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How to Create Teams that Excel Under Pressure

employees working together to meet deadline

Photo credit: (Rudzhan Nagiev)

Dr. Swati Mohan is one of the foremost women leaders in aerospace engineering — a field comprised of 88.8 percent men and 11.2 percent women. In 2020, she led the mission that landed a rover on Mars to search for signs of life. Currently, she is leading another high-profile mission that could reveal secrets of the early days of our solar system’s formation.

Clearly, one does not get to this pinnacle of STEM through engineering prowess alone. Mohan also knows how to create teams that thrive in high-pressure moments and can answer questions that have never been answered before. 

So, how does she do it? 

1. She embraces diversity.

“When we embrace diversity, it allows us to expand our limits,” she says. “Different people can bring different perspectives and ways of problem-solving. At NASA, we are solving hard problems that haven’t been solved before. Engaging diversity allows us to think outside the box.”

But building a diverse team that works as a team takes more than throwing diverse people together.

“It starts with building the team and being open to other people’s heritage,” she says. “When you form that foundation, people feel comfortable and are more likely to speak up and voice opinions. You can have conversations and explore them as a team instead of siloing discussions from one perspective.”

2. She builds trust long before trouble hits. 

It is essential to build trust before trouble hits, Mohan says, adding that it always will. Communication on her team was so strong that they could listen between the lines when the pandemic sent everyone home. They could read each other’s inflections. And they knew when something wasn’t said. 

3. She has a singular definition of “failure.”

“We tend to internalize failure as something wrong with us,” Mohan says, as if we didn’t do enough or weren’t good enough. But as the mother of two young girls, Mohan says: “There is nothing wrong with failure. The only wrong part is if you use it to stop yourself. Then you never get better. You never allow yourself to grow.”

Finally, and perhaps most notably as a women leader in a predominantly male field, Mohan ensures she is heard. 

“I have learned to be more vocal and direct than I would have otherwise,” she says. “I make sure I am loud enough to be heard at the table. I make sure I do not get stepped on by others. I have had to up that part of my communication skills to hold my own in a room full of people who may not be like me.”

Dr. Swati Mohan

Dr. Swati Mohan spoke at the 2023 California Conference for Women. This article is based on her talk.

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