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SPIE Professional Leadership Series 

An Interview With Dr. Marc Himel on Workplace Trust

To succeed as an engineer or scientist today, you must integrate values such as integrity, fairness, compassion, and respect into your workplace.

Photo of Dr. Marc Himel and Nathalie Vermeulen at O+P 2007

Dr. Marc D. Himel from Tessera North America is a big proponent of integrating a moral value system into the workplace.

Speaking on the subject at an SPIE Student Chapter Leadership Workshop at Optics + Photonics 2007, Himel discussed his belief that scientific and technological knowledge is not sufficient to succeed as an engineer or scientist today. Success, he said, demands that you also integrate values such as integrity, fairness, compassion, and respect into your workplace.

After his workshop at the San Diego Convention Center, Himel met with Nathalie Vermeulen, president of the SPIE Brussels Student Chapter, and answered some additional questions about this rarely discussed topic.

Nathalie Vermeulen: Could you say a few words about Tessera North America, the company you are working for, and about your role within the company?

Dr. Marc Himel: Tessera North America, formerly Digital Optics Corporation, was founded in 1991 to use microelectronic fabrication techniques to provide high-quality diffractive and refractive micro-optic components and subsystems. Our primary revenue comes from the optics we provide to the semiconductor equipment and communication markets, as well as funded research and development for various consumer and government applications. In addition to these markets, we are now developing and licensing technology for use in high-volume optics for consumer applications, such as our OptiML™ Wafer-Level Camera Technology for mobile consumer electronics like camera phones.

I began my career at Tessera North America in 1999 as a product manager for the diffractive optics provided to the semiconductor equipment segment. After concentrating on this market for seven years, it was time for a new challenge, and I am now leading our functional test group. This new role provides an opportunity to strengthen my management skills as well as get involved in a broader range of products and applications.

Vermeulen: Could you explain how you have become a speaker on applying "soft skills" at work?

Himel: My talk this week is an outgrowth of my desire to serve SPIE and its student groups. A while ago, Dirk Fabian asked if I would be willing to be a visiting lecturer for the student chapters. I offered a talk on micro-optics and mentioned that I would also be interested in putting together a presentation on values in the workplace. When SPIE later asked if I would write a short article for SPIE Professional on leadership, I chose to focus on trust, as this is the foundation needed to build any relationship. That article led to my invitation to present at this workshop.

Over the past decade or so, I have learned a lot about working with a group to accomplish a task. For example, although technical knowledge is important, I found this could be dwarfed by people's inability to work together effectively. Direct experience, as well as knowledge gained from case studies examined as part of my MBA program some years ago, have shown me that environments based on trust, respect, and justice (values that build unity) tend to be more successful and have better employee retention. They are just happier places to work.

I am fortunate that I have worked in companies with different cultures -- some that built trust and others that blocked it -- as it has provided me the opportunity to compare them and to better understand what environment works best for me. I also realized that I still had a lot of learning to do to really put these values into practice in my daily life. One approach I've put into practice with my group is to start focusing on a different value each week and this week's workshop has given me the opportunity to share what I have learned. I hope that people found it useful and practical.

Vermeulen: You pointed out in your talk that the most important interpersonal values to be implemented at work are trust and trustworthiness, fairness and justice, respect, compassion, and humility. What is, according to you, the most crucial value to strive for and what is the most difficult one?

Himel: Trustworthiness is the most crucial, as it forms the basis for all of our interactions with people. I addressed this in my article in the July issue of SPIE Professional. It implies a willingness to be vulnerable, to share your strengths and weaknesses, and to be truthful. It allows us to engage in open discussions and search for the truth in a situation or for the best solution to a problem.

The most difficult value to develop will depend on the individual. For some, it might be being truthful with yourself, for others humility, and yet for others compassion. So how do we know what values we need to develop? One method is to understand how you respond to people and situations when you're under pressure and stress. Dr. Wayne Dyer uses the question, "What do you get when you squeeze an orange?" to show that when something is squeezed, what is on the inside comes out on the outside. If the orange is ripe, you get orange juice; if not the result can be very sour. Of course, we may need to ask others for feedback, as we can sometimes be blind to our own imperfections.

Vermeulen: You also emphasized during your talk that gossiping and backbiting are the worst things you can do at work. However, some people say that they can obtain very useful information on other people's interests or plans through the gossip mill, information that they wouldn't receive otherwise. Could you comment on that?

Himel: Gossip and backbiting have a huge negative impact on individual relationships and organizations so whatever short-term benefit we might imagine we would gain from such behavior would not be worth the personal and professional losses they would create in the long-run. To understand this, we need to understand why we choose to engage in this practice. In many instances, we may feel that an injustice has been done to us, and we respond by complaining to others regarding the situation. It's one thing to seek out the advice of a trusted colleague, but it's quite another to simply complain to anyone who will listen.

Before engaging in what could be perceived as backbiting, I suggest we ask ourselves how our comments could impact the workplace environment and relationships with those touched by the discussion. Will this right the injustice or continue to perpetuate it? Will it bring people together or create barriers? Will it build trust or break it? If we look at every workplace conversation in this light, we can avoid getting caught up in gossip and backbiting, and become more constructive contributors to our company's success.

Vermeulen: Some say that for example in politics, people should never show their "soft" side if they want to become successful. What is your opinion on this statement?

Himel: Our political system certainly can appear to be more divisive and agenda driven than integrative and unifying; and in some ways the same can be said about our business environment. It's just that our political system is more open to public scrutiny. In fact the majority of the people working in government and business are trying to do the best job they can.

The ultra-competitive business arena may make it more difficult to live up to one's internal values, but it is possible. And individuals and businesses that create a collaborative, safe environment do, in fact, succeed and are healthier for it. I think integrating values at your workplace is a universal concept that can be applied in almost any type of situation, and I believe it is really worth the effort to strive for it.

Vermeulen: Thank you for this very open and interesting interview.

Posted October 2007.

Return to the SPIE Professional Leadership Series

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200710.20