Clowning Around

Few people know that I was a clown in high school.

Literally. I belonged to a clown troop that raised money for charity.

We raised money by running the Easter Bunny and Santa’s Elves photo concessions as the mall, dressing up in costumes and taking pictures with crying children.

But the highlight of our year was participating in the clown band.

Our clown troop leader was the drum major for our high school marching band. They excelled at playing music while executing complex marching patterns in complete unison.

The clown marching band did not do this.

We worked hard. Our drum major drilled us for days before the parade. We learned to play penny whistles, kazoos, and other goofy things. We marched up and down his driveway and street, practicing our songs and maneuvers in unison.

With one difference.

On the day of the parade, we lined up in full clown makeup and costume and, when cued, began marching. When our drum major lifted his baton, we lifted our pseudo-instruments at the ready. Then he dropped his baton, blew his whistle…

… and chaos erupted. Those of us in the back marched forwards, those in front marched backwards. The clowns on the left marched right; clowns on the right marched left. We wove ourselves into a muddle, making sounds unbecoming to a marching band, until we fell into in a huge pile in the middle of the street.

After a pause for laughter, the drum major blew his whistle again and we jumped up, scurried back into place, and marched forward – very seriously – in perfect lock-step.

When we reached a new stretch of crowd, our drum major gave a different signal. We held our instruments up, ready to play, he dropped his baton again…

…And we all ran off in different directions, clowning around: playing leapfrog, making fun of policemen, interacting with the crowd, anything except what a real marching band would do.

Until another signal recalled us to again to march seriously down the street.

The Trick to Creating Clown Chaos

The trick, our drum major drilled into us as we practiced in his driveway, was that we couldn’t just take off randomly. Each clown had to have a purpose that made sense to that clown’s character. That purpose had to be completely different from any other clown’s purpose. We had to take that purpose seriously and stay focused on it single-mindedly.

Especially if that meant running into everyone else when it was clear that we were all on different pages. Or abandoning the rest of the band to pursue our own purpose with complete abandon.

That is what made the clown band so much fun – and so funny!

What is true for a clown band is true in other organizations.

Some organizations line up very seriously and hold intense planning sessions about objectives and KPIs. And then someone says Go and the band members all very seriously run into each other and end up in a muddle in the middle of the street.

Or, when the whistle blows, they take off in different directions, each leader single-mindedly pursuing their own objectives while the CEO stands in the middle of the street, baton raised, wondering why the organization never seems to move forward.

Everyone is trying their best to do what they think will get results. They’re just not doing it together because they don’t have a shared purpose.

So they run around in circles instead of moving forward together.

Taming a Clown Band

I observed one leadership team tame their clown marching band. At first, they all got together, set goals and KPIs, and then took off in different directions, often running into each other or falling down in a pile.

Their direct reports were not amused.

Neither were the shareholders.

Finally, their drum major pulled them together and forced them to align on a direction.

It didn’t happen in a single conversation. After an initial offsite, they revisited that conversation at every single weekly team meeting. They didn’t just look at KPIs. They rated themselves on how well they performed together as a team. Whether they were marching in step. If they playing the same tune on their penny-whistles.

Once a month, they got together and did a deeper dive. They picked exercises that helped them align. These exercises achieved this by forcing them to discuss things that caused them to engage in conflict. Like discussing whether they were all interpreting performance evaluation ratings the same way. Why should direct report A be an “exceeds requirements” when direct report B wasn’t?

I regularly witnessed them doing exercises, then stepping out of an exercise to discuss – not the results of the exercise – but how well they performed it together and what they could do to improve how they worked together.

During this period, some clowns decided that marching in step was too much like hard work. Or that their direction wasn’t the direction that the rest of the band was going. Or that they didn’t like receiving feedback on how their behavior impacted the other clowns. They dropped out or were asked to leave. Others stepped in. Then the team paused and made one of their objectives to help the newcomer learn the basic steps.

At the end of six months, they all moved forward together when the drum major raised his baton.

And then they kept working on it.

When they all agreed that they had conquered one of the challenges holding them back, they replaced that objective with another. Until they were able to do those complicated half-time shows that marching bands do.

Towards the end of my time with them, they were put in charge of a huge, very public task, one that they had never been put in charge of before, that none of them had experience with. In the past, it would have been clown chaos. But they pulled together, agreed on targets, and aligned on how to achieve their objectives.

It was a huge success – and one that they never could have accomplished if they hadn’t made a decision to function as team with shared objectives and shared accountability. And if they hadn’t practiced marching in step for two years.

You Don’t Have to Work in a Clown Band

When I see organizations struggling to change, I think back on this leadership team. I know change is possible because I’ve seen it happen. But I also know how much time, hard work, and discipline it takes.

One of the biggest mistakes that I see leadership teams make is not aligning on an objective and not taking time to practice marching in step. It’s exhausting. You have to make it a priority. It feels uncomfortable. It requires building and maintaining a structure that supports you until you can march on your own.

Yes, I know you don’t have time. You have to get results right now! And so you keep racing off in a hundred different directions.

Ask yourself: at the end of this year, what is the one thing that needs to be different about your organization in order for it to survive and thrive?

Just One Thing.

Now take a look at what your leadership team is prioritizing.

How do each of those things align to your One Thing?

If they don’t align, why are you doing them?

If they do align, which are going to get you the biggest bang for your buck? Why are you doing the other things?

Can your leadership team describe how those priorities align to the One Thing?

Can their direct reports tell you? Can the people who report up to their direct reports tell you? Can the guy sweeping the floors tell you?

When you drop your baton and blow your whistle, does your leadership team march forward, weaving intricate steps, and playing in tune?

Or are they just clowning around?

Your employees want to know.

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