Master of Her Craft

Natalie Saiz helps employees at NASA's Johnson Space Center overcome hurdles and prepare for what lies ahead.

Friday, October 2, 2009
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As director of HR at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Natalie Saiz has done more than her fair share to help the center endure two very different but potentially destructive storms -- one caused by nature, the other man-made.

The man-made storm was the government's decision to shut down the Space Shuttle program, which is scheduled to end next year. While this may not strike most outside observers as a "storm" in the conventional sense, it undoubtedly seemed like one to the 1,000 JSC workers who have devoted a good chunk of their careers to the 30-year-old program. 

The other storm was Hurricane Ike, which bore down on Houston last September and caused massive amounts of damage to the region. Millions of residents were left without power, some for weeks, and thousands lost their homes, including 200 JSC employees.

In both instances, Saiz and her team have worked hard to guide the affected employees through these difficult periods. Her successful efforts have garnered her a place on this year's HR Honor Roll.

Moving On

With more than 100 buildings in southeast Houston, JSC is one of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's most important centers. It's home to Mission Control, which guides all manned U.S. space flights. It's also the primary training center for NASA's astronauts and plays key research, development and support roles for various other space programs, including the shuttle program.

As JSC's HR chief, Saiz is tasked with supporting the center's 3,200 government employees (an additional 13,000 private contractors work at the facility or in immediate proximity to it). She and her team have been the primary players in helping JSC workers who are being affected by the closure of the shuttle program.

"We've been meeting with each of the employees who work full-time on the shuttle program, talking to them about their preferences and needs, and trying to match those preferences up with the needs of the organization," she says.

Approximately one-third of the employees will transition to NASA's Constellation program, which will replace the shuttle and provide the rockets and spacecraft necessary for the agency's long-term mission of returning to the moon, setting up facilities there and ultimately moving on to Mars. Others will transfer to different areas of NASA, such as its Engineering Directorate. In many cases, employees are expected to move from operational roles to ones involving more research and development.

"We'll need to retrain those employees and provide them with some developmental opportunities" because the nature of their work will be changing, says Saiz.

Saiz is assisted in her efforts by the Workforce Planning Office, an entity she created shortly after being named JSC's HR director. The WPO works closely with center's chief financial officer in determining how to allocate training and other resources to support workforce development efforts.

"Our WPO is located in HR but works closely with the CFO because the CFO is dealing with the money, and you have to map the money and people together," Saiz says.

A few of the employees involved in the shuttle program will retire. None, however, will be laid off as a result of the program's closure, thanks to the government's civil-service protections.


A Helping Hand

Like others in the Houston area, Saiz and her team were also put to a test after Hurricane Ike made landfall on Sept. 13, 2008 and battered the East Texas region.

Fortunately, all of JSC's government employees were accounted for within five days of the storm hitting the area. However, accounting was one thing. Helping the 200 workers who'd lost their homes rebuild their lives was something else.

"We categorized employees into a color scheme: red, yellow and green," she recalls. "The yellow group had lost power but could still live in their houses. The red group's houses were uninhabitable."

Although she and other officials desperately wanted to help the affected employees -- especially those in the red group -- Saiz points out that they first had to overcome the issue of trust. "It's hard for some stranger to come and say, 'Hey, I'm here to help,' while someone is desperately trying to get water out of their house," she says.

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Saiz set up a system of volunteers called Employee Recovery Advocates. These were people who either worked closely with or supervised the employees who'd been the most affected by Ike. The ERAs (who numbered about 350) made in-person home visits (in many cases the employees had lost electricity and phone service) to help the affected employees obtain food, fresh drinking water and other resources so they could focus on taking care of their families.

The ERA program attracted nationwide praise and was recognized by Chicago-based Boeing as a best practice.

"The exceptional efforts of [Saiz and her team] prove that we at NASA really care about our teams," says Michael L. Coats, JSC's director, who nominated Saiz for the awards competition.


Saiz' achievements don't end with the instrumental role she's played in helping employees navigate these two very different "storms."

The HR director also helped establish the first "Inclusion and Innovation Council" at JSC, which benchmarked companies such as Toyota and Texas Instruments on workforce flexibility and diversity practices. The site visits led to an exchange of ideas, and now Toyota is benchmarking JSC on its succession-management practices.

And she created the Center Director-Program Manager Forum, a series of events aimed at lessening the tensions between NASA's space center directors and program managers.

"The forums meet about every two months, and sometimes people will even come in while they're on vacation to attend them," she says. "It's added some transparency, and people feel like they finally have a say in what's going on."

Saiz, who joined NASA as a human resource representative in 1987, credits her grandmother with being a chief source of inspiration.

"She's going to be 88 this year -- she basically raised five children on her own, because my grandfather died when he was young, and she's been a great advocate for womens' rights," she says. "She always said, 'Never limit yourself just because you're a woman, ' and she inspired me."

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