Organizational Dynamics Working Papers

High Potential Leadership Development: The System Behind The System For Systems Engineering Development at Nasa

Christine R. Williams, NASA Academy of Program Project and Engineering Leadership
Ana M. Reyes, University of Pennsylvania

Document Type Working Paper

Working Paper #11-01


The more complex the world becomes, the greater the need for leaders who are able to deal with difficult and multifaceted technical problems and intricate social systems. In response to these challenges, many companies have created accelerated high potential leadership development programs. Yet, executive failure remains at an average of 50 percent and 40 percent of high potential job transitions continue to fail. In this context, NASA initiated the Systems Engineering Leadership Development Program (SELDP) to accelerate the development of high potential, mid‐level systems engineers. First‐year results revealed an unprecedented 80 percent of participants who transitioned into challenging positions that utilized their learning within four months of returning to their home centers and 33 percent were promoted within six months. The second year success rate was even better with over 90% of participants successfully transitioning to new positions. What did SELDP do differently? NASA’s learning and experience have implications for how other talent development programs can more effectively provide the leadership required for organizational success. This paper will discuss: the SELDP program origins, drivers and objectives including the large number of impending retirements, the increasingly complex nature of programs and projects, and the growing need for NASA leaders to be as capable in their people management skills as they are in their technical capabilities. This paper will also discuss the unique emergent process used to design this program and the learning system design that contributed to the program’s effectiveness. Finally, this paper will detail the five factors determined to underlie the program success. First, the program’s functional alignment with Agency systems engineering allows those responsible for mission success to fully integrate the development of their employees into their overall organizational strategy. Second, the uniquely objective assignment matching process uses an unbiased matching of needs and developmental assignments by senior leaders who have been in those positions. Third, program Advocates, senior experts who are fully integrated into the learning process, provide continuity and improved communication throughout the system. Fourth, the way in which the program holds the participant’s accountable for their success by providing knowledge and skills, and consistent expectations that participants be and act as leaders achieving their own success both during and after the program. Finally, the use of an agile and flexible design approach to learning and development allowed the program to constantly adapt to changing conditions and emerging needs.


Date Posted: 27 September 2011