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Finding Common Purposes Amongst Differences

I was very fortunate to have started my career in a well-managed American global enterprise in the 1990s, with a proper career development plan for young employees ahead of its time. Other than managing its business by geographic markets, the company grouped its revenue sources under three major business divisions, a common practice in many large FT-500 companies.

As part of my development plan, I was relocated from one geography to another, and from one division to another, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I remember one day, just feeling it was not quite right. I didn’t quite understand why I was working in the “XYZ division” within the company. Was I in a “company,” or did I belong to a “division”? The word “company” is from the Latin word “companio” – i.e., one who eats bread with you. While the word “division” is from the Latin word “divisionem” – i.e., an act of separating into parts, portions, or shares; a part separated or distinguished from the rest; state of being at variance in sentiment or interest? To me, it sounded like an oxymoron, and I struggled at the thoughts of exactly what it meant, and feeling awkward each time I had to state I was from the “XYZ division.”

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I wondered how one could achieve a united company goal while managing a business structure with multiple divisions, but I was young and novice; hence I did not raise my issue with my managers.

Now, slightly more seasoned, I begin to understand how this can work, and in fact, it is how it works in our societies. One may have heard of the inter-collegiate rivalries. The most famous of it will likely be the annual Boat Race rivalry between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. While one may think Oxford is better known for humanities and politics, and Cambridge for sciences and engineering, these two oldest universities in England, collectively known as Oxbridge, are known to produce prominent leaders.

In London, my college’s mascot, Reggie, the lion, has been kidnapped many times by students from rival colleges and sustained numerous injuries. Gladly Reggie survived. In China, a similar rivalry also exists between the two top education institutions – Beijing (北大) and Tsinghua (清华), and not mentioning amongst the Ivy-leagues and the closely watched college basketball and football games in the USA.

Competitions, intercollegiate rivalries form a part of our education system. These include healthy sports, passionate debates, pranks, games, etc. While these youths may represent different camps, they share a common goal: the vision of achieving excellence in the competition. If you are an excellent athlete like the Olympians, you have the same purpose as your peers, that is to perform at one’s best as we compete.

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Competitions and differences are good only if we can find a common shared purpose. It has driven humans to the epitome of excellence, which gave rise to great inventions that have changed the world and how we live.

It is important for us to look around at our workplaces and communities. Instead of dealing with differences, perhaps it is more important to focus on finding the common goals. As leaders, finding that and successfully communicating it will be the holy grail to propel organisations to the next level of success, especially in a cross-cultural and diverse team.

As a side note, though, I am now less perturbed about naming business units as “divisions,” I think I will still prefer to choose a different term if I had a say. What about you?

‘Finding common purposes amongst differences!’

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