Leadership for Mission and Team Success

I recently attended my first meeting of the Corporate Advisory Board of the Masters of Engineering Management (MEM) program at Case Western Reserve University. The MEM program takes engineering students from around the world and furthers their skills and knowledgebase, enabling them to be better equipped to accelerate the value of their engineering background into the business environment.

Case is an interesting and dynamic institution, and the students and faculty there provide exciting insight into the possibilities of the future. An interesting aspect of Case’s culture is their focus on the commercialization of the education and research that is delivered there. The MEM program is representative of this culture. And the meeting itself was a reminder to me of the absolute necessity for continuous improvement and growth. The pace of change and evolution is so fast and dynamic now that standing still, not improving and growing, is falling behind and failing.

We see the result of some of the technologies being developed in labs and institutions from around the world as their commercialization is rolled out – almost daily. Of course, the process of how those technologies go from concept to commercialization is fundamentally a process of teams of engineers, designers, technicians, management, finance, crafts and marketers working together to achieve a goal. Within our parent company, Kajima Corporation, there is a substantial research function in Japan that researches new construction technologies. Using that team approach, Kajima then commercializes a wide variety of improvements for the built environment.

Part of our discussion at Case explored how learning and research on a project was being orchestrated across multiple locations, countries and continents. Progress is made despite the traditional barriers of cultures, languages, time zones and perhaps even laws. It made me think about how we accomplish design and construction projects across multiple disciplines, offices, companies and locations.

The foundation for this collaboration is the goal or mission of the project. What is necessary for success is a belief in that mission and the confidence that it is feasible. It is what separates basic research from commercial research. For those of us planning, designing, engineering and building complex facilities, collaboration becomes more effective once the mission is understood; when the project teams take ownership of the mission.

Ownership. I recently completed Extreme Ownership, written by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin – two former Navy Seals on how their lessons on the battlefield can be translated into the business world. Simplistically, ownership means you’ve bought into something. Buying is the result of a sales process, so achieving ownership of the mission a team is working on requires someone to “sell” the mission. Therefore, a key activity of leadership is sales. I do not mean sales in the Willy Loman sense. I mean high value, strategic, consultative and mutually beneficial sales.

Organizational dynamics has traditionally preached that face-to-face interaction and engagement is critical for a successful team, but absent that, it takes strong leadership to overcome the obstacles of disparate teams in different locations, cultures, languages and time zones. It takes leadership that comes from a clear definition of the mission and the goal of a project, with a sales process that creates ownership of the mission amongst the various project teams working on the effort.

Universities have shown that their research can overcome traditional boundaries and can be carried out in a cohesive and strategic manner to achieve the end mission. And while we have much to gain through their actual research and product development efforts, let’s not underestimate the potential inherent in the organizational process that allowed that research to be successful. Let us also not underestimate the leadership potential of those who have been successful at organizing, defining and selling the mission of the research as well.

It is not only what you think, it is also how you think.

“This required the development of a view which allowed one to integrate research with belief, thing with person, fact with aesthetics, knowledge with application of knowledge.”

Kenneth L. Pike

“Yes, in all my research, the greatest leaders looked inward and were able to tell a good story with authenticity and passion.”

Deepak Chopra