How Improv Can “Improve” Your Career

Category: Leadership
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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.

Self-Awareness, Authenticity, and Insults

Category: General
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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.

Define the Problem

Category: General
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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.