On The Executives Unpacked Podcast we had the pleasure of being joined by Katherine Monson, the COO at Hedron, an aerospace provider that is building a hybrid RF optical relay network. This dynamic communication infrastructure is going to enable the growing space industry to provide low latency data to the commercial and government end users here on Earth. Katherine brings a wealth of experience to the aerospace industry. Outside of the space world, Katherine’s happy place is hiking and exploring the great outdoors, as well as a passion for learning languages. We tapped into her expertise as an executive to give you the best advice from the sector.
What has been the biggest lesson that you’ve learned during your career?
The biggest lesson that I’ve learned is about the growth mindset. Always have the approach of learning. There are also pros and cons of that growth mindset. With folks who have experience you can absolutely leverage that experience, so being willing to come to the table and solicit that experience from folks who have done something before is excellent. The challenge of that is that things are changing very quickly, so that experience isn’t always relevant anymore. For those of us who have been in the industry for several years to also have that growth mindset, we need to accept that there are new folks coming to the table with a different way of looking at things. We might have failed trying to do something five years ago, but there could be things that are different now in terms of technological advancement or the operating environment that makes that idea that didn’t work five years ago suddenly very viable today. Having that learning mindset at all points of the day at all points of the year at all points of your career is the most important lesson I’ve learned.
What do you wish that you’d been told sooner?
People’s career paths, and people’s lives, frankly, are not linear. There are very few people that I can think of that at the age of 22, coming out of undergrad, wanted to do something and are now living exactly that life that they said they would when they were 22. It isn’t a straight path. Looking back, I’m sure you could explain how all of the choices you made led you to here, but you can only do that looking backward. One of the things that I want to say to some of our interns, or to some of the folks who are just coming into the industry, is ‘Don’t stress, you’ll figure it out, you make the choices that you need to on any given day, and as long as you keep moving toward problems that are interesting to you, that’s the thread that you should be pulling on.’ Find a problem that you care about, find a problem that matters to you that it isn’t solved yet. That’s when you’ll find yourself at the table with other people who share your passions, and those are just fantastic tables to be at. There are so many interesting problems in aerospace that are being tackled by so many wonderful, interesting people. There isn’t some master plan that you write out your life on. Every day, you make a choice to go to the table and solve the problem that you care about. The advice that I would want to give to my previous self is ‘calm down, take each step day by day, there isn’t some master architect out there, you have to sit down!’
What is the best bit of advice you have been given?
Something that I have been learning this last year working with my business partners, my colleagues, is thought partnership. That’s a phrase that we invoke a lot, which is to say that the three of our brains together generate so much more potential than any one of us alone. One of the ideas that we’ve really been trying to actualize within our team is this idea of high performance athletes. One of the things that I heard recently with the Tour de France is that you have so many of these cyclists, and they are incredible on the bike, but what you may not see is that there is also a race for recovery. Everyone is good on the bike, but if you spend all day cycling up huge mountains, as soon as you get off the bike, the race to recovery starts – which is to say the person who is fueling the best, who is sleeping the best, who’s letting their body recover the best, they’re gonna go into the next day with more strength, more power and more energy.
That idea applies to our lives more generally, but particularly in our careers. You have to figure out when you have a career in aerospace, you could have a career that is 50 years long. How do you create the environment to be successful? That’s incredibly important coming out of the pandemic because our lines between work work and life have been so blurred. It does require folks to be much more intentional about thinking about ‘How am I going to sustain a high performance level over many years’, and really thinking about that as an essential part of doing the role. That race to recovery, every single day, is vital, because now we’re showing up with the highest performance level possible.
What constantly keeps you awake at night?
There are so many things that can go wrong in an aerospace company, and that’s not unique to really any one player. Going back to the hardware elements and software elements, we are existing in a moment in time of immense growth in the industry. There is a huge talent shortage, because folks are really trying to grow all at the same time. Many folks are looking for people who have a lot of experience, who have done this before. We collectively have a challenge in the industry of how do we bring the next generation up to speed quickly? So how do we start to say, ‘these are really the key skills that I need; someone who has growth mindset, who communicates very well, who engages in thought partnership, who’s detail oriented’ etc. and starting to think much more specifically about what type of person, attitude and approach will be successful in this role.
We need to take on more responsibility as a company to say, ‘How do I get you access to that experience, and can I get you access to people who have it in their brain that you can leverage a partnership with?’ Talent is always a question, where are you finding it? Are you struggling? How are you building support structures for people? So I think that’s a wonderful problem to have. But there’s so much growth in the industry that we’re trying to figure out on a human level, how do we level up the industry to make sure that that growth is sustainable? Talent is definitely a piece that everyone is struggling with right now.
Can you identify a single thread that’s run for your career that’s led to success?
I make it a priority to be involved with fellowship programmes in the aerospace industry. It’s important to me that we are training the next generation of folks to come into the industry and stake industry, particularly for folks who have non-traditional backgrounds or don’t have an aerospace engineering degree. Creating a diversity of talent in the aerospace industry really matters to me.
If you are really passionate about creating diversity in the space talent workforce, we’re gonna have a great conversation about that, we’re going to generate ideas, we’re going to support each other as we keep working through those ideas. I cannot tell you how many people I have met that I still come back to and realise that our work is interconnected in ways that we didn’t imagine, rather than always having to wait till the ground point to share information.
One of the conversations that often comes up with students a lot is ‘How did you get your seat at the table?’ The framing of that question honestly always breaks my heart a little bit. There isn’t a Master Guru in the industry, who says, this is the table and there’s chairs, and these are the people who are most qualified to have the chairs. I always try to push back on that framing to say, nobody’s gonna give you a seat at the table, there is no metaphorical table. There are lots of problems that different groups of people are trying to solve, some are working together in a company, some are multiple companies working together. Some are multiple companies that are competing with each other and trying to take different approaches to solving the same problem. It’s really about figuring out which problem space you want to be in. If you reshape your thinking of the table, it’s just a group of people who care about a problem and keep going to the table that you want to be at. It’s not that those people want to have you there. Frankly, they don’t probably notice or pay attention to who else is at the table. People are far less judgmental than we fear that they are.
Nobody’s going to invite you to the table. It requires you to do some self reflection to say, ‘What do I care about? How do I want to spend my time?’ That’s the tip of the spear, because if you figure out what you care about, you always do your best work in a domain that you care about.
What’s one bit of advice that you could always give to somebody else?
Take the time to figure out the problem that you care about. We each have our own way of approaching problemsYou don’t have to care about something for 50 years, and you don’t have to decide once, on this day, and this week, and this year, what’s the problem that I’m trying to solve? I think that type of kind of self awareness and check in is the best kind of fuel that there is, and to really be honest with the answer that you get. A while ago, I got my dream job, but when I got there, about a month in, I realised, ‘I hate this’, which was terrifying because I’d spent so many years trying to get to that moment. Having the courage to solve that question honestly is essential. Look at that answer in the mirror and then move toward it. Just be willing to move toward where you care about a problem space, or where you think you can help bring a solution to the world. You have to live your life, no one else is going to live it for you, so do what you care about and try to enjoy it.
To hear more of Katherine’s insights, tune into Episode 12 of The Executives Unpacked Podcast here.
For more behind-the-scenes insights into John Harris’s life, listen to the whole Executives Unpacked Podcast episode here.