“You are about to be assigned to a small group. You will be given a task that will require preparation, planning, coordination, and team work. You need to complete this task and be ready to go in exactly three hours. Is that clear?”
The crowd of more than 100 participants shouted back, “Yes!”
This was day four of a five-day intensive personal growth workshop out in California called Lifespring. I signed up for this program because I was struggling with my career direction at the time and needed a fresh perspective on who I was and where I was headed in my life. Plus, all my New Age friends were big fans of Lifespring and highly encouraged me to attend. Although somewhat skeptical, I was willing to try anything.
The facilitator continued. “Each group will get a unique challenge. Know that the people in your small group are there because you all have something in common.”
As the large group of participants began breaking into their assigned smaller groups, I couldn’t help wondering who I’d be paired up with and why. I’d been in this workshop for three-and-a-half days and had no idea how I was being perceived by the facilitators. Surely I stood out enough to be put in a group of likeminded successful professionals, I reasoned as I turned the corner towards the maze of meeting spaces off the hotel lobby.
I glanced to my left where a group of women were gathering and hugging each other like they’d just won an award. I nodded as I passed, admiring their energy. To my right was a co-ed group forming, laughing and high-fiving each other like they’ve know each other for years.
I hope that’s my group, I mused as I headed towards them. Just then a loud shout came from the other side of the hallway.
“Greg, we’re over here!”
I looked up and instantly winced to myself, You’ve got to be kidding me! This must be a mistake!
Over in the corner were four men, each looking more out-of-place than the other. Frank, the only one I knew, was waving me over.
“You made it!” he said, and proceeded to introduce me to the others. “Greg, this is Paul and that’s TJ and Alfredo.”
We all stood there for a moment, awkwardly staring at each other. I tried as best as possible to mask my disappointment. You see, these men did have something in common. They were the quiet guys in the workshop who never actively participated or spoke up. You know, the kind of participants who always keep to themselves and make no effort whatsoever to connect with anyone, let alone me. So why am I in this group? I lamented quietly. These guys are losers! I just don’t see the connection!
Now granted my initial assessment of the group wasn’t fair. I didn’t know these men. And the only reason I knew Frank was because we briefly chatted in the lobby the first morning. I needed to try to make this work. After all, there was a reason we were together…even if it didn’t make sense to me at the time.
“Now that we are all here, I’ll go ahead and read our stretch assignment,” said Paul, by far the tallest member of our group.
“Stretch Assignment? This should be interesting,” I said as we all braced ourselves.
Paul began, “The following assignment is unique to your group and tailored for the individuals in it. You have exactly three hours to do the following:
1. You are to become the Pointer Sisters.
2. You are to dress and look like the Pointer Sisters.
3. You must be prepared to sing their song, “I’m So Excited!”
4. The song must be sung in acappella.
5. You will perform the song in front of all the participants.”
“Is this a joke?” asked TJ, looking like he had just woken from a bad dream.
“And who the hell are the Pointer Sisters?” added Frank.
I jumped in on the whining. “And what do they mean by acappella? I’m hoping it means the short version of the song?”
Paul shook his head. “Dude, it means we have to sing it without music,” causing the rest of us to look at each other in complete shock. “In other words,” he continued, “we’re screwed!”
By this point most of the other groups had already raced out of the hotel as if this was some sort of competition or an episode of The Amazing Race.
“Let’s get to the mall,” shouted Alfredo. “We need dresses. We’ll go in my van.”
“Wait, what…,” I cried, “we’re buying dresses?” But to no avail as the men took off towards the parking lot. I went after them.
Alfredo himself looked like he was a member of the ZZ Top band with his long beard and matching ponytail. And his beat up van only added to the mystic. But it was definitely the slight stench of marijuana coming from the walls of his van that made me feel like I was an extra in a Cheech and Chong movie.
“Got any munchies?” I joked as we sped off. No response.
Frank was frantically searching his iPhone when he shouted, “Here they are.”
“Who?” asked Paul.
“The Pointer Sisters performing on YouTube,” replied Frank, as he began passing the phone around. “Brace yourselves.”
As each of us took turns watching, the van became uncomfortably quiet. Finally, TJ broke the silence. “We’re in big trouble!”
We all broke our laughing, realizing the absurdity of this assignment.
“Guys, guys! Here’s what we’ll do,” suggested Paul. “Let’s just get in, grab some dresses, and get out. We’ll figure the rest out later.”
“Again with the dresses,” I teased, noticing the laughter had now morphed into uncomfortableness and fear.
“Are we really going to do this?” asked Alfredo, as we pulled into Orange County’s version of the Mall of America.
“I don’t think we have a choice,” replied Paul. “Let’s just do it!”
Without hesitation, we all jumped out of the van and took off running…but in different directions. No conversation, no plan, no nothing. It was the oddest thing. So much for the bonding experience, I mumbled and quickly chased after Frank, the slowest one.
Time was becoming a factor as more and more panic set it. Frank and I ran towards the mall directory when my cell phone rang. “Greg, it’s Paul. Come over to the Super K-Mart. They have cheap clothes here.”
I grabbed Frank and we hustled over as quickly as we could, dodging people left and right on our way. Within minutes all five us had reunited around the women’s clothing isles in Super K, pulling every cheap dress off the rack.
“Where’s TJ?” shouted Paul.
“Oh no!” cried Frank as he spotted TJ coming out of the next isle, waiving a handful of wigs in the air.
“Guys, I got the last five wigs from the Halloween isle.”
“And I found some lipstick and eyeliner,” added Alfredo.
I could only shake my head. What have I gotten myself into?
“We’ll dress in the van,” screamed Paul, directing us towards the doors.
I looked at my watch. “We’re down to 75-minutes.”
We sprinted to the van and piled in for the second time. Frank then pulled out his iPhone where he had downloaded our song, “I’m So Excited,” and began playing it as we sped back to the hotel.
“Luckily there aren’t a lot of words,” I said, trying to lightened the mood.
As we approached the hotel parking lot, we could see all the other groups from the program spread out across the lot practicing dance moves to music. The scene could have passed for American idol tryouts as each group worked on their choreography.
“At least we’re all doing the same thing,” said Paul, clearly feeling a little relieved.
“Yeah, maybe five white guys imitating three black women won’t stand out as much,” sarcastically added Frank.
With time running out, we frantically dressed in the back of the van and attempted to apply eyeliner and lipstick before setting up a mini dance studio in our corner of the parking lot, carefully using Alfredo’s van to block us from the other groups.
“Now what,” pleaded TJ.
“We…dance…I guess?” replied Frank.
“No one said anything about dancing,” said Paul. “I think we just sing the song.”
“I know. Let’s stand together in a line and clap our hands to the song as we sing,” I suggested. “Besides, we don’t have time to put a dance together anyway.”
Just then a loud horn sounded from the hotel. Our time was up. Whatever we were going to do would have to be improvised.
“But we’re not even close to be ready,” cried Alfredo. “Maybe they’ll give us more time?”
“It’s too late buddy,” said Paul. “We just need to do this.”
My heart was pounding as we walked towards the main entrance…not to mention being in K-Mart dresses, wearing cheap Halloween wigs with poorly done makeup our our faces. But it didn’t matter. I knew enough about these kind of moments to know that Paul was right; we just needed to do it. This was about the experience; not whether or not we looked like or sounded the Pointer Sister.
The large ballroom was buzzing as each group nervously awaited the start of the show. Suddenly the lights dimmed and a big spotlight appeared in the center of the room. The buzzing slowly dissipated to a low murmur when an amplified voice began speaking.
“And now I’d like to introduce our first performance of the evening. Singing acappella, please welcome the Pointer Sisters!”
The crowd went crazy as the five of us made our way to the front of the room. We lined up together as planned while the first part of the song played over the loud speakers to help get us started. Right away we began clapping and bellowing out the chorus as the music slowly dissipated, leaving our off-key voices without accompaniment.
Now I have to be honest here and say my memory of what transpired next is a little foggy.
I remember that we instantly broke off in five different directions (surprise, surprise) while belting out the words, “I’m so excited,” over and over and over again. Clearly none of us could recall any of the other words to the song. I also remember going into the audience and kissing as many women on the cheek as I could find. And although I have no idea why I did that or what it had to do with the song, I must say it did create a diversion of sorts from what seemed like the longest 4-minutes of my life.
But when it was all said and done, we did it. And when our song was over, all the other participants swarmed in and lifted each of us up in air, as if we had just scored the winning goal in the World Cup finals. I must say, I’ve never felt that level of exhilaration in my life before (or since) as I did right then.
The rest of the evening followed the same format. Each group performed and got to experience the exhilaration of being lifted in the air afterwards as well.
As part of our graduation activities the next day, we were asked to reconvene into our small groups to debrief the previous day’s experience. The discussion in our group went something like this:
Paul: That was fun. More fun that I ever expected.
Me: The fun for me didn’t kick in until the song was pretty much over and I knew we were done.
TJ: I was pretty much uncomfortable the whole time.
TJ: That wouldn’t be how I like to have fun. But that’s just me.
Alfredo: I had a blast. And I appreciate getting to know your guys.
Frank: I too was uncomfortable but like Greg started to enjoy it towards the end. Being lifted up by everyone was pretty cool.
Me: So what, if anything, did we learn?
Paul: Regardless of the different levels of anxiety that activity raised in each of us, we still came together and succeeded. For that we should be proud of ourselves.
Alfredo: I realize the tight time frame was part of the test to see how we’d do under pressure but I would have enjoyed spending some time getting to know each other. That part was missing for me.
Me: Me too. Without that relationship piece, I didn’t feel as connected to you guys. We could have been a stronger team with a deeper connection. And to be honest, getting through that experience felt more like an individual accomplishment than a team accomplishment for me.
TJ: Good point. It was more of an individual victory for me than a team victory as well.
Paul: So relationships do matter in teams.
Frank: Yes. We were successful around the task but not as successful around the relationship aspect. Had we also taken the time to bond a little, imagine how amazing that ending would have felt!
Me: So what’s our takeaway?
Alfredo: Relationships matter on teams and it’s important to pay attention to that in addition to whatever the task is in order to be successful.
Paul: Amen brother! And can I say one more thing?
Paul: You guys are the ugliest chicks I’ve ever seen!
Greg Giesen is the Manager of People Development at the University of Denver and brings over 25-years of experience in leadership development, management coaching, conflict mediation, team building, and keynote speaking. He’s also the author the award-winning novel, Mondays At 3: A Story for Managers Learning to Lead.