For those of you who have followed my posts, you know that the entrepreneur and the astronaut are the same person: recently I had the privilege of interviewing Gregory H. Olsen, Ph.D. for the first in a series of “Leading for Success” webinars. In 2005, after an illustrious background as a research scientist and entrepreneur, Greg sold his company to become the third private citizen to orbit the earth in the International Space Station. (See my previous “What’s New” post for Greg’s bio and background on the series).
While Greg and I discussed a wide range of issues related to growing and selling a company, as well as his experiences as a space traveler, there were three points he made that particularly stuck with me and can help us all become more effective leaders:
- Stay focused but flexible: Throughout his career, Greg has been open to the possibilities around him, but has concurrently focused on achieving specific objectives. For example, Greg did not start out in life knowing that he wanted to become an entrepreneur – or an astronaut. However, once he did discover these opportunities, he persisted – even in the face of multiple setbacks and rejections (example: he was rejected a few times from the astronaut program before he was eventually accepted).
- Build relationships: Greg discussed the teamwork that went into building his companies, often giving credit to others. In addition, he discussed the importance of being open with his staff in both good times and tough times. The credibility and trust he established with others became an essential part of his ability to shape and maintain a high performance culture over the years. This same spirit of teamwork was also critical to the success of his space mission..
- Take risks: Greg discussed his reliance on instinct to ultimately guide him on taking risks, even in a turbulent economy. While we couldn’t exactly define “prudent risk,” I believe it starts with balancing the benefits of an opportunity with its downsides relative to your objectives. It also requires faith that you’ll be able to use your knowledge, skills, abilities, and resources to make the most of whatever happens. Incidentally, Greg’s instincts paid off: after co-founding Sensors Unlimited (his second company) in 1992, the company sold for $600 million in 2000, the management team repurchased it in 2002 for $6 million, and resold it for $60 million in 2005.
The biggest lesson I learned from Greg is that you can’t get ahead if you’re looking at backwards. When you’re clear about your objectives, build strong relationships, and take prudent risks, good things can happen – even beyond your wildest dreams.