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How Improv Can “Improve” Your Career

In case you hadn’t noticed, Improv is having “a moment.” Most people know Second City in Chicago, Whose Line is it Anyway? and Saturday Night Live, but you can find improv clubs in every major city across the country. And most clubs offer training programs for the general public. I know–I graduated from the Second City program in Chicago. What you may not know, is how improv can enhance your leadership skills. Here are four things leaders can learn from improv training:

1. How to focus and be present in the moment.
Think about it–on most days, we are overwhelmed with decisions, information, and people competing for our attention. We multi-task or jump quickly from one thing to another–in a struggle to keep up. In improv, your only job is to be fully present, and respond to what’s said to you on stage. If you’re multi-tasking, or distracted, you can’t do your job. Through improv, you learn the lesson of hyper-focus– an increasingly valuable, and rare experience in the modern world. People you lead crave your undivided attention, and more importantly, a sign of your authentic interest. How many times a day are you distracted, or checking your phone when talking to someone? Or you forgot something because you lacked focus and attention?

2. How to be a better listener.
Along with being hyper-focused, an improviser must be an active listener. If you’re focused on the other person, but thinking about what you’re going to say next, you can’t do your job. Things move fast, and since your job is to react to what you’re given by another performer–you need to know exactly what they said. How many of us are preparing a rebuttal in our head instead of listening to what someone else is saying in an important meeting? Did that help you understand their position?

3. How to collaborate effectively.
The first rule of improv is to say, “yes, and”–which means listening to what someone else says and building upon it. In organizations, there’s a lot of ‘no’ and ‘but’. Meetings can be competitive and parochial, with people eager to protect turf and promote their own ideas. Using the “yes, and” technique, someone makes a statement such as “I want to buy a car.” The next person may add “Yes, and it will have leather seats.” The next person may add “Yes, and it will be red.” As silly as this sequence may sound in a senior team setting, the idea is to get people to collaborate and understand that any idea that’s brought to the table can be accepted, added upon and made better. Have you, or your team ever shut down a bright-eyed newcomer who offered an idea, by saying “no, we’ve tried that already”, or “yes, we know about that–but you just don’t understand the bigger picture here”?

4. How to think, and speak, on your feet.
As mentioned, your only job as an improviser is to be present in the moment and respond to what’s offered. Contrary to popular belief, your job is not to be funny. Funny happens, but only as a result of doing your job. And you must react to exactly what’s said–no matter how strange it may seem. This realization can freak out even the most confident person. However, regular practice results in a remarkable ability to think, and speak on your feet–an essential skill for leaders. How many times have you been in a meeting or gathering where someone asked you to stand up and spontaneously address the group regarding a project, or suddenly there’s a reporter, news camera and a microphone waiting for your reply?

Studies show that people learn most effectively when they actively participate, and three things are present: construction (something I can create), cognition (feedback on my creation) and community (learning with others). Improv training, whether in a workshop or a long-term program offers all three. Yes, And it’s also fun.

Learn these and other valuable skills in “Improv and Improve | Leadership and Life Lessons of Improv” Find out more. Click here.

Panelist on Learn from the Experts Webinar Series

Craig is excited to be a panelist for a webinar next Tuesday on Involving the Community in the Creation of your Vision.

When done right, Community Visioning  can be used to develop consensus about the needs, wants and values of different groups within the community. By establishing shared goals that align with community priorities, community visioning can also inspire a greater sense of belonging and trust with residents.

So why aren’t all municipalities involving the community in their visioning process? Gathering information from residents and acting on that feedback isn’t always easy!

In this webinar, you’ll learn:

  • What is community visioning, and what are the key benefits?
  • Complexities to consider when involving the community in your visioning process
  • The role of technology in engaging the community
  • And much more!

Date: May 29th, 2018
 11am PST / 2pm EST
Duration: 1 hour


Never the Wrong Time to do the Right Thing

If you live long enough, or are entrusted with leadership, you’ll eventually confront statements and actions so egregious you cannot ignore them. By taking a public stand against them – and rejecting concerns of political expedience and social condemnation – you maintain the social compact, provide a model of courage, and confirm our humanity.

Today is a good day to reflect on the courageous acts and sacrifices made pursuing a just, equitable society, and the need for vigilance, and continued action.

“Cowardice asks the question, it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vantiy asks the question, is it popular?
But, conscience asks the question, is it right?

And there comes a time when we must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because it is right.”

-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Self-Awareness, Authenticity, and Insults

I was in my car listening to the radio when I heard the news about the death of Don Rickles. For those too young to have experienced Rickles—he was an “insult” comic—a unique comedy genre (a current example would be Triumph the Insult Comic Dog). His tongue-in-cheek nickname was “Mr. Warmth”.  The radio station was replaying an interview that covered a variety of questions about his career and personal life. At one point, he was asked how he ended up at the top of the industry—whose style he copied, and who his role models were. His simple reply “…I didn’t try to copy anybody—I could only be me—so I did that, and it worked out.” He went on to elaborate that he had a natural talent for insults and making insult situations humorous, so he worked hard to cultivate that ability. He was a trained actor, and in fact, had success in that arena, but his primary love was comedy. He wasn’t good at telling jokes, or doing observational humor—so he stuck to insults. He used his natural talent to be happy, and ultimately, successful.

We all have natural gifts and things we are passionate about. Using our gifts and pursuing our passions is fulfilling. The ultimate expression of this is being “in the flow”. Rickles understood the flow. Unfortunately, many of us lead lives we endure rather than enjoy, or select for security rather than fulfillment. While real-life requires us to perform tasks that don’t excite us or maximize our talents, we can create a life that minimizes time spent on these “non-aligned” activities. We can start today, rediscover our natural talents, clarify our passions, and create a path toward maximizing “flow-time”. If you’re at mid-life, with a mortgage, family, and debt, this may seem unrealistic. But before you give up, consider the cost of staying where you are.  It would be an insult to your true self to do less.

Best Case, Worst Case, Most Likely Case

Self-awareness and mindfulness, it turns out, are important to conquering negative thinking.

Personally, I seem to be hardwired to ruminate on negative occurrences, real and imagined, so it’s important for me to look at my thinking and ask, “What is the best outcome, worst outcome and most likely outcome in this situation?” I nearly always come to the conclusion that the worst case isn’t likely — and therefore not worth giving time and effort to worrying about it.

The authors of this article offer similar advice and many other ways of addressing negative thinking.

Words Matter

Intimacy brings about stronger emotions and feelings.
We influence, lead and relate to others through our choice of words. We can build up, or tear down someone with a few words. We establish and maintain organizational culture by the words we use and the ideas they promote. We lead by example through the demonstrated alignment of our actions and aspirational words.

We are also accountable for our words.

The demonization of others through hate-filled speech has consequences. We owe it to each other to call out, and hold accountable, those among us who promote hate and incite division.

Self-Aware, Situationally Aware, Emotionally Aware

Self-awareness, situational awareness, emotional awareness. Mastering each of these is important in the development of mature, thoughtful, and caring human beings.

Understanding that we are the sum total of our experiences can help us become more self-aware, enabling us to move beyond our current limitations. Understanding the roots and creation stories of our current environments — be they supportive, demeaning, challenging — offers the key to situational awareness and how to adapt. Being aware of our emotional triggers — for example asking ourselves a simple question like “do I want to be right or effective?” — provides valuable insight into how to deal with stress, fear or other factors that motivate emotional reactions.

Seth Godin, brilliantly offers a perspective that challenges us to think about our awareness — and our actions — and to be our best selves.

Sisyphus, Heroes and Happiness

“…The true hero is the unsung one who does his or her daily shift, puts food on the table for the children, gives them an education and a roof over their heads.” –Camus

In business, and society generally, we need leaders. And in both cases, we depend upon a collective effort to achieve great things. One of the unfortunate by-products of these facts is the assigning of “hero” status to all manner of leaders, and the admonition that happiness comes with major achievements.

While there are certainly heroes amongst successful leaders, and it’s true that being part of a group effort is fulfilling, we often overlook the fulfillment that comes from having a clear task and a purpose and attending to it faithfully every day. (And the heroic effort it can take to simply persevere.)

As this article points out, Sisyphus is viewed with derision for the repetitive (seemingly fruitless) task of rolling the boulder up the hill, when in reality, he may have been living out his purpose and gaining dignity in fulfilling it every day.

A good reminder of the heroic, and fulfilling lives around us.

Define the Problem

Success depends upon how we frame the problem(s).

Albert Einstein once said, “If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.” Bill Gates said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”

Our busy lives demand quick assessments and multiple decisions every day. However, the key to long-term success in organizations — and life — depends upon figuring out, and implementing, the right long-term strategy. And successful strategy depends upon accurate definition of problems. Whether you are on a Board, are the Chief Executive, or you’re planning your personal development, this is a critical skill to master.

Here’s an article to dive deeper into the subject.

70 Acres in Chicago Cabrini Green

I highly recommend this outstanding documentary.

It tells the story of the Cabrini Green public housing development located on the most hotly contested 70 acres of land in Chicago. Filmed over 20 years, it offers a glimpse into the challenges of addressing informal and institutional segregation, the needs of the poor, and the failures of public housing in the mid-20th century.


I was involved in a similar effort in Minneapolis in the 90s — working to deconcentrate poverty and address redevelopment of a 73-acre former high-rise public housing site — a daunting task.

This is great civic education. It will be repeated in Chicago, with broader distribution later in February — look for it.

Civics Lost — No Apparent Priority in Education

My friend, Steve Harding, shines a light on the unfortunate decline in required civics education. In my view, without a broader understanding of our system of governance, particularly its roots, we can easily devolve into chaos (some would argue we are there right now) as we haphazardly seek to balance interests and power. I think the following excerpt captures it well:

“It should be argued that both citizens and institutions alike must continually espouse our commonalities amongst a growing environment of diversity. This requires a collective fundamental understanding of the nation’s unique system of governance. It is a revisitation of what Seymour Martin Lipset calls ‘Americanism,’ the knowledge of the interrelationships of liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, republicanism, democracy and the laissez-faire notion toward business.”

Given our now daily scramble to sort out challenges to the constitution, or at least the separation of powers- it would be comforting to know that the citizens of our country had at least a minimal understanding of our system of governance, and the limits of power. Perhaps this will be the catalyst for a change in our educational system.

Thanks, Steve, for your enlightenment.

Walk a Mile in My Shoes?

I just watched the movie “Hidden Figures.” It was about a group of talented African-American women working for NASA in the early 1960s who played key roles in America’s race to the moon — despite an oppressive Jim Crow system. It’s a good movie and a well-told story — and I’m glad it was made.

Upon reflection, it occurs to me that emotional reactions to it might vary substantially. I’m guessing that white audiences will “feel good” about the women’s determination and triumph over Jim Crow (yep, okay, that’s in the past). On the other hand, I’m guessing (but can never really know) that African-Americans’ reaction might be sadness and pain over yet another depiction of a horrible system that was only recently changed — within the lifetimes of many.

Hollywood is likely patting itself on the back for highlighting this story and the grit of the women involved. While admirable — why not use the opportunity to also see and feel the circumstances of another? In addition to appreciating the women’s resilience, perhaps we can all reflect on the plight of African-Americans — who still feel the pain of Jim Crow — and its many subtle (and not so subtle) manifestations today.

Learning to empathize with the experiences of those with a starkly different reality is an important task for mature, thinking, and feeling adults. The movie offers a chance to practice, and a good reminder in an increasingly separated, and polarized world.

Leadership Lessons of Martin Luther King, Jr.

On the birthday of one of history’s great inspirational figures, it’s a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the leadership lessons of Martin Luther King, Jr.Many things have been written about his leadership, but my personal favorites are:

Many things have been written about his leadership, but my personal favorites are:

1. Know your “why.”
King didn’t deliver the “I have a Plan” speech, he delivered the “I have a Dream” speech. As leadership guru, Simon Sinek, famously says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” King was a master at communicating his “why” to the world.

2. Embrace your fear.
One of Martin Luther King’s greatest strengths was his ability to openly share his fears–and to face them. He was afraid before many speeches, but said, “if you’re not afraid, you’re not engaged…face your fears.” This emboldened his followers and helped him (and them) persevere. Wise advice for facing change — be it organizational or societal.

3. Encourage involvement.
People — your employees and groups — want to be part of something greater than themselves. King was often heard to say, ”people derive inspiration from involvement.” A good reminder to those of us who seek to motivate others.A great book to learn more about the leadership genius of this iconic man is ”

A great book to learn more about the leadership genius of this iconic man is “Martin Luther King Jr. On Leadership-Inspiration and Wisdom for Challenging Times.”

15 Reasons We Need Friends

Due to circumstance, professional position or personal choice, we can find ourselves feeling alone, or carrying the burden of: “I’m the only one who can”…(fill in the situation).

Unfortunately, many of us (certainly me at an earlier age) fall prey to a pattern of thinking that tells us that it’s virtuous to shoulder great responsibility alone, and overcome challenges exclusively through personal fortitude. These unfortunate but common beliefs can linger for years, and take a toll on our health and outlook — but they need not.

Friends — of all sorts — particularly close, trusted friends, help us learn, face challenges, and thrive. The benefits of cultivating personal resilience notwithstanding, we live more fully — and are more healthy — by cultivating and sustaining friendships. This article and the book it references are an invaluable reminder about the benefits of friends.

Reach out to one today!

The Death of Expertise

Twenty years ago, a mentor used the phrase “truth by assertion.” A memorable (and at the time, accurate) observation. Little did I realize how prescient it would be.

While I’m not naive enough to think that our current public discourse and policy-making will change overnight, I think it’s worth taking a step back to consider the value of expertise in leadership and the establishment of public policy. Just as an engaged citizenry and legitimate debate over competing values are crucial to our democracy, so too is a healthy respect for experts and facts.

This article offers an interesting perspective on the subject–particularly this admonition:

“…it should be clear now that intellectualism makes for lousy policy without some sort of political common sense. Indeed, in an ideal world, experts are the servants, not the masters, of a democracy. But when citizens forgo their basic obligation to learn enough to actually govern themselves, and instead remain stubbornly imprisoned by their fragile egos and caged by their own sense of entitlement, experts will end up running things by default. That’s a terrible outcome for everyone.”

Something we should all think about.

Why Do I Get up in the Morning?

I once worked for someone (CEO) who said that after he retired, he’d come back as an assistant to the CEO — enabling him to maintain intellectual stimulation while providing counsel and mentorship to others. That never happened, but the movie “The Intern” and the real-life senior intern chronicled in Fast Company, describe the very real human need for purpose and “a reason to get up in the morning.”

Unfortunately, both depict the stereotypical Millennial-Baby Boomer disconnects, but ultimately they come around to showing the struggles people have figuring out how to channel their passions and skills — at mid-life and beyond. This is particularly relevant now — since the number of seniors will grow from 44 million to 88 million by 2050.

Check out my workshop “Refresh, Reboot or Reinvent? (Re)Discovering the Purpose and Passion in Your Work and Life” to help you unlock the answer to “why do I get up in the morning?”

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