Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For helping teams stay grounded even as they shoot for the stars

Most people don’t follow the career path they dream up as a kid. But Christine Gebara knew what she wanted to do ever since she took part in a sailing program for young girls. “They taught us the very basics of aerodynamics and how the sailboat worked,” she says. “I became an engineer because of that program.” Eventually, she swapped sailboats for satellites and took on a project management role at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

In the six years since she began there, Gebara’s learned to navigate vast complexities on marathon projects—whether it’s helping teams build next-gen satellites or metal 3D printing. Along the way, she’s evolved into a well-rounded project leader committed to her cause.

“Enabling science is a deeply meaningful mission to me,” she says. “I always strive to lead with empathy, but I also pride myself on knowing what aspects of a project are important.”

Along with balancing her own demanding workload of ambitious projects, Gebara is bringing teams together to make that next giant leap forward. Here’s how.

Fostering innovation with razor-sharp action plans

The mission: Gebara is immersed in an ongoing project to help NASA explore how additive manufacturing can revolutionize spacecraft design. Simply put, additive manufacturing uses lasers to selectively weld metal powder to create spacecraft hardware such as antennas and structures. The team’s long-term goal is to show how additive manufacturing could be used to build entire satellites or space systems, while reducing the time, cost and resources needed.

The method: For Gebara, the biggest challenge is managing workflows for a project that has no full-time team members. Research is often conducted primarily while team members juggle competing tasks. Her solution: “as simple as it sounds, having weekly meetings, even brief ones,” she says. Gebara uses the time to establish priorities for action plans so team member tasks are always clear, she says.

Identifying solutions through collaborative iteration

The mission: NASA’s first Mars helicopter, Ingenuity, proved that flying on Mars is possible. Gebara is part of a team developing an instrument for a larger concept helicopter that could explore the red planet in the future. As mechanical lead for the helicopter’s deployable antenna design, she’s helping bridge the gap between disciplines—which requires the team to lean into agile ways of working.

The method: “Finding technical compromises can be iterative,” she says. “That makes creating and sticking to a schedule difficult. For this project, we need to remain flexible while keeping the end goals in mind.”

Aligning stakeholder requirements to ensure a safe landing

The mission: NASA hopes to someday look for signs of life on Jupiter’s icy moon, Europa. As the agency works on the Europa Lander concept, Gebara is serving as a mechanical engineer to help develop the proposed spacecraft’s intelligent landing system. The project includes the use of helicopters and laser systems, which can pose myriad safety concerns. That has Gebara navigating layers of regulations, document submissions and changing requirements.

The method: “Even though I am not a manager on this task, juggling all the stakeholders has been a challenge,” Gebara says. “Because of the number of organizations involved, it has been important to keep track of hard requirements, while also considering recommendations and opinions.”

As always, risk management is front and center for Gebara.

“Risk is a daily discussion and negotiation,” she says. “Engineering judgment plays a large role in first understanding the risk. Developing good relationships with subject matter experts also helps. NASA and JPL have great processes in place to create a balance between demonstrated solutions and innovation.”  

Fortifying global collaboration with crystal-clear communication

The mission: Gebara’s most influential project? The five years she spent working on a satellite for NASA’s Surface Water and Ocean Topography mission, which gathers data on the effects of climate change. The project was her first role involving global teams—giving her a master class in building alignment among stakeholders at NASA, France’s National Centre for Space Studies, the Canadian Space Agency and the UK Space Agency.

The method: With team members scattered around the world, Gebara focused on precise communications. Whenever possible, she ditched technical jargon and acronyms in favor of terms that would be easily understood by all stakeholders, regardless of their responsibilities or location.

She also aligned her communication style to divergent expectations for timelines.

“Some want to know the realistic time estimate for an activity on the satellite, while others just want a conservative estimate and a near guarantee it would be done in that time,” she says. “Understanding how to communicate needed resources, as well as the estimated uncertainty, was an essential skill.”


Q&A: Christine Gebara on the impact of AI, unconscious bias and Leonardo da Vinci

How are young people changing the world of projects now?

Young people always bring passion and creativity, but the new generation also expects teams and organizations to use technology, AI and the latest tools to make processes more efficient and workplaces more empathetic. What’s the biggest challenge facing young project leaders right now? Unfortunately, I believe it’s unconscious bias and outdated beliefs about what a leader looks like. Fast forward: What’s one way managing projects will have changed over the next decade?

All of our software tools will have generative intelligence built in to automate mundane tasks. What podcasts are you recommending right now?

Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle.

What famous person would you want to recruit for your team?

Leonardo da Vinci—inventor and architect!

What moonshot project would you most like to work on?

Contributing to climate change solutions is something I’d love to tackle.

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