Making Eagles Fly, A Chat with NASA’s Bob Jacobs

By Cindy Chin, CEO CLC Advisors, LLC

This article is part of a series of articles on design thinking and thought leaders that transform into what we at CLC Advisors, LLC call “i.e.,” the “idea economy.” Where ideas become and transform into widgets for those who choose to dare mighty things and build something.

 


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Image: NASA

I first met NASA’s Deputy Associate Administrator Bob Jacobs, during the transition of Space Shuttle Atlantis from Kennedy Space Center to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center, signalling the end of NASA’s 35-year space shuttle program five years ago. He’s the man at comms mission control behind NASA’s 1500 websites, social media accounts, and official communications and part of a slice of living American history. When he asked one of his mentors before taking the job at NASA, his mentor advised him and said, “You can either continue to write about history or be a part of it.” He took the job. Those are big shoes to fill and Bob Jacobs would be the type of person to tell whether a design of a shoe is big enough and whether it will work. In his case they would be moon or anti-gravity boots and emerging technologies. He’s seen them all and then some.

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Where did you start out in your career? When did you find your calling?
I started in broadcasting, specifically in radio in 1979. I was a Mass Communications freshman at Middle Tennessee State University and terrific of the future. I wasn’t really sure what to do, but this seemed like a good, general major. I visited the campus radio station with a friend who was more advanced in the major and fell in love. To understand my eventual career path you would have to know a little about the history of Nashville television. Let’s just press fast-forward and acknowledge that television and multimedia were the initial driving forces to a communications career that has now spanned nearly 40 years. I still consider myself a journalist at heart.

Early in my career I discovered the importance emerging technologies can play in effective communications. Now don’t get me wrong, platforms such as Snapchat and Twitter should not be considered communications solutions. They’re tools, no more effective than the invention of radio. You have to know how to use them. You still need to know how to integrate the technology with solid communications practices. And you’ll always need good writers and creative communicators to use those tools effectively.

What was your first NASA memory?
As a child, watching television coverage of Gemini missions in my grandmother’s den. I come from the Apollo generation. I was 8-years-old when Neil and Buzz landed on the moon. I remember the incredible joy I felt watching the first color images f

rom Apollo 12 and crying when Alan Bean accidentally pointed the camera at the sun, burning out the pickup tube. There was no television that entire mission. I remember the networks covering the moonwalks with bad-looking stand-ins on a set and mission audio. It has been my greatest privilege to get to know and work with my childhood heroes and be able to call them friends.

Neil Armstrong Family Memorial Service

Bob Jacobs, Annie & the late Senator John Glenn. Image courtesy of NASA/Bill Ingalls.

What is it like to witness living history firsthand?
I was struggling joining NASA communications in late 2000. I was working at Associated Press in technology development and missed the editorial side, and we just didn’t find the right fit at AP. When the news chief position at NASA opened, I jumped at the chance, but I struggled with moving from a news organization to a position many consider to be PR. I talked about this with one of my mentors and he said, “You can either continue to write about history or be a part of it.” That was the nudge I needed. I officially joined NASA in July 2000. I have been fortunate to witness and be a part of history. High school students today have never known a time when humans weren’t living and working in space, or when there were working science laboratories on Mars. That’s heady stuff. I’m honored to help tell the stories of the scientists and engineers who achieve these amazing feats. 

How much curiosity, creativity, and imagination is necessary in what you do daily? What is the percentage breakout?
What’s Edison’s old quote that genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration? There’s a lot to that. Again, creative ideas can come easy. A lot of people have the answer. The trick is to know how to make that answer a reality. I love watching children at museums. Their minds aren’t cluttered with educations and bias and fear of the unknown. They ask the most outrageously creative yet simple questions. I don’t know how it works for others, but I spend a lot of time trying to plug into that kid who loved Lost in Space on TV. The kid who couldn’t wait for the teacher to pull out the television to watch a launch.

What are the key attributes that have contributed to your success? How did you define it?
Well, there’s a built-in assumption I’ve been successful. I’ll let outsiders make that determination. I’ve had many failures in my career. But if there are any keys to successful communications, it lies in thinking big, pushing boundaries, and then having a plan for making those big thoughts a reality. I don’t buy into many of today’s business buzzwords. I hate people who call themselves “ideators.” What the hell is that? Ninjas and gurus should steer clear of me. Anyone can come up with solutions. The challenge is to be able to turn that solution into action and results. People who just want to throw their grand idea for someone else to execute is lazy. If I give you an idea, there’s going to be a tangible artifact at the end of the process, be it a book, video, event, or one of the world’ss most recognized social media brands. Ideas are easy. Anyone can tell you to “do more concerts in the park.” The trick is to navigate within the available resources are structures of your organizations and still be able to execute. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t break rules. However, if you’re going to implement transformation that’s lasting and get other people to buy into your idea so it becomes part of the new model, you have to spend time working within the existing framework. Here’s where I refer you back to John Kotter. Remind me to send a “thank you” note to John for my career! Finally, you have to surround yourself with smart and good people. Note the use of the word “good.” I mean that in every definable sense you can imagine. In the end, a leader is successful by the people who carry out the elements of any plan. I’m lucky to be surrounded by a lot of talented individuals who are good people. Organizations often mistake aggression and asshole for talent. Being mean doesn’t make you good at being a leader. It just makes you mean.

This article first appeared on Medium. To read more about our chat with Bob, his advice on crisis communications, insights into what it is like to manage NASA’s over 1500 websites and social media accounts, The Jacobs Four Commandments for Crisis Communications, and what’s on his mind these days, please go to our Medium page here.


About Bob Jacobs
Bob Jacobs is a recognized leader in social media engagement, strategic and crisis communications, and innovative media development. He is currently the NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Communications and has directed projects and work that earned three Emmy Awards in Television, eight Webby Awards for the best Internet site, and three Shorty Awards for best social media.

Bob has earned four agency medals for exceptional achievement, exceptional service, and outstanding leadership. He is the senior career NASA spokesperson and serves as Deputy Associate Administrator for the Office of Communications, and often publicly represents the Office of Administrator and other senior agency leadership. He is responsible for directing and executing many of the agency’s outreach activities.

His creative communications approach led to the collaboration on such films as “Hidden Figures and “The Martian.” Bob led a number of public and education events related to the films, including public premieres and videos with Ridley Scott, Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Janelle Monáe, and Taraji P. Henson. He directed the collaboration on the Internet-based Third Rock Radio station and the highly-popular Angry Birds Space mobile gaming platform. Bob also developed, co-authored and edited four books, including “Hubble: A Journey through Space and Time” and “Apollo: Through the Eyes of the Astronauts,” plus a children’s book “The Astronauts Alphabet.”

A Nashville native, he earned a bachelor’s degree from Middle Tennessee State University and a master’s degree from Seton Hall University.

About NASA
For more than 50 years, NASA has been breaking barriers to achieve the seemingly impossible — from walking on the Moon to pushing the boundaries of human spaceflight farther than ever before. We work in space and around the world in laboratories and wind tunnels, on airfields and in control rooms to explore some of life’s fundamental mysteries: What’s out there in space? How do we get there? And what can we learn that will make life better here on Earth? We are passionate professionals united by a common purpose: to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research. Today, we continue NASA’s legacy of excellence and innovation through an unprecedented array of missions. We are developing the most advanced rockets and spacecraft ever designed, studying the Earth for answers to critical challenges facing our planet, improving the air transportation experience, and so much more. Join us as we reach for new heights and reveal the unknown for the benefit of humanity.

About Cindy Chin
Ms. Chin is an entrepreneur, venture strategist, & cultural ambassador of the arts & sciences. As CEO of CLC Advisors, LLC, she is an advisor & board member to founding startup teams, opportunity scout for VC & LP partners, a global strategic thought leader, & a sought-after speaker.

Cindy is also a NASA Datanaut, an open data innovation program to promote data science, coding, and gender diversity. The NASA Datanauts program operates within the Office of the CIO at NASA Headquarters. She is also a mentor in the Google Launchpad Mentor Program, Stanford University’s Technology Entrepreneurship and undergrad programs, and a member of the faculty of the Startup Executive Academy of Silicon Castles in Salzburg, Austria.

Cindy is passionate about social impact, smART cities, public-private sector partnerships & building great companies. She achieves this by defining strategies for building multidisciplinary ecosystems, accelerators, outreach, & innovation phases of ventures, alternative revenue generation & sustainability. Gender parity & diversity are factors for consideration.

About CLC Advisors, LLC
CLC Advisors, LLC is a firm of trusted advisors and management consultants focusing on development and execution strategies to build and incubate value-based business ventures, innovations, initiatives, and forward exponential technologies to future societies and smART cities. We are dedicated to finding solutions for traditional business models or expanding into the growing arenas of impact investing, corporate social responsibility, sustainability, and philanthropy venture capital.

Why You Should Connect with Strangers on LinkedIn

inclogo_smBy Cindy Chin, CEO, CLC Advisors, LLC

Last week, I had a chance to participate in a Twitter discussion with one of Inc.com’s contributing writers, Christina Desmarais. The discussion was about whether one should connect with strangers on LinkedIn, is it the best platform for networking, and what are the best practices in an increasingly “plugged in” world.

As an entrepreneur and person responsible for driving growth and business revenue, networking is vital to the success in small businesses and startups, especially in volatile economic markets. With advancements in technology and growth of social media, the ability to connect with others is literally within our hand’s grasp.

An interesting discussion ensued with Christina and some others on Twitter of all places (post-IPO $TWTR) and here is her article in Inc.com: http://www.inc.com/christina-desmarais/why-you-should-connect-with-strangers-on-linkedin.html#! As to whether or not connect with strangers on LinkedIn, the decision should rest on your business model, personal best practices, whether the timing is right (growth stages), and your bottom-line comfort level. There is no wrong answer to this proverbial question.

On a personal and professional note, Christina and I were introduced virtually after the transition of space shuttle Atlantis by my NASA Social colleague Jimmy Lin last year and we did connect through LinkedIn and on Twitter. To date, we have, thankfully, not spammed each other.

You can follow Christina Desmarais on Twitter at @salubriousdish and read her articles on Inc.com: http://www.inc.com/author/christina-desmarais.