Success through leading innovation and change

The Weidman Center for Global Leadership hosted its first leadership lecture of the semester on Feb. 18. Tom Ingersoll, an accomplished aerospace entrepreneur and BYU alum, spoke to students about his biggest leadership takeaways after more than 25 years in the industry.

Vision without Execution is Hallucination

Until he led the company’s sale to Google, Ingersoll was CEO of Skybox Imaging, created by a group of Stanford students who sought to “create a real-time Google Earth.”  From designing the satellites to writing the data platform, the company had to build its product from scratch, and it was able to do it at 20 percent the cost of its competitors. Ingersoll emphasized the importance of having both a vision and execution to achieve success.

“We knew how to build stuff,” Ingersoll said. “We put a tremendous amount of focus and effort into engineering excellence and technical excellence.”

People, People, People

Engineers need to be experts in concepts and designs, but it can be just as important to understand how to work with people and create an environment of excellence. Ingersoll said one of the best ways to encourage team members is to lead by example.

“Your actions are so much more powerful than your words,” he said. “If you’re not leading out by doing the right thing, then you’re going to fail.”

Creativity Requires Hard Work and Happiness

Creating an environment of innovation requires a balance of hard work and happiness. The team should be motivated to work hard and should also feel that their ideas and contributions are valued in the workplace.

“One of the most important things you can do in creating happiness in the workplace is making sure everybody’s opinion is valued,” Ingersoll said. “To do that, it’s about you, as a leader, showing respect for all those people.”

Separate Fact from Belief from Cultural Bias

Facts are crucial for making difficult decisions. However, facts can often be muddled by beliefs and cultural biases. One of Ingersoll’s mentors, NASA astronaut and Chairman of Universal Space Network TK Mattingly, taught him that effective leaders need to know how to find the facts so that they can make the best possible decision.

Eliminate Creative Interrupts

Taking the necessary time to be creative can often take a backseat to more pressing matters and emergencies. Ingersoll recommends leaders to separate time working on immediate issues from time that is needed for innovation.

Understand and Respond to Your Organizational Half-life

Joe Rothenberg, one of the top administrators at NASA, taught Ingersoll about the importance of culture and process, and how they are used to manage a growing organization. While culture is quick and flexible, it can’t scale up with a larger organization.

“When you’re thinking about innovation, you want to make sure that there’s culture and flexibility, but you also need process so that it can scale,” he said.

Get and Listen to Good Mentors

Mentors can help guide young leaders by teaching them things that aren’t always taught in the classroom. Ingersoll listed three influential mentors who have helped him throughout his career by offering their unique perspectives.

“These mentors can look around the corners and they know what problems are coming your way,” Ingersoll said. “They’ll help you avoid a lot of those problems that you don’t see coming.”

Don’t Forget to Pray

Ingersoll told a story about Universal Space Network when it was competing for an important contract, and they had to outbid another organization. After a night of prayer, he came to a number that only narrowly won him the multi-million-dollar deal.

“When you’re doing new things and you’re trying to change the world, don’t forget to pray,” he said.

Prior to Skybox Imaging, Ingersoll was co-founder and CEO of Universal Space Network, a leading provider of global ground station services to the satellite industry. He later sold the company to a large international satellite services provider.

Hearing from a very successful entrepreneur like Ingersoll was a unique learning experience for students, faculty and staff in attendance.

“We can’t be successful with just a little bit of effort,” said Christina Muhlestein, a chemical engineering student.  “A lot of people have the ideas but not the effort. If you have the effort and work towards it you can be as successful as anyone.”

The next Weidman Center Leadership Lecture will be on March 24 and will feature BYU President Kevin J Worthen. For more information, visit  

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