Leading Into Oblivion

Wired 4 Leadership|Leading Into Oblivion“Where were you when your greatest failure took place? Like many people, you were probably nowhere to be found. No really–think about it. While failures occur with surprising regularity, few are recognized as such until long after the senior management team, Board of Directors, staff, or member has left the room.”

The natural distance between decision-making and the delivery of outcomes leaves room for all sorts of misdirection and mischief. More troubling, there is oftentimes a huge disconnect between our decision-making methods and the assessments we deploy in measuring outcomes. All too often we seek wisdom in hindsight and deploy rationalizations to fit the moment. How often have you heard people say, “I knew that would never work?”

For the purposes of illustration let’s take the example of a nonprofit whose Board decides to spend half its cash reserves for a fast-track 12 month effort to emulate their richest and most successful trade show competitor as a way to improve its fortunes. Their competitor is one of the world’s largest and most successful industry shows with over 700,000 attendees worldwide at eight different global locations. Its annual revenues are well north of $350 million per year.

What would convince the Board of a modest sized nonprofit with a small industry show they could compete or even emulate such a behemoth? It’s hard to say definitively, but the concepts of hindsight bias and competitive escalation offer some insight. While society often recognizes and awards competitive behavior in people, in a group setting a discussion that dissolves into competitiveness often triggers impulsive decision-making behavior using faulty decision-making frameworks fraught with danger. When discussions become centered on what the group “always” or “never” does alarm bells should be going off in your head. Calling for a timeout may be the most prudent decision of all.

Calls for action based on risk-seeking such as “we’ve never tried this before” or suggestions the organization is “always too cautious” warn of competitive escalation. Group discussions stuck in the “always/never” model of debate often miscalculate and escalate their commitments before realizing later on, the enormity of the risks they have created for their organization.

While such conversations often start out innocently enough within just a matter of minutes the agreed upon targets of selling say 100 new memberships has escalated to selling 500, because they have “never” tried to sell this many before and who knows what’s possible unless we try. The foolhardiness seems obvious, but surprisingly groups will come to consensus around outrageous goals with little regard for precedent especially in the absence of hard data.

Many nonprofits require exhaustive preparation of “fiscal notes” before any decision is taken. Doing so makes certain all known and potential risks and costs are fully explored and identified. While the fiscal note policy can create some lag on decision cycles, the process also serves to protect the decision-makers and the organization from catastrophic risk and failure. Competitive behavior often compels people to only acknowledge information that confirms their position while ignoring that which undermines it. Increasing one’s commitment to a previous course of action demonstrates predictability, which is often viewed as a favorable attribute by others. In truth it’s way closer to being a “rookie mistake”.

So how did competitive escalation play out for our nonprofit group With the wind of a $1 million investment decision at their back staff  ran full speed toward the goal. New staff was hired, an advertising agency placed on retainer, contractors, event experts, a huge convention center commitment and even an in-house concierge service to ease pressure from the long work hours at headquarters were all put in place. But twelve months and a $1 million, the trade show that had been launched with such great expectations had resulted in a net gain of less than 50 new registrations. The effort was a colossal failure. Within weeks the ad agency, nonprofit CEO, and most of the newly hired staff were fired. The Chair of the Board stepped down due to the “pressures of business.”  With the harsh lessons of unrestrained competitive escalation weighing on its financial future, the organization merged and disappeared.

5 Strategies to Strengthen Member Value

5_Strategies_to_Strengthen_Member_ValueHow do you reverse a declining membership trend in a profession suffering through serious contraction? What if its members’ are passionate about their work and in it for love, not money–but annual income is low and the perception is dues are high?

When it comes to strategies to strengthen member value the short answer to this challenge is you can’t—at least not without making significant changes in how you go about assessing and communicating with sparkling clarity real member value. Defining ways to turn member’s passion into personal and professional aspirations is at the root of the member value conundrum. In this sense, form truly follows function. And that’s what’s missing from the conversation these days.

Continue reading 5 Strategies to Strengthen Member Value

5 Ways Consistent Leadership Wins

5 Ways Consistent Leadership Wins | Wired 4 LeadershipWhat’s the difference between being consistent and being predictable? When you’re talking leadership, there are five ways consistency wins every time. It is important you not confuse consistent leadership with predictable leadership. While some believe predictable leadership is the equivalent of good leadership, it isn’t even close. Sadly, much of what passes for decision-making and leadership is really nothing more than a patellar reflex to the challenges within organizations and society.

You know the reflex I’m talking about. A doctor with a small medical reflex hammer strikes the large tendon in the leg just below the your knee–producing a sudden involuntary extension of the leg.  This simple act–also known as the “knee-jerk” reaction–is far too common in political circles and hide-bound institutions. And of so little value in the world of leadership, especially in the 21st century.

In her TED X video presentation researcher and consultant Rosalinde Torres makes her case for what will make a great leader in the 21st century. She points out that “in a 21st-century world, which is more global, digitally enabled and transparent, with faster speeds of information flow and innovation, and where nothing big gets done without a complex matrix, relying on traditional development practices will stunt your growth as a leader.” She goes on to say that leaders in the 21st century are “women and men who are preparing themselves not for the comfortable predictability of yesterday but also for the realities of today and all of those unknown possibilities of tomorrow.” It’s worth watching.

When what’s needed is critical analysis and clear thinking, we too often witness the immediate unthinking and emotional reactions to events. Nearly everything has become fodder for the patellar reflex.  Whether it’s a proposal for free access to community colleges, New York City’s proposed ban on expanded polystyrene containers, or establishing relations with Cuba, those opposing new proposals are often quick to defend things as they are. While that’s not totally wrong–a free and open debate is at the root of our democracy–too often these reactions overlook important shifting evidence and newly emerging ideas.

“Organization charts make great visuals but mean little if the critical work of the enterprise isn’t getting done.”

Sadly, this form of predictable leadership so often makes the problem worse. The world we live in is complex. So are its problems. Reverting to patterns of predictable leadership won’t help solve them. In fact, the unthinking and emotional response so prevalent among hide-bound leaders often overlooks the value and opportunity that might otherwise arise from new ideas.  Educating people about ways to recycle polystyrene or exploring ways to make higher education affordable serve a meaningful purpose in society.

Many people confuse predictable leadership with consistent leadership. In truth, they are two ends of a long continuum. Predictable leadership is reactionary. Consistent leadership is visionary. Here are five ways to use consistent leadership to your advantage:

Be A Thinking Leader – Consistent leadership leverages values that underlie decision-making across the enterprise. Candor. Transparency. Clarity. Trust. Agility. If you believe happy employees are more productive employees, you have no choice but to align your behavior and culture. Consistent leaders live those choices every day, making time for conversations that matter.

Feel The Future – When you lead an organization you are always at risk for criticism, activism by social movements, or regulatory scrutiny. Consistent leaders deploy pre-emptive strategies preparing for those days to come. Rather than being reactionary and defensive, consistent leaders are able to respond with heart and sensitivity to the concerns of those critical of their company or industry. We’ve all grown weary of rote apologies and insincere expressions of concern by corporations. Being ready for inevitable failures or crisis in your industry will serve you. Be ready.

Unearth The Value of Teams – None of us does this work alone. Patrick Lencioni, the best-selling author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team and a columnist for INC. magazine wrote earlier this year about his effort to accelerate the decision-making and responsiveness of his ten person headquarters staff. Whether you work with a small team or a large one, the need for leveraging their strengths and capabilities never goes away. Consistent leaders understand the importance of nurturing people to excel in their roles and creating the structures that allow them to do so. Organization charts are great visuals but mean little if the critical work of the enterprise isn’t getting done.

Grind It Out – Consistent leadership trains your teams to anticipate your questions, seek viable options, and bring you multiple “best solutions” to the challenges at hand. Strengthening your teams capacity to cradle uncertainty while seeking to sort out resolutions to conflict or conflicting ideas will pay huge dividends. One of the best things consistent leaders do is encourage and support those around them to be tenacious and persistent in addressing problems. Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9 reusable rocket has failed to perform as expected on both take-offs and landing yet the engineers continue to chase solutions. They simply refuse to accept failure.

Be Your Best Self Leader – Among management and leadership theorists one consistent truth emerges. Consistent leaders who succeed know themselves. Self awareness,–recognizing the wake you bring to leadership, your emotional maturity and acknowledging both your strength and weaknesses goes a long way toward establishing the respect and trust of those essential to your success. Consistent leaders avoid undermining themselves by being predictable. Many leadership situations and circumstances seem familiar. Looking for the discrete differences will accelerate your own brand of consistent leadership and thoughtful decision-making.

Being a great, consistent leader is recognizing you don’t know it all. Having the courage and passion to grow your network and diversify the voices you listen to and the words you read helps immensely. Train yourself to think differently. As Steve Jobs reminds us, “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice…have the courage to follow your heart.” Predictable or consistent? What’s your leadership style going to be tomorrow?





Is Going With Your Gut Smart Leadership?

Is_Going_With_Your_Gut_Smart_LeadershipBefore we get started I have a confession to make.  I’m not the smartest person in the room.  Many of you knew that already.  I am however someone with a good bit of experience leading and consulting to organizations and Boards.  I have learned a few things about smart leadership, decision-making and the power of execution.  Here are some things I want to share for your consideration.

  • Is going with your gut smart?
  • How do you leverage your big picture skills in execution?
  • How do you execute with excellence?

This post should have been sub-titled “How I Learned to Love the Micro-Biome” because it has perfect symmetry with the notion of going with your gut. Not exclusively mind you, but as a critical component of your decision tree.  Now the micro-biome as you may know refers to the microbes that live in the human intestinal tract. They are responsible for digesting the foods we eat.  Interestingly, even though they are bacteria, they don’t make us sick, they help keep us healthy.  Without them, you would starve to death.  Some of our best decisions meet the same fate, when we don’t trust our instincts.

I think we would all agree, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, it matters whether you can achieve the goals of your organization and illuminate the aspiration of your customers.

Downsizing your dreams—-the big picture, if you will–is not the way to go.  Right-sizing your expectations is.  I don’t mean settle for less. I mean be prepared to meet your team where they are and be prepared to advance them to where they need to be.  If as the French artist Gustave Flaubert said, “God is in the details”, then I’m going to trust my gut and only pray at the largest cathedrals.

Would you agree customer networking events need name tags? Right?  Me too!  Funny thing though, in one organization they said they didn’t.  When I asked why, they said, because everyone already knows one another.  To which I replied, if they already know one another, then why are we having networking events?  They got the message.  Big picture. Little executions.

If you are a “big picture” leader, your greatest strength is not trying to retrofit your skills in execution, it is using your broad perspective to ask the right questions of your team.  There is a caveat of course, if you’ve moved to a tiny firm, you may be asking yourself the questions.  So be it.  What’s important is asking the questions and thinking through the issues and the answers.

Likewise, it’s important to realize you have allies–among your peer network, the membership or customer base and ultimately your staff.  Finding people among those three groups who will accommodate you and leverage your big picture skills is critical.

I have followed several industry veterans with long tenure.  Two of them were in the CEO seat for 26 and 39 years respectively.  Where my predecessors gave short shrift to some issues, I found manna for a strategic vision.  An example–an industry is in the throes of seismic change.  One of our customers had been pitching an industry promotional campaign for at least five years with no success.  What are the three most common complaints we hear in today’s data saturated world?  Nobody knows what we do or why it’s important/valuable/vital and we need to do more to promote our business.  That’s exactly what we did.

With lots of collaboration and about six months of steady effort, we launched an educational campaign designed to help consumers connect the dots between the environment and the responsible use of our industry’s products.  Big picture project, with lots of opportunities to leverage the detail level skills of staff, volunteers and members alike.

If there’s any secret to this process it is demonstrating you are in the game. Know the details of the game plan.  Attend the execution meetings.  Ask the big picture, strategic questions.  For our industry campaign, it was asking the obvious questions about how to focus the campaign and the hard questions about the best ways to execute the “grass-roots” campaign we envisioned. More often than not, groups move to “how” far too quickly. Your job, no different than showing “you own the numbers” when it comes to financial reporting is showing your capacity to engage with vital questions and insights.

Be the champion.  The 7 Measures of Success research published by ASAE suggests CEO’s be the broker of ideas for their organizations. I agree, totally.  Using the big picture skills you possess to make clear the strategic imperatives behind your programs and efforts is a vital part of the job.  Helping your members/customers see “behind the curtain” of your plans makes a huge difference to your success.  Our industry campaign offers valued insight.  While the campaign does not necessarily drive buyers directly to our members, it does an outstanding job of driving visitors to the association’s website–where they can learn about our members and the association.  Not everyone fully appreciated that strategy at the outset.  We broke it down for them.

None of this is a guarantee of success.  It is more akin to a compass.  You have to learn how to use it proficiently before it yields any meaningful results.  Failure is inevitable at some point along the way.  Know it. Work like crazy to avoid it. Prepare for it in any case.

Now this is important.  Do not get caught in the trap of separating strategy from execution. It is a myth, that these two processes could or should be separate.  This is a false dichotomy.  This new age invention is based on an age-old joke.  “While the surgery was a complete success, the patient died”.  Far too often, I hear claims of spectacular strategies which failed not because the strategies were bad, but because the execution was poor.

Let me be clear. Execution does not live outside of strategy. And frankly neither does your success.  If you haven’t taken all of the variables of your culture, organization dynamics, demographics, and attitudes into consideration right alongside your strategy, you’re missing a huge opportunity and a huge point of leverage.

Understand, I’m not talking about the pedestrian objections of “we’ve always done it this way” or “we’ll never be able to do this”. I  am really talking about the fine details of what will it take to be successful.  That old saw about “some people being too busy getting it done, to listen to those who say it can’t be done.” is about right.

Let me wrap up by saying this…Big picture leaders delight in seeing others achieve their fullest potential. Our sense of self comes from witnessing the success of others.  Our strength comes not from hitting targets others can’t hit, but rather from hitting targets others can’t see.

  • Take advantage of your “big picture” expertise to ask the critical questions to correct the shortcomings in execution.
  • Find those who will accommodate you.  That is, those who will gladly fly in the shadow of your creativity, innovation and strategic vision.  They thrive on getting it done and you will benefit from their knowledge.
  • Remember that execution and strategy will do more damage held separately than held together.

How do make sure you have the right team in place to support your “big picture” strategy?  So what’s keeping you from your next success?    May it’s your gut.

Five Tips for Leading Ad Hoc Teams

Five Tips for Leading Ad Hoc Teams | Wired 4 LeadershipHow do you lead ad hoc teams to do great things? If you asked five people from different divisions or departments within your organization to come together to launch a strategic event involving your CEO, department heads, multiple vendors, outside groups, and unique media demands with three or four days notice, could they do it? How about asking five complete strangers from outside your organization to do the same thing? If you’re feeling a bit skeptical, join the club.

Over the past year I’ve done just that with surprising success. I’ve also gathered an amazing collection of lessons about leadership, resilience, and innovation along the way. I’ll share some of those with you in a minute, but first a little background.

“The military adage that no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy readily applies to ad hoc teams and events produced under tight deadlines.”


What started out as an offer to lend a hand turned into a real-life adventure working with diverse teams of complete strangers to deliver high-value events under extremely tight, pressure-filled deadlines. As a team member and leader of these spontaneously formed, ad hoc groups, we have traveled the country putting up and taking down strategic events at venues across the United States. If this sounds like Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey or the traveling edition of Cirque Du Soleil, it’s more like the latter than the former. Finesse in high pressure, high-profile events, simply cannot be overlooked. Neither can leadership. Here’s what I’ve learned  leading ad hoc teams:

Get Clear on The Goals Now.
Tight deadlines create performance pressures most find uncomfortable at best and unbearable at worst. When those events are likely seen by hundreds of thousands of people you can expect exponential stress levels.  As a leader your job is to clarify immediate goals, strip away non-essential activities, and delegate responsibilities quickly. “Need to do” eats “nice to do” for lunch in these situations. That doesn’t mean surrendering your own sense of humor, civility, or kindness. It just means using those skills to strategically push your team toward expeditiously accomplishing the bigger goals.

Candor Starts With You.
Sometimes under the pressure of deadline, everyone’s needs cannot always be accommodated. The required skill is finding different ways of saying no– gracefully, politely, yet firmly. One example, in meetings with the client, hosts, and staff, I caution them on the inherent limits brought on by tight lead times. I also tell them our team will do everything we can to support their needs. There’s one simple caveat–early requests are more easily granted–than last-minute ones. As a result in environments where every change is heavily scrutinized last-minute requests remain rare. Candor helps show expectations upfront and forces everyone to make sure essential priorities come quickly to the fore.

Focus on Best Skills.
Leading ad hoc teams requires you to quickly assess capacity, capability, and character essential to task success. You have to watch for small cues and big ones simultaneously. Communications coach Nick Morgan writes in Power Cues that people who are in agreement  tend to mirror each others movements and behaviors. Undoubtedly you have your own set of heuristics. With no time for written assessments, reference checks, or team interviews with candidates, you’ll want to use them. The team in front of you is the team you’ve got. Some of them will amaze you, others will disappoint. With ad hoc teams it’s the here and now that matters. As a leader I focus the team on three things:

  • The tasks immediately at hand
  • Skills at hand–What team members do in the “real world”
  • Personal and professional accountability
  • What success and a great event will look and feel like for the team and the attendees when we put it all together.

The conversations are fast-paced, positively focused, and encompassed by the “magic” of bringing strangers together to do great things. Pride in accomplishment is a powerful motivator. You overlook that truth at your own peril with ad hoc teams. The best team members show an above average level of self-awareness, curiosity and smarts. Others toss in a bit of braggadocio.  Asking any of them to handle a complex task unfamiliar to them is a great barometer for what the week may bring. With a bit of guidance, most willingly accept the challenge. Having team members who share that “sense of adventure”, will focus on success and share expertise are invaluable.

Identify Client Needs–Sooner Not Later.
Our clients give us a broad framework for how they want to communicate their message. Illuminating that concept and garnering approval for the presentation requires us to capture and convey an extraordinary amount of information to the client. We share every detail from locations, audience and stage perspectives, backdrops, stage decor, and venue layouts to assure our client is comfortable. Leveraging all available digital tools to share sights, sounds, and images speeds this process immeasurably. Most importantly, identifying and sharing options with your client at the beginning of the work helps smooth the rest of your planning, set-up and execution. No one likes surprises.

Create Plan B. and Plan C.
Helmuth von Moltke‘s adage that “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy” readily applies to ad hoc teams and production of tight deadline events. The enemy is time. No matter how often you have done something, each new venue, marketing message, and ad hoc team presents fresh challenges. That’s not to say having a system–a project outline, checklists, or other planning tools won’t help. They will. Resilience is still required on your part. Sometimes the layout of the venue isn’t conducive to accomplishing the task. The venue floor plan you pull off the Internet fails to mention those large support beams and fire hoses strategically spanning the venue. At other times local conditions (rain, traffic, fire marshals, hotels, audio-visual firms, vendors) will conspire to impede your every effort. No matter. The easiest and most effective method having plan B and a plan C in your pocket before you even get started. What will you do if there are no backdrop drapes available in your preferred size or color? What if the electrical capacity in the venue is insufficient to handle the loads required for the event? What if the crowd expected exceeds the venue capacity? How will you handle an extremely too low or too high ceiling in a given space? Plan for it. Expecting the unexpected isn’t a cliché, it’s the reality of creating events under extraordinarily tight deadlines. Don’t get tripped up.

What About Plan D?
You’ll likely never get there at the pace I’m describing for these types of events. If you do find yourself in need of plan D, my best advice is to promptly assemble your ad hoc team, share the problem or issue, let them know the time frame for finding a solution, and by when you’ll need to make a final decision. Ask for lots of ideas and potential solutions, chat about the pro’s and con’s of each, and then make a choice. Not making a choice is still making a choice. It’s often the worst option ever. Don’t do it.

The events we create are quick, crisp experiences, intended to generate media buzz, enthrall, inform, and motivate audiences. They combine leadership lessons in communications, flexibility, information gathering, resilience, debate, discussion, negotiation, big picture thinking, people occasionally behaving badly, mastery of minute details, and a healthy dose of hyper sonic personal bonding to make it all work. When it does your clients, attendees, and most importantly your team will be grateful for your leadership. Go ahead. Give it a try.


What’s your experience working with ad-hoc groups? Does any of this make sense? How would you get started working with a group of strangers? Share your leadership tips with us.