Last July, Glenn Graham stepped into a new role after 28 years in the U.S. Air Force: Safety and Mission Assurance (SMA) director at Armstrong Flight Research Center. At what Graham calls a center of excellence for aviation in the mecca of aviation (the Antelope Valley North of Los Angeles) his experience is a great fit for the NASA center and its flying-focused missions.
“Everything we do is focused around aviation,” said Graham. “So as a career aviator, my goal is to make sure that every mission, every event we do and every take off results in a safe mission.”
Whether managing crew resources, checking systems before flight, learning how to deal with emergencies and contingences, or understanding the importance of self-discipline and accountability, Graham feels every mission he flew in the Air Force had lessons that can be applied to Armstrong’s workforce and mission, and he looks forward to sharing his experience to help ensure mission success.
As pertinent as the aviation connection is, it’s Graham’s last five years with the Air Force when he supported the Defense Contract Management Agency that truly prepared him for a role in SMA at NASA.
“[It gave me a] good appreciation and understanding for how important product quality is and making sure that every piece of material we procure conforms to the requirements of the mission,” he explained.
A Focus on the People
Aviation aside, Graham’s focus is on Armstrong’s people and culture. While from a technical standpoint he lists sitting on review boards and helping analyze upcoming projects from a safety standpoint as key responsibilities, he believes his bigger responsibility is the Safety Culture of the center.
Since he started, he’s been working with a team to review and analyze the third round of data from the Safety Culture Survey to identify issues and areas to improve. As Graham sees it, even though Armstrong has a great safety record, his job isn’t to dwell on that record, but rather to continue to improve it.
“From a big-picture standpoint, I’m a cheerleader and advocate for the workforce and for promoting a Safety Culture,” explained Graham. “[I want to] try to find where friction points and seams are and try to eliminate them. The end goal is to make sure every employee can go home safely at the end of the day with everything he or she came with. It’s a safety 24/7 concept so they come back safely the next day. It’s a holistic approach.”
He acknowledges that improving culture takes time. According to Graham, it takes everyone working together and building personal relationships to increase trust in the workplace, up and down the chain and across teams, and to continue Armstrong’s record of success.
“[You] can’t just levy new requirements on people and expect them to jump in line,” said Graham.
[You need to] figure out what motivates individuals and get them all to move in the same direction.”
Furthermore, he ultimately feels responsible for the development of the people that work for him, which, as he puts it, includes not just their wellbeing but opportunities for career development. He is happy to provide suggestions and advice to anyone that comes to him. Taking it a step further, Graham has gone out to local community events and colleges to seek future talent for the center, ensuring years of success for NASA and Armstrong by encouraging the next generation of employees.
Long-term, Graham’s goals boil down to three points:
- Keep the Safety Culture moving forward
- Promote trust and teamwork at all levels
- Ensure that Armstrong doesn’t have any major mishaps, loss of life or serious injuries
Although success never comes without challenges, Graham’s background and experiences prepared him to be a problem-solver. He grew up on a farm, which he feels shaped his outlook on life.
“My parents gave me lots of responsibility as a kid, and that helped shape my values,” reflected Graham. “Hard work was rewarded, and you had to be able to figure ways out to solve problems.”
Graham leads an active lifestyle, enjoying what he refers to as “outdoorsy things,” such as snow skiing and hiking, and he’s done several relatively high-risk activities over the years, from flying complex test missions and combat missions to scuba diving and climbing mountains. He explains that each of these experiences helped him gain a better understanding of how to mitigate risk. Additionally, he stresses the importance of learning from other peoples’ mistakes and misfortunes to avoid repeating them. At Armstrong’s recent Safety Day, Graham was able to entice a few fellow employees to share very tragic, personal safety-related stories with the Armstrong workforce with the hope that hearing such stories would help employees avoid something similar happening to them.
With less than a year under his belt as SMA director, Graham is beginning to settle into the NASA life, and ultimately, he’s simply looking forward to serving and being a part of the agency’s mission.
“I’m excited to be here,” he said. “NASA is five years running [as the] best place to work in the government, and I’m happy to be a part of that. What’s cool about NASA is the mission and the people. Ultimately, what we do here at NASA and at Armstrong will help not just our nation, but all of mankind…and that is just awesome!”