Creating a common goal from contrasting parts

How crafting a unifying organisational purpose can be the difference between failure and success.


There are three things you might not know about Janet Napolitano, President of the University of California and former Secretary of the DHS. First, she was the longest-serving secretary of the DHS. Second, she’s not a fan of addressing border control by “building walls” – she says “build me a 10ft wall and I’ll bring you a 12ft ladder”. And third, she spearheaded a department that was an amalgamation of nearly two dozen disparate agencies. 

Famed for being a bureaucratic nightmare, Napolitano’s greatest task was to create unity among DHS staff and one common goal.

The DHS is made up of agencies spanning everything from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which manages the clean-up of natural disasters, to the Secret Service Agency, which works to protect the president. It was put together in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and had a reputation for battling with other departments, like the Pentagon, on territorial issues.

Integrating divergent activity  

With Napolitano at the helm, DHS was successfully integrated. Indeed, it became a high-performing department. So, how did she do it? 

For that, we have to go back to the start.

“I think I’ve always had a yearning to do public service,” she says. “I was heavily influenced by my parents. I practised private law for 10 years before the public sector. But finding a role where I could focus on helping improve the lives of people was incredibly motivating. That might sound weak, but when you’re starting out you have to think: where do I want to be when I’m 80 years old? That’s what propelled me to run for federal office. I had the public service itch and I decided to scratch it.”

Already, Napolitano had a sense of purpose. She was intrinsically motivated to do the work, which helped her create a set of authentic, organisational values.  

Randall S. Peterson, Professor of Organisational Behaviour and Academic Director, Leadership Institute, explains in this article  that “nurturing your organisation’s values” is one of many imperative leadership behaviours.  

He references Jack Welch’s book Jack: Straight From The Gut. The chairman and CEO of GEC wrote that leaders should look to achieve performance “in a way that shares and enacts the values of the organisation and treats people with respect”. 

Professor Peterson says leaders have to create a culture that people buy into – which involves having the right people around you. “Someone in a senior leadership role might have five or six direct reports. If one of these people creates a negative culture, the effect will filter down through the organisation,” he writes. 

“Given the pyramid structure of most company hierarchies, this can lead to a high proportion of the organisation’s headcount experiencing this toxic culture. That can put the long-term health of an organisation at risk.”

In essence, Napolitano’s next job was to scribe her vision and ask people to follow her. 

“The DHS didn’t exist before 9/11,” she says. “Congress effectively took 23 agencies from different departments and slapped them all in homeland security. They said ‘here’s your department, make us safe. Oh, and enforce all of the immigration law while you’re at it.’

“I was the third secretary, and yet I couldn’t send an email around the department because there was no one unified email system.”

So part of building a common goal was putting the nuts and bolts of the business in place. Seemingly easy, but hard to do with red tape, says Napolitano. The next task is to build your team. “How do you blend people with different laws, uniforms, phone systems and titles? More importantly how do you create a departmental ethos when people have different experiences?”

Napolitano began by simplifying the department’s mission. It modestly became: to make the public safe. She sought to build a nation more able and resilient to respond to threats by integrating policies and prioritising funding. 

And what of the diversity of her team? 

“The predominant view of research on diversity is that it can be either good or bad but, in fact, in many cases it is both,” Professor Peterson explains in this article. “Diversity is good because it gives you a different perspective, but it is bad because it makes it hard to work with each other because of the lack of social cohesion.”

What does this mean for organisations? “You need to create a culture that allows for some degree of misunderstanding but doesn’t lead immediately to a lack of trust,” says Professor Peterson. “A culture that allows for some degree of that to happen without penalising people too much and not getting overly focused on what we would call social categorisation or stereotyping.” 

Akin to this, Napolitano made sure she had people around her to challenge her thinking and help arrive at innovative solutions to complex challenges. 

“You need people to help you solve problems,” she says. “People that will help execute your vison and be honest with you. You need diversity of thought in your team, and for them to feel confident they can highlight when they think you’re not considering all the potential consequences.”

Professor Peterson says the key to uniting people is to keep listening to those around you. “If a leader stops listening, they tend to start doing what they think is best regardless of what the people around them are saying.”

You know when you’re getting it right

Napolitano knew DHS was working when it came to FEMA, the agency in charge of disasters. “It failed during Hurricane Katrina,” she admits. Four years before Napolitano’s tenure, FEMA was criticised – it was condemned of mismanagement and lack of preparation in the relief effort in the hurricane’s aftermath. The delayed response to the flooding of New Orleans, Louisiana, exacerbated public response. 

“When I arrived in post, people wouldn’t wear their FEMA shirts, they were too embarrassed – they had become a laughing stock in the US.” But years later Napolitano visited FEMA’s headquarters and saw people walking around wearing the very same FEMA shirts again. 

“By the time I left, FEMA even toured around and advised other government groups on disaster response.”

Today, Napolitano leads a university with 10 campuses, five hospital centres, and three international laboratories – in essence, disparate institutions. Unity of purpose is as vital in this new domain as it was in her government role. “I think we made great progress at DHS and I think the University of California has a unified sense of purpose now,” she ends.

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