Category Archives: Staff Leadership

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.

The Five Dysfunctions of Reckless Leaders

Reckless LeadersEvery so often, someone acts out in a way that is so totally destructive and outrageous that you know it’s nothing short of reckless.  Like a child flailing themselves against the tile of a supermarket floor in tantrum, reckless leaders push well beyond the bounds of common sense, decency and civility.  They seem totally clueless about the impact of their behaviors.

A reckless leader’s outbursts are certain to have consequences — both intended and otherwise.  When leaders throw civility and decency to the wind, the results are always corrosive and damaging to the organization.  In a world where the integrity and perception of your brand is paramount, reckless leadership creates huge financial risk for your brand and your organization.

If you’re wondering how reckless leadership could hurt your pocketbook and your brand read on.  Douglas A. McIntyre writing for 24/7 Wall Street identified nine well known and generally well regarded firms with the most damaged brands.  Companies such as J.C. Penney, Apple, Groupon, Boeing and others made the list in one of two ways: by aggressively promoting a product or a business strategy and failing badly, or being involved in a corporate or personal scandal.

And it’s not just major corporations or brands.  Small organizations are at risk as well.  In late October the Washington Post ran an investigative report describing how a large number of not-for-profit organizations have quietly lost millions of dollars through significant diversion of their assets — fraudulent financial transactions, embezzlement or other criminal means.

According to the Washington Post, the “diversions drained hundreds of millions of dollars from institutions that are underwritten by public donations and government funds.”  Ranking Congressional leaders have announced they will launch investigations into the matter. Demoralizing doesn’t begin to capture the impact.  So, how else does dysfunction and reckless leadership surface in organizations?

Dysfunction 1Believing your solution is the only solution.  Talented leaders are adept at listening to input and ideas from direct reports and colleagues well before settling on a path forward.  The Reckless Leader is more prone to decide they know exactly what to do from the start and are likely to demean the ideas of others along the way.

Dysfunction 2Publicly demeaning people or berating their ideas.  I’m not talking about engaging in honest and open exploration of ideas here.  I’m talking about the business equivalent of bullying.  Recent published profiles of Jeff Bezos, Chief Executive Officer at Amazon paint a disturbing portrait of a highly adversarial culture where positive feedback from superiors is rare and promotions even rarer. While some suggest intensity is a trait commonly found in technology leaders, (think Steve Jobs at Apple) some of Amazon’s practices seem ready-made for the a path to reckless leadership.  Being the Queen of Mean creates real hazards.  Act accordingly.

Dysfunction 3Using e-mail to deliver your communications. (see Dysfunction 2).  No, e-mails don’t count as communication — especially when they become personally demeaning tirades — aimed at the recipient.  Leaders need good intelligence — ground truth — to make decisions and respond to developing problems.  Reckless leaders have great difficulty understanding why no one wants to work for them.  Having strong and healthy relationships with your teams is essential to really understanding the current workings of your organization. Anything less is truly less.

Dysfunction 4Failure to share the blame and give credit where its due.  Reckless leaders are distinctive for their singular practice of blaming others for the failures and shortcoming within the organization.  Oftentimes these blame assessments are one-dimensional views of events in which the reckless leader often is complicit.  People afraid to admit they share part of the responsibility for organizational failure create a culture where blaming others becomes the default whenever something goes wrong.  Beyond destroying accountability, how likely are you to take a risk essential to success or a breakthrough development?   What’s that sound?   Oh, it’s innovation dying.

Dysfunction 5When process becomes more important than people.  Having a plan is not the same as having a working plan.  Demanding adherence to stale procedures, outdated protocols and unworkable plans isn’t leadership, it’s organizational suicide.  For reckless leaders, the unwillingness to recognize rapidly shifting conditions or changing circumstances arising in the marketplace oftentimes results in overlooking the urgency and value of re-direction or redeployment of resources.  When that happens reckless leaders will revert to some variety of dysfunctional tactics all over again.

The circle of dysfunction and reckless leadership remains unbroken. That’s a sad reality for many organizations.  How will you make sure it’s not yours?

How Are Your Poll Numbers?

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll of 1,000 adults taken between August 27-31, 2011 found that generally speaking 44% of Americans approve of the job President Obama is doing.  51% disapprove.  The other 5% aren’t sure.  The President’s poll numbers improve when respondents were asked about issues—his handling of foreign policy (50% approval) or Libya (46% approval).

What is absolutely certain is that generally 82% of these polled Americans disapprove of the job the United States Congress is doing.  Men and women alike.  Surely as the leaves changing color in fall, we can expect a new cycle of polling numbers in the months ahead as the Presidential election cycle heats up.  Some of those numbers may give us pause.  Some will reflect our own feelings.  Our perception after all is our reality.

What is more interesting in general is that many disdain polls in governing.  There is a notion that somehow, great leaders and their visions rise above the lowly poll.  Being your own person, setting your own course or hearing the beat of your own drummer is celebrated in American leadership.  Yet too many organizations are led by the tone-deaf leader—a person unable or unwilling to listen to those around them, hear the voice of the customer—or reflect on the data streaming their way to take meaningful actions in response.

How many times have you spoken directly with a customer in the past week?  Not the ones who have called you, but ones that you have personally dialed up for a conversation?  What are they telling you about your organization?  About your team?  What perceptions are your customers/clients/members sharing with you?  Even the President holds “town hall” sessions to gather ideas and insights.

So what questions are you asking to better understand where your organizations stands?   For example, asking someone, “Based on your experience, what could we do to improve our [product/service/quality] here?” may reveal some clear action steps.  Or try asking, “If you were in my shoes, how would you respond to this situation?”  Sometimes the simple act of asking someone to “tell you more” about a given situation or issue will yield significant value.

These personal conversations go far beyond what you might discern from a member research project, an educational event evaluation or a client satisfaction survey.  As a leader, your personal outreach and your willingness to listen—and to act—are paramount to understanding and bettering your own leadership “poll numbers”.  Time to get busy.