Marcel Grün: “I don’t know the word relaxation”

The 58-year-old chief of Prague’s Observatory and Planetarium, director by day and astronomer by night, claims that if he wants his subordinates to give 100%, then he has to give 150%.

You’ve been the director for just five years, but you’ve been at the Planetarium for over forty. Is there anything at all that has caught you unaware or surprised you as the director?
I’m something like a living piece of equipment at this facility, as I started working at the Petřín Observatory as a student, and since 1967 I’ve been working here steadily. I’ve known this environment from every angle – from student assistant to director. So I have to be able to tell some employees that I’m dissatisfied with their work, or suggest they leave. When I was appointed I had to make a generational change in the staff, and it was very unpleasant. Of course at first I made many mistakes, but I hope I made each one only once. It’s not bad to make mistakes, but not learning and repeating them is.

Do you feel more like an astronomer or a manager?
I’d rather be seen as a man devoted to popularizing astronomy and astronautics, but it’s true that now I have to be mainly a manager. I feel it’s my task – my challenge – because leading a team is above all a responsibility.

How many people report to you?
We have about 60 full-time employees and around 70 contractors. Specific to us are our student assistants – young people who’ve gone through our grooming and courses, like me and many of my colleagues. They accompany observatory visitors and show them the heavens through the telescopes; it’s also a great science popularization school for them.

Almost every profession is distinguished by some common element. What do astronomers have in common?
All sorts of people work with us – technicians, electronics experts, auxiliary personnel, teachers, lecturers, and even world-renowned scientists. Nevertheless, they share several things. Because we’re a subsidized organization and don’t earn much, we have to be multi-talented and crazy about our work. For example, a first-rate technician who is able to represent us on international technical committees can write a new popularization program, and when children come, he can address them with a riveting commentary on astronautics. I have to be universal, too, and if I want my colleagues to give 100%, I have to give 150%. This means staying in touch with the development of the field while being a bit of a lawyer, economist, psychologist, writer, and publicist.

So you adhere to the theory that personal example is a basic tool for motivating a team?
I see it as a moral duty. If I don’t try my hardest, then I don’t have the right to want my employees to give their all either.

Can you describe the ideal boss?
He should know what he wants, but he should be aware of what’s possible.

Did you take management courses, or do you rely on common sense instead?
I rely primarily on my judgement, and I like making decisions based on all available information. I got my best training from years of work with older, more experienced colleagues, from their good steps as well as their mistakes. When I was young I dabbled in psychology and pedagogy, and supplemented my education with a course on human resources management.

How do you resolve stressful situations?
I try to face stressful and other complicated situations with deliberation and communication. Often such situations are caused by simple misunderstanding. I don’t see acting from a position of strength as a good way to resolve problems.

Some bosses have communication problems. Do you know how to give praise or rebuke people for shortcomings, one on one?
Yes. I like giving praise whenever it’s appropriate. I’d like to offer financial rewards, too, but our possibilities are limited. I don’t like punishments, but a boss must be able to explain without evasion why he’s dissatisfied with someone’s work, choose some recourse, and hope the offender learns from it. We don’t have communication problems; anyone can come to me with any idea, complaint, or objection, but I won’t stand for gossip! (laughs)

Do conflicts arise at work?
Of course, because we don’t hire conflict-free people. I think completely conflict-free people don’t have sufficient creative potential. So one of my jobs is to try to avoid conflicts.

Career highlights
1958 first visit to observatory, from a childhood predilection a life-long passion develops
1961 becomes a student assistant at observatory
1962 publishes first articles and lectures
1967 becomes full-time Planetarium employee
1974 graduates from Czech Institute of Technology
1979 appointed head of astronautics department
1999 planet no. 10403 named for him
2000 named director of Prague Observatory and Planetarium.
Author of thousands of lectures, hundreds of articles, dozens of publication appearances, and several books.

What don’t you ever tolerate?
Human stupidity. Čapek said that craziness is tragic and should be understood, but not stupidity, it should be routed. I like doing away with unawareness by explaining and teaching, but stupidity is terrible. Frivolous behavior bothers me, but unfortunately it’s becoming more common in our society.

Do you have management tactics that have proven themselves?
Yes. It’s best to convince people that what you want of them is exactly what they want. At that moment you’ve got it made as a boss. And it doesn’t matter a bit to me if they think they came up with it themselves.

What do you do to strengthen team spirit?
I admit that the fashionable wave of team outings doesn’t appeal to me. I wouldn’t derive any pleasure from making people play soccer so I could see how they interacted. I have to see that at work. I try to create good conditions for teamwork. We take the distribution of work for granted. Every-one’s aware that an individual can’t do scientific research or popularize science alone. But I’m very proud of my people when they can master more difficult situations without my having to step in.

What’s your daily routine like?
A director’s expected to work all day, while an astronomer often works at night. So I do both. I’m afraid that in this respect I consistently violate the Labor Code. (laughs)

What do you enjoy most about your work?
Do you know anyone who doesn’t like the stars? It inspired me as a boy, and it still does. Through my work I’ve had the opportunity to meet many interesting people, astronauts, scientists. We all agree that once a person gets a taste for space he’ll be under its thrall forever. It’s a virus, space infection, and there’s no cure. My life-long mission is to spread this infection.

How do you relax?
What language are you speaking? (laughs) Relaxation is a word I don’t know the meaning of.

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