Many of our favorite comedians launched their careers in Improv, but it’s also a tool for leaders to communicate more effectively with their employees. And, no, it’s not about comedy or trust falls.
Charna Halpern, co-founder of iO (formerly ImprovOlympic), a Chicago and Los Angeles-based theater and training center that launched the careers of comedians like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Mike Myers, says business leaders can benefit from incorporating improvisation techniques into their leadership style. Halpern says iO emphasizes a high-level communication and collaboration.
Improv is based on soft skills such as listening and communicating. Listening is crucial because you need to be present and in the moment, Halpern says. “Most people are waiting to speak and not listening in the moment. Instead, they’re thinking of what they’re going to say,” she says. In improv, you must listen to what’s been said and pay attention so you can react appropriately. If you’re not focused on what’s happening around you, you miss an opportunity to build the scene, and the show comes to a screeching halt.
Halpern recalls doing press with actor Mike Myers for iO’s twenty-fifth anniversary a few years ago. Myers had a really bad travel experience, and arrived at the radio station with a great story to tell. After being introduced on-air, Myers tried to tell his story about how he almost didn’t make it to the show, but the interviewer barreled ahead with questions about Wayne’s World. It was a lost opportunity to share a really funny story and connect with the audience.
Nobody wants to be thought of as an idiot, Halpern says. “Improv helps to get people to work together, where they’re not afraid to make a suggestion,” she says. It creates a positive working environment, where employees know they can provide ideas without fear that they’ll be shot down.
In Tina Fey’s bestselling book, Bossypants, Fey outlines the rules of improv: Always say “YES, AND…” meaning, always agree, and add something to the discussion. For example, in an improvised scene with a partner, never say no. If you’re in a boat rowing down the river, you don’t say, “No, we’re folding laundry.” You say, “Yes, and we could really use a paddle instead of my arm.” It adds to the scene, humor can develop, and trust is established between scene partners.
Brainstorming leads to the best ideas, Halpern says. “Your best ideas can come from the silliest ideas.” By using improv tools, you’re making your team look good, listening, remembering what’s been said, and revisiting it later.
Bob Kulhan, co-founder and CEO of Business Improvisations, a company that offers high-end, experiential workshops for business leaders around the globe, says improv tools can benefit business leaders tremendously. “The core of business improv is reacting – being present in the moment at a very high level and reacting honestly,” Kulhan says. The focus of his work with leaders focuses on reacting, adapting and communicating; three core components to great leadership. “The most enlightened leaders take improv and fold it into their own leadership style. [improv] becomes a critical component of strategy,” he says.
Kulhan says while it’s important to create a safe space for people to thrive, take chances, fail, engage in “Yes, and…” types of exercises, and suspend judgment, it’s equally important to create a space for critical thinking. The former’s the time for all ideas, no matter how silly; the latter’s the time to edit: to find the ideas with potential and move forward.
“Improv on its own is incredibly powerful,” Kulhan says. In addition to helping participants find their own voices, it creates authenticity and a team-oriented atmosphere. Classes are typically offered at places like iO, Second City, or other theaters, colleges like Duke, Columbia and UCLA offer improv courses as part of their management programs. For example, Duke University offers a three-day open enrollment program for leaders called “Managing the Unexpected.” Comedy venues like iO and Second City also offer customized programs for businesses that want corporate training.