Same Circus, Different Clowns

May 25, 2021

Once upon a time, I attended a training session that my company had arranged for all managers at its various sites.  The company made a smart decision to hire a third-party trainer, who traveled to each site in order to ensure consistency of the training and messaging.  While introducing herself at my session, our trainer established her credentials by describing her previous engagements, and how she kept coming across the same issues over and over no matter which company she was visiting.  That led her to confidently express doubt that any of my company’s situations were unique.  I thought this was a little arrogant, until she uttered the phrase, “You know, it’s really just the same circus, different clowns.”

Training Session

After I picked myself up off the floor from laughing so hard, I thought, “you know, I think that’s right - it is the same circus...”  Maybe that’s how leaders are able to transition from one industry (e.g., aerospace) to another one (e.g., automobile).  They have skills - transportable skills - that can be successfully applied to the common challenges (the circus) that face companies in all industries, no matter the environment/culture (the clowns).

Investing in Your Leadership Journey

I believe this concept is important because it can drive the decisions you make about investing in your own leadership journey.  If, for example, you are the Ops leader at a machining company, should you get yourself trained to be a better CNC operator than anyone on the floor, or should you invest energy into improving your ability to keep multifunction teams focused on an important goal?  To be seen as a valuable leader that can solve darn near any problem, I suggest the latter is what you want to get really good at.  

You still need to learn industry jargon and department-specific skills, but I think you should emphasize your transportable skills in order to become a more adaptable leader.  When you consider the state of today’s here-today-gone-tomorrow business culture, you never know when you might be faced with the reality of having to work in a different environment, either through your own choice or your company’s choice.

How to Thrive Amongst the “Clowns”

Back to the circus analogy.  If it’s true that every company is the same circus (the same fundamental issues), then what are those skills that allow you to thrive in any group of clowns (the same environment/culture).  In my adventures through life, I’ve had an opportunity to test this, as I’ve worked in multiple industries, from high-tech manufacturing to retail store sales, and different functions, from production supervisor to business unit leader.  What I’ve discovered is an exceedingly simple list of basic behaviors that work in any industry, any department, any culture:

  • Barney the Dinosaur was right.

Please and thank you are the magic words.  Whether you’re expressing gratitude for someone doing a great job on a project, or simply saying thanks to a team member at the end of another long day, get in the habit of saying these words - a lot.

  • Putting your team’s needs ahead of your own.  

That’s right, this is from the servant leadership model, where your needs are subordinate to those of your team.  When the production team is under a lot of pressure to ship products, using your lunch break to go get them treats for their lunch break is highly appreciated.  By the way, that action does not go unnoticed by the troops.

  • Getting things done requires relationship building.  

We all know ‘heroes’ who work alone, have all the answers, then take all the credit for often sketchy results.  While that may be tolerated in a specific situation, it won’t translate well to a different environment - those individuals will often be limited in their ability to grow beyond their existing box.  You want to be able to get things done with and through others; that’s the essence of being on a team.

These tips may seem underwhelming at first glance, but here’s a challenge: make a list right now of all the people you know who can check off all three boxes.  I bet it’s a short list (I also hope you were able to list yourself!).  If you think a little deeper about item 3, for example, successful relationship-building generally depends on having a manageable ego, an ability to listen, and a high emotional intelligence quotient.  These are the underlying skills you might want to consider investing in.

So if you ever find yourself in a different circus, be assured it’s similar to the previous circus, and make a commitment to continuously hone the skills above to maximize your adaptability and transportability.  Also, make sure to grab a bag of peanuts and enjoy the clowns!

Wayne Olson

Wayne is a global manufacturing executive with 30+ years of experience in high technology business unit and operational leadership roles. He has extensive background in the semiconductor industry, capital equipment products, and engineered solutions. Along his career journey, he has made – and hopefully learned from – many mistakes. By sharing his lessons in leadership development, continuous improvement, and business competitiveness, Wayne is hopeful that readers will pick up a few nuggets they can add to their own personal development toolkits. Wayne resides in the Twin Cities and holds a BS-Chemical Engineering and an MBA from the University of Minnesota.

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