HR was going to move from a very decentralized structure to being functionally managed. I had the privilege of stepping into a new role where I supervise the HR executives in my current role. It’s just been a fun journey. Like you said, NASA is very inspiring. You learn something new about the space program and what NASA is up to each day. It’s a very unique HR experience and supporting an incredible mission.

Patrick: Let’s talk about that mission. That is an impressive career over 25 years. Clearly, you’ve been able to learn so many different aspects of how NASA is successful from different perspectives within the organization. I’d like to talk a bit about being mission-driven. Because from what I have learned, and I’ll be curious to hear your articulation of this and this idea of being mission-driven, but so many organizations. Every organization that I’ve worked at, I would say I’ve been very focused on what the company’s mission values are and being very connected to that and employees being very connected.

How do you describe employees being connected to the mission at NASA? Because it seems to me that it’s even 100 times more intense in some ways, in a positive way, but very connected, this very tight connection to mission.

Brady: Yes, absolutely. Spending most of my career at the Johnson Space Center, you were right there with the astronauts as they are trained, you were right there with the control center, like I mentioned for the last 20 years has been working in the International Space Station program around the clock. You see, and are very connected directly to the mission and it’s easy to feel the vibe of our values around excellence and teamwork. You really see a connection to the mission.

In some of our HR indicators, you see it, we run 4% attrition as an organization. Our engineers tend to stay seven years beyond retirement eligibility. Our business folks stay three years beyond retirement eligibility. People aren’t watching the clock on when to retire or when to leave the organization. They hold on and there is a commitment to that mission. In a lot of cases, particularly our leaders, they can make more money outside of NASA, but the mission keeps them there and the sense of mission is just palpable.

Now it’s interesting moving to a headquarters position and you’re a little bit removed from that. We’ve had to be very intentional that all of our workforce, and particularly in HR feels that connection to mission. We do some intentional things in HR about bringing people in to talk about various parts of the mission.

When we’ve been able to be onsite, we make sure that we have tours where people can actually see the work being done and connect to the mission that way. There is a direct connection for a lot of our workforce. Some of them may feel a little more indirect connection, and we’re trying to be intentional about that, about making sure they can feel that as well.

Patrick: That brings us to an interesting phase of life right now, where for decades, employees or team members at NASA have been able to be directly connected in the environment of the mission. Then being able to make that connection, feel that, as you said that palpable mission connection. Then here we are with 2020 having unfolded the way it has and all of a sudden that had to significantly change an organization, as you said, those attrition numbers are amazing. That doesn’t happen by accident, people really want to be there.

They want to be there. They want to be doing the work that they’re doing. Then all of a sudden, they are put into a position out of their control, which is to, all of a sudden, have to be working remote for their own safety, other people’s safety. Move into a detached workforce and still be able to have that same passion, connection, inspiration, hope, but all of a sudden are doing their work from either bedrooms or their offices or their kitchen tables. How did that transpire over the past couple of months and was that hard to manage as an organization?

Brady: That’s a great question, Patrick. I would describe up until 2020, our HR mission, our HR focus has always been, mission first people always. A focus on people, but a priority on the mission and supporting the mission.

What we found as we went into March and April is our agency leadership had to step back and say, “Okay, there are things that we are going to be unable to do. We’re going to be unable to make some progress on certain aspects of the mission.” We actually intentionally shifted our HR mission over the course of the last several months to a people first mission always focus, and so really working with the agency leadership on protecting the people.

We have about 95% of our workforce at the beginning in a telework situation. Now, fortunately for us, even prior to March, we had some people who worked remotely and who did telework. We had some infrastructure, we had some ways of doing that, and we had tested it out. Obviously, the scale to which we moved this was significant, and we worked our way through this new way of working, agency leadership shifted mission milestones to enable people to work from home.

The challenges we’ve faced, I would say because there is such a connection to mission and commitment to the organization, is the biggest challenge we’ve faced is burnout. Employees are not getting those natural breaks where you leave the office and go home where you step away from your computer and move away, people are working all the time. People are not taking leave. We have reduction and holidays. They’re taking time off, vacation time off of about a third over the last six months.

We’re really encouraging as we head into Thanksgiving and Christmas time for folks to take time away, even though they may not be able to holiday with their families like they normally do at this time of year. That’s been a big challenge for us to navigate and try to get people to step away, mission milestones are being adjusted. We want folks to take care of themselves with that people first mindset.

Patrick: How are you supporting your leaders to support their teams to do this? We, as organizations, put out communications programs from centralized HR and try to encourage employees directly to be able to do these things, like you said, take time off and focus on mental health and their mental well-being, their own well-being. A lot of times that coming to fruition really sits with frontline leadership and frontline managers.

That can be difficult, leading people in general can be a challenge in normal circumstances, a great challenge, but it’s very dynamic. When you get to see people or be in an office with people and get to feel what their experiences are, their moods, now when we’re working remotely or teleworking or not in an office together, leaders are struggling a bit with that. How are you encouraging and empowering leaders to support these initiatives to help your employees really ensure that they don’t burn out?

Brady: As I mentioned before, we agree, the frontline leaders are key to culture, to employee engagement. When we started remote work in February, March timeframe, we put together a team in HR to put together virtual learning sessions for supervisors. We started with basics and we did this every other Friday, we would set-up a session that was available to all supervisors across our agency. We’ve got about 2,000 supervisors anywhere between 800 and 1,000 would engage in these sessions with us every other Friday.

We started with practical things of, “Hey, how do you even work the tools?” A lot of our supervisors weren’t used to the tools or to managing remotely. How do you have team meetings? How do you have individual meetings using these tools? Practical tips on how to do that. Then we transitioned into, how are you going to do your performance discussions this year?

If you have a difficult performance issue or a performance challenge, people are not probably at their best with all the stresses they face both at home and trying to deal with a new way of working as well, so how do you work through that? We had some of our employee assistance programs, counsellors give feedback to supervisors of what to look for, how to help.

We also went into tips and tools around challenges they were facing. We heard from the supervisor’s questions that they brought up and these sessions were fascinating because they turned into a lot of peer discussions. We held it in a platform in a way where the supervisors could dialogue with one another as well, and we set-up smaller breakout rooms and in the virtual environment where supervisors could get together and have conversations of what they were facing, how they were dealing with it.

It’s been interesting because as we’ve had these we’re hearing from supervisors, “Hey, we want to keep these going.” I think even when we returned to onsite and we’re not quite there yet, but when we returned onsite, we’re going to keep this rhythm going to keep those connections. Because supervisors from California to the East Coast are having very similar challenges and talking those out and sharing solutions has really proven helpful for us.

Patrick: We’re wrapping up 2020 and as you said, not quite yet ready to go back to onsite, but onsite will most likely be coming at some point for you, hopefully in the medium term, maybe some point in 2021. What would you say that you’ve learned? Or what types of changes have you made over the past couple of months that you think will stick or that will fundamentally change how you look at leadership or work environment, work experience at NASA?

I was speaking to another colleague yesterday and we were talking about AI and how we’re going through this industrial revolution around AI. That’s a challenge for a lot of organizations and there’s some fear around that, but in reality, he was saying, it’s really this ability to be able to– we’re going through a change in the way we do business. Then the pandemic on top of it has also just changed how we all fundamentally do business.

Are there things that stand out to you, that said, “Well, in 2019, we would have never really thought about this. In 2020, we were forced to do it. In 2021 we’re going to write our next chapter, but it’s going to include some things that we never thought that it would, because we’re forced to do them over the past 12 months.” Does anything stand out that you think will be part of that next chapter?

Brady: Yes, actually there’s lots of things that stand up. Let me really point to pre-COVID, one of the biggest challenges that NASA faced was aging facilities. A lot of our facilities were built when NASA started 60 years ago. If you think about a facility you’ve got now leaky water pipes, you get a lot of infrastructure costs that are needed, and to enhance facilities and bring them up to code in the 2020s.

NASA has been blessed as a federal government organization to have a slightly increasing budget, flat and greasing, most federal agencies had declining budget scenarios here in the US. With that, if the facility costs continue to escalate, that leaves less money for mission and for space hardware.

One of our big challenges, even pre-COVID, there were studies about how do we reduce footprint? How do we reduce our facility costs? I can tell you the mindset of leadership and across NASA was, “Hey, we need in-person teams, even in support organizations everywhere.” What we’ve learned, I think through this experience is, “Hey, that’s not true. We can be productive and effective in certain roles, in a remote environment.”

Now HR in NASA has been on the progressive side of that. My role as Deputy CHCO, I live and work in Houston, Texas. I’m probably the only Deputy CHCO in the federal governor that is not in Washington, DC. My boss has been very, very open to looking at things differently and working differently. I’ve been in this remote setting and way of working in my role and we’ve been pushing on that.

What we’re seeing is the more we can do that, the more we open up our talent pool and our possibilities. Because when you tie people to a geographic location, your talent pool gets tighter and smaller. If you can think differently about the roles and roles and where they’re performed, you have more options for talent. It’s also opened us up. We have several people rotating to different roles right now, developmentally because there’s not a geographic imperative.

It’s really opening up mindset of leadership and the workforce that “Hey, we can do this. We can do this differently.” I think that can be a game-changer for us if we can reduce our dependence on facilities and reduce our facility costs. That really can give us more money to pour in the mission.

Patrick: You’re the first person that I’ve ever had a conversation with that was thinking about facilities cost versus space hardware. [laughs] I’ve never had that conversation. That’s brilliant, but it’s totally true. You’re right.

Brady: It’s reality.

Patrick: It is. That’s an aha moment for me. I’ve had many conversations and that stands out as one of my most favorite statements. The next time we’re looking at our P&L, I’ll think about, “Well, I could be considering this for space hardware.” That’s a very valid point.

This idea that NASA being a 60-year-old organization and it has had incredible success over 60 years and that a six-month period in time can potentially change how fundamentals of work happen at an organization like NASA. How those changes could ultimately impact what comes in 10 years or 15 years in these future missions, that’s incredibly inspirational.

For organizations today that are, I mean, I say younger organizations, 10-years-old, 15-years-old, and are sitting at their tables as executive teams and saying, “I’m really worried about changing this aspect of our culture or having to reanalyze this one value because maybe this value is no longer appropriate. Because our organization is this going to fundamentally change next year and for the future.” Or saying, “Well, we might need to change our office layout and people not have their own desks and go into a community type of layout.”

I’ve been talking with organizations that are really struggling with that. That’s why I was so excited to have this conversation. Because it really is inspirational to hear an organization like NASA who have been consistent over six decades, about a core way of doing things and being able to step back and say, “Well, maybe we need to change how we do things for the future.”

That’s very inspirational for organizations that maybe are over complicating and overstressing themselves quite frankly, about change because we all have to change a bit. It sounds like you are leading that change and that progressiveness with changes you said on the HR side being on the progressive side. Thank you for that inspiration because I think organizations need to hear that.

Brady: It’s interesting, Patrick, about a year ago, we do benchmarking with private company, organizations. What are the trends that we’re seeing? We were looking at some of the telework and these options, like I said, to reduce facility costs. We’ve been looking at this for a while. It was interesting because when we visited with Facebook and Google in California, both of them were thinking about bringing more of their workforce back on site, because they were struggling with teamwork dynamics and just creativity, felt like you get more creativity when you got people together.

It really challenged our thinking. It would be interesting to go back and revisit some of those conversations with them. I wonder how they’re feeling now in this context, in this environment. It’s definitely challenging all of us right now to think differently, to look at the future differently, and certainly the future of work offers some exciting opportunities. That’s for sure.

Patrick: I could not agree with you more and we could talk for hours. I could literally ask you about 100 more questions, but we will wrap it up for today. Brady, first off, thank you for your inspiration to the audience for the work that you’re doing, the work that your team is doing.

As I said, NASA truly does create hope and inspiration just naturally with the work that you do. I think even more so with the exciting missions and projects that you have coming up over the next five to 10 years. At a time like this, it really is quite inspirational to read those. It’s so inspirational to hear the work that you and your team and the openness that your organization is having on seeing and building what the next chapter of the future of work is for, for your organization. Thank you for spending time with me today.

I look forward to seeing how this all unfolds. We should check in again, maybe in six months-time, years time, and see what has changed and the success that you’ve had. I’d love to have another conversation at some point. For now, thank you again for spending time with me. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.

Brady: Thank you, Patrick. Been a pleasure to have the conversation and we are continuing to learn. I’m hoping to learn from other leaders that you talk with as well. Just once I encourage your listeners to be watching for NASA, our next mission is to return to the moon, and hopefully, one day go on to Mars. We’re excited about what the future holds.

Patrick: It’s amazing. I cannot wait for that. Thank you, Brady. I appreciate it.

Brady: Thank you.

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