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Space Foundation CEO Tom Zelibor: “Teams that look out for each other will always have a higher success rate than those that don’t”

Watch each other’s six. Teams that look out for each other will always have a higher success rate than those that don’t. Everyone is human and capable of making mistakes or missing something that might be obvious to others. It happens. But if you have people watching your back, and you’re watching out for others, […]

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Watch each other’s six. Teams that look out for each other will always have a higher success rate than those that don’t. Everyone is human and capable of making mistakes or missing something that might be obvious to others. It happens. But if you have people watching your back, and you’re watching out for others, you create a circle of trust that takes care of everyone and addresses problems before they become bigger issues.


As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Zelibor.

Tom is the CEO for Space Foundation, a 501(c)(3) global space advocate. Headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, Zelibor manages a national staff with a worldwide impact across the business, government, education and local communities. Before joining Space Foundation in April 2017, Zelibor served as chairman and chief executive officer for Lightwave Logic Inc., among other executive roles in commercial enterprises. Prior to his leadership tenure in the private sector, Zelibor had a distinguished 30-year career in the United States Navy, retiring as a Rear Admiral in 2006.


Thank you for joining us Tom! Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Career pathways are pretty fascinating because they never go quite where you anticipate — I know mine didn’t. I’ve crossed the public and private sectors and am now the CEO of a non-profit devoted to space (not what I had envisioned as a kid).

I spent 30 years in the Navy in a number of different capacities. This was a formative experience on so many levels, but it is really where I recognized that people will always be the force that drives change; technology, however, can be a very powerful tool to facilitate that change.

I developed an affinity for emerging technology, and preparing people to use new tools to make better decisions may be one of the most impactful things I accomplished during my tenure as Department of the Navy Deputy CIO/Navy CIO.For example, applying analytics and advanced tools to the Navy’s missions enabled people in remote places do their jobs better and get back home safely.

This realization ultimately led me to space. Nowhere can you garner more data and information about an environment than through space and all of the assets that support access to it. As commander, Naval Space Command, I gained a deep understanding and respect for space capabilities, learning how connected space is to everything we touch and experience.

I saw an opportunity to be a change agent in space technology innovation by helping entrepreneurs bring their space capabilities to market. I had the chance to run an aerospace business incubator that supported 13 startup companies, several of which transitioned from the idea phase to become highly successful commercial space enterprises. It was rewarding to witness the potential for space technology to create more access and opportunity to serve not just the military but civilian and commercial sectors as well.

Space is a capacity builder for everyone, in every industry, and every community. At Space Foundation, I now lead a team of people charged with uniting and facilitating collaboration across the entire spectrum of stakeholders from the global space community — business, government, education and local communities. Our Center for Innovation and Education then brings these constituencies together in partnership, sponsorship, fundraising, grants and corporate membership to make even more capacity happen for the entire life cycle of the space workforce — students, young leaders, entrepreneurs and professionals.

My current role at Space Foundation is the perfect example of how career pathways can deviate from what you anticipate. I am now looking at an enormous opportunity to bring workforce development and economic opportunities in the space economy to all people. Just as it was with me, a career in space might not be what today’s workers had envisioned, but I can tell you it is thrilling and provides the capacity to improve our world.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

A number of books have resonated with me, but if I have to pick a favorite, I‘ll go with Ken Follett’s “The Pillars of the Earth.”

It centers around the building of a large cathedral in a fictional English town in medieval times. For the people involved with designing and building these structures, this was more than a full-time job; it was a calling.

Today, we have it easy in building any massive structure — we simply apply some heavy machinery, power tools, and skilled workers. Refined architectural plans help to define each step. For the people in Follett’s book, however, such structures couldn’t possibly be finished in their lifetime. And the workers had to endure obstacles such as wars, plagues, political and religious conflicts, etc. — not exactly an ideal environment. Nevertheless, the builders accepted the risks and focused their lives and skills to fulfill the visions of their dreams.

The lessons are just as applicable today. No one will ever operate in a perfect environment, but even in the worst of conditions, we should be prepared to do everything we can to fulfill our dreams and aspirations. Regardless of who we are or what we do in our life’s work, we all have to expend every effort to be successful.

It requires more than hard work and sacrifice; it also means working with others who are different from you, expanding your perspective, and weathering the storms that you will inevitably encounter. But like in Follett’s book, if you do this, what you build can become transformational and fulfilling not just for you but others as well.

Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear and loneliness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

Let me share the direction that I’ve given teams under my leadership and is what I tell the Space Foundation team as we open each of our annual Space Symposiums.

Number one: Be flexible. No plan survives first contact with the enemy. Regardless of the amount of planning you do, you have to think through contingency planning when things don’t go the way you want. This includes multiple scenarios because if you only consider one outcome, you will not be prepared to adjust to the real environment when it changes and where you have to operate.

Flexibility allows you to move, adapt and overcome, rather than be anchored to an untenable position. If you’re going to anchor to only one point, you better be prepared to sink.

Number two: Be kind. In times of stress, people will take out their angst on others around them, which is counterproductive to alleviating anyone’s anxiousness. That type of behavior only makes things worse. When times are at their most stressful, take a deep breath and make every effort to be more patient and kinder than you might otherwise be. By bringing the temperature down, listening to what people are saying that is of concern will clearly help them and yourself get to the solution you both want.

And number three: Watch each other’s six. Teams that look out for each other will always have a higher success rate than those that don’t. Everyone is human and capable of making mistakes or missing something that might be obvious to others. It happens. But if you have people watching your back, and you’re watching out for others, you create a circle of trust that takes care of everyone and addresses problems before they become bigger issues.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

The best resources are the people around you — colleagues, peers, mentors, or friends and family. Social distancing can feel extremely isolating, which elevates anxiety, so communication in whatever form it takes is key to making it through with your sanity. We’ve never been through anything like this as a society, so we must lean on each other a bit.

Your family or significant other may be who you are “locked up with,” but they play an important role. Sometimes, their ability to listen and offer candor provides that “truth to power” moment when you really need it. They can make sure you approach situations with eyes wide open and a full, honest understanding of what’s going on around you.

The same should be said about your work support group. Whether they’re fellow executives or admins, you should be able to lean on them for feedback and understanding of what is happening at all levels of the organization. One of the things I learned very quickly is that it can be lonely at the top. People often assume you inherently know the best path forward, or worse, they are afraid to come to you with suggestions or worries. To offset these issues, it’s essential to create an environment of trust that encourages your subordinates to feel comfortable opening up to you as well as their colleagues.

Additionally, it can be helpful to reach out to your mentor. He or she is another resource for counsel and feedback. These are unprecedented times, so receiving advice from someone you respect can be comforting and relieve anxiety.

The bottom line is that going it alone leaves you just that — alone! And this is a time when we really need to focus on banding together (from a distance, of course).

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

It’s not as much a quote as it is a long form poem that I’ve used at various change of command ceremonies I’ve had in my Navy career as well as in various other speeches I’ve delivered. It was written by William Hersey Davis, who was a university professor, pastor and writer in the early 20th century. I’ve made it a practice of sharing these particular words of his because what they say is the essence of how I have tried to lead any of the organizations I have had the privilege of serving. There has never been a time I’ve shared them that they did not resonate with me or the audience. They are in every sense of the word, “timeless.”

“Reputation & Character” by William Hersey Davis

The circumstances amid which you live determines your reputation;
the truth you believe determines your character.

Reputation is what you are supposed to be;
character is what you are.

Reputation is the photograph;
character is the face.

Reputation comes over one from without;
character grows up from within.

Reputation is what you have when you come to a new community;
character is what you have when you go away.

Your reputation is learned in an hour;
your character does not come to light for a year.

Reputation is made in a moment;
character is built in a lifetime.

Reputation grows like a mushroom;
character grows like the oak.

A single newspaper report gives you your reputation;
a life of toil gives you your character.

Reputation makes you rich or makes you poor;
character makes you happy or makes you miserable.

Reputation is what men say about you on your tombstone;
character is what angels say about you before the throne of God.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

This is actually how Center for Innovation and Education came about, so my movement has officially started. Our team recognized all of the different ways people are tied to space and thought, “How can we use these connections for the greater good? How do we maximize our impact across all age groups and demographics all over the world?”

There is tremendous economic opportunity right now with space careers to be sure; there is room for everyone to advance in an industry that will cross the trillion-dollar mark within the next 20 years. But what’s so exciting is that this room provides the space community not only the chance to offer lucrative opportunities to workers displaced by COVID-19 but also to welcome new faces that historically have been missing from the space economy and industry at large — and this is only part of the movement.

It is also vital that we engage people at every stage of life — whether this means getting students excited about space-related careers at a young age or upskilling and reskilling the existing workforce, or establishing relationships between senior professionals and up-and-comers. By inviting a whole spectrum of people into the space community, we can ensure that innovation continues well into the future.

I would love nothing more than to see a whole connected web of people engaged in space and, by their acts of engagement, satisfying core economic needs while still making the world a better place through collaboration. That’s my vision for a movement that benefits millions of people worldwide.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

I focus my social media energies on LinkedIn as I enjoy the professionalism and diversity in content and ideas that it showcases. Business has no single flavor or recipe for success so seeing how ideas are shared and the speed in which everyone is offering them, I find extremely valuable.

Space Foundation’s website (www.spacefoundation.org) is always an excellent destination to find out what we are doing to drive workforce development and economic opportunity for the global space community. Our social channels are as follows:

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