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SPIE Professional Leadership Series

The Power of Unified Action

A company's mission, values, and vision can unite an organization into action and give you insight into whether you want to be part of the team.

By Marc Himel

photo of Dr. Marc Himel

In 1961 John F. Kennedy announced to the world that by the end of the decade, the United States would put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth. This bold target created a shared purpose and vision for the country at a time when it seemed we were losing our technological lead to other countries.

This unity of vision created a dynamic that allowed Americans at all levels to persevere through several engineering challenges until the vision became a reality in 1969. Had the country not been unified behind this vision, would we have accomplished so much in so short a time?

The concept of JFK's vision, a previously unimaginable goal achieved through unified action, is exemplified on a corporate level by the DANONE Group. Its mission of "bringing health through food to a maximum number of people" helps focus all employees on a common vision and goal. For DANONE, this has resulted in focusing its research and development efforts on health and nutrition, while supporting social progress in the community. DANONE believes that economic performance and attention to people go hand in hand.

This mission has propelled the DANONE Group to a market leadership position with strong profitability and stock price growth. Although DANONE employees may not consider their primary mission to be increasing shareholder value, they have done just that. They do it as a motivated workforce that takes the company's social responsibility seriously.

You can be confident that DANONE tries to ensure new hires share ownership of this vision as it will translate into strong commitment and increased motivation in the workplace.

Mission, vision, and values as exemplified by the DANONE Group, are elements company representatives watch for during the interview process to determine if you are aligned with their corporate culture. It is equally important that you establish if their corporate culture is aligned with your goals and values as well.

Finding a Company Mission Statement

In some cases, you can find company missions described on their Web sites or in their annual reports. For example, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories clearly articulates the institution's primary mission to ensure the safety, reliability, and security of our nuclear arsenal, while also pursuing research in enduring national needs such as clean energy and bioscience.

Bell Labs' mission to "define the next generation of communications technology" drives that organization to pursue research and development that may not be seen in products for well over a decade.

These mission statements can give you insight into overall organizational goals which can provide a start in helping you to know if you want to work for them. However, you won't really know enough until you have had a chance to experience first hand how they integrate their mission statements into every day activities.

This highlights one of the values of the interview process, where you can ask each individual you speak with how the particular job you are interested in fits into fulfilling the overall corporate mission. Asking your interviewers what motivated them to join the company and why they stay, can also give you insight into what drives the organization. If their answers resonate with you, you may have found a good match.

Pulling Together

But why is it important that a corporation have a clear mission and why should it resonate with you as an employee?

With it, everyone can pull in the same direction. Imagine trying to remove a large tree root by tying five ropes to it and having five people pull those ropes in different directions. A lot of energy will be expended to no avail. Now change that vision to a unified team with everyone pulling their individual ropes in the same direction. They will easily accomplish the goal.

So in addition to a shared commitment and motivation, unity allows us to focus our energies as a team, with everyone moving in the same direction. Just as companies with a strong, united vision are more successful than those without, teams and groups within such an organization will be more motivated, and thus more successful.

It is essential to develop the skills to create unity, maintain it and benefit from it. Some traits of successful team members are putting aside our ego and personal preferences, appreciating diversity, and listening with an open mind to others.

Leaving Egos at Home

During graduate school, I remember working with a group of five students to study for comprehensive exams. As a team, we were committed to ensure that everyone passed both the written and oral exams. We worked six hours a day for months, until the last team members had completed their orals. It wasn't always easy spending that much time together focused on our studies, but the mission of all of us passing helped get us through any issues we had with each other. The vision alone wasn't enough. It was also critical that each of us set aside our egos and admit to not being experts in every subject area. Without this, we may not have been willing to actually learn from each other and some team members may not have passed.

In fact, our egos could easily have derailed us, causing us to compete with, rather than support each other. Ego can be the biggest barrier to effective teamwork. If it is allowed to play a role, individuals promote their own ideas, and other contributions are minimized. The result is reduced communication among the team members which in turn, means that the overall goal is compromised.

The best solutions to problems come from unfettered discussions among people with diverse opinions. As discussed in previous articles for this series, the foundation for achieving an open flow of communication is a high level of trust between team members. Trust allows us to be open and express our ideas. But trust alone is not enough. We need to respect and value the ideas of every team member, no matter how different they may be from our own.

Throughout the course of your career, you will have the opportunity to work with people from different disciplines, countries, cultures, ethnic backgrounds, and genders. You will need to learn to understand their individual behaviors, learning styles, motivations, methods of problem solving, methods of dealing with conflict, etc. For your interactions to be truly effective, you will need to understand these characteristics in yourself as well.

There are some good assessment tools available that can help you understand yourself and your teammates, such as the DiSC® Dimensions of Behavior and the Meyers-Briggs® Personality Test.

Listening Helps Achieve the Vision

Another ongoing challenge of building unity in work teams is the ability among members to listen, distill the message and reflect back to teammates. Active listening requires us to stay focused on the speaker and thinking not of our own response, but of how the message fits into overall team goals.

The listener must avoid internal and external distractions and be engaged by asking clarifying questions of but not interrupting the speaker. Becoming an active listener takes time and practice. The benefits derived, though, will help not only the individual be a more productive employee but also allow the corporation to better achieve its goals.

Just as trust provides a good foundation for our working relationships, building unity and self-awareness is critical to our success and the success of any project. I am certain that many of you have experienced working on a team of diverse individuals where unity of vision, thought, and action was evident.

I would love to hear how these experiences differed from experiences where unity was absent, and how this has shaped your approach to teamwork. Please e-mail me at unity@colorfulsky.com.

Marc Himel

Marc Himel received his BS in physics from California Polytechnic State University in 1984, his PhD in optical sciences from the University of Arizona in 1988, and an MBA from the University of Connecticut in 1998. He has been with Tessera North America (formerly Digital Optics Corporation) since 1999 where he is currently test group manager. He has more than 35 published papers and one pending patent.

He has previously written articles for the Leadership Series on Trust in the Workplace and was interviewed for an article on integrating a moral value system into the workplace.

Posted March 2008.

Return to the SPIE Professional Leadership Series

DOI: 10.1117/2.4.200803.60

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