Leading an international team on a groundbreaking aviation mission and teaching strategy to MBA students may seem like very different jobs, but Contributing Associate Professor Ed Warnock constantly uses one to inform the other.
Warnock, who teaches strategic management for Willamette University MBA, serves as chief executive officer of the Perlan Project, a nonprofit mission to bring an engineless aircraft to the edge of space. The project, with official sponsorship from Airbus and support from a slew of organizations and donors, recently made headlines as it reached a record-breaking 52,172 feet over the Andes Mountains in Argentina, where Warnock spent the summers of 2017 and 2016 directing the project.
Warnock brings decades of experience as an aerospace engineer, commercial glider pilot, and organizational strategic manager to his work at the Perlan Project.
“A typical day is one of oversight, coordination, and leadership,” says Warnock. “My job is to make sure that team members located all over the world are coordinated and motivated so things work sufficiently and smoothly, teams function properly, and we move toward our mission.”
If this sounds a lot like running a business, it’s because it is.
Specifically, Warnock says his work with the Perlan Project is strikingly similar to managing a diverse not-for-profit, particularly in a sense that many involved in the organization’s success—from pilots to engineers and scientists—are volunteers who must rely on sources of motivation besides paychecks.
“Some of the management techniques that work when you pay someone don’t work with volunteers,” says Warnock. “It only works if they’re getting to do the work they enjoy doing, if they’re feeling appreciated enough.”
Warnock also enjoys bringing real-life examples of strategy implementation methods, both successful and unsuccessful, into his lessons at Willamette.
“It’s good to be able to use stories and examples from what students would call the ‘real world,’ not the academic world,” says Warnock. “Many of the things I’ve learned the hard way in the Perlan Project, I’m able to take right back to the classroom and say, ‘Here are some techniques that may work, or that you may discover don’t work, when you’re trying to sow your strategy inside your company.’”
Holding an executive role with the project also makes Warnock more relatable to students. As Warnock teaches in the MBA for Professionals program, designed for individuals who are established in full-time careers, his regular interactions with leadership at Airbus and other entities involved with Perlan are “types of contacts the students can relate to.”
“I tell [the students], ‘I’m in the same position you are. I go to meetings, I deal with suppliers, people who play the role of the customer—I’m where you are,’” he says. “It gives me insight into what the students are experiencing and what they need.”