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The Future of Work

Why Top Companies And MBA Programs Are Teaching Improv

Executive MBA programs at Duke, MIT, UCLA, and Stanford have realized that leaders need training in how to fail.

Why Top Companies And MBA Programs Are Teaching Improv
[Photo: Flickr user r. nial bradshaw]

It’s the standard business school storyline: A manager decides to get an executive MBA degree and starts classes with a bit of a chip on her shoulder.

"You may have reached that point in your career where you’re middle management, you’ve done many things right, you’ve had some failures that you’ve learned from, [and] you could be molded into thinking you’ve figured some things out," says Michael Desiderio, executive director of the Executive MBA Council, a nonprofit association that works with more than 200 universities and colleges that offer executive MBA programs.

"You think there are some things you know, and you quickly figure out your peers can help you identify what you don’t know by asking challenging questions that you wouldn’t have even thought of, because you have one frame of reference," he adds. "It completely changes how you think about enterprise and business."

Executive MBA programs—designed for senior professionals who have at least seven years of experience—have been a way for managers to develop an edge in their business acumen. Depending on the program, training consists of rethinking standard leadership practices and management structures, and immersing students in specific foreign cultures with programs catering to new professions, like a wine-intensive MBA program.

The thing is, if you’re going to cultivate exceptional leaders, you’re going to need some innovative training. Enter improvisational classes, which may not be the first thing that comes to mind when putting together an executive MBA curriculum, but Desiderio says can be very effective in helping leaders identify—and admit—their deficiencies. So much so that dozens of mega companies, like Google, PepsiCo, and McKinsey have included improv sessions in their own corporate training.

On these training grounds, things rarely go as planned. Consequently, students are forced out of their comfort zone and think on their feet, which sounds like something all future leaders should be able to do. Getting thrown a curveball while in training—like dancing or singing—is believed to increase collaboration, creativity, and an openness to risk-taking. For effective leadership to take place, says Desiderio, leaders must be able to bridge what they do and don’t know, which is easier to identify when you’re out of your element, uncomfortable, and stretching how you think.

Top-tier business schools teaching improv classes include Duke, MIT, UCLA, and Stanford. Notre Dame's Executive MBA program offered improv classes as recent as this past July.

The underlying axiom is that curveballs don’t just happen on stage at improv classes; they also happen in the ever-changing business world. When you’re on stage, unsure of what will happen, and are forced to go along with whatever suggestion your fellow actors offer with a "yes, and" response, that means you’re always accepting—and building upon—whatever others are doing or saying as part of your own storyline. This kind of cooperation is said to inspire adaptability, which becomes a particularly useful skill to have in the current global business landscape.

Additionally, the improv classes force students to actively listen, which in turn make them better communicators. "As an executive, an aspiring manager, you need to learn how you can influence people, and that’s done largely in how you communicate," explains Desiderio.

Obviously, managers don’t need to get an executive MBA degree to get what’s offered in an improv class, but Desiderio says this is just one tactic these programs are using to help leaders identify their deficiencies. What does give executive MBA students an advantage is being in a peer group where they're able to collectively solve business cases and learn how to communicate, take risks, and recover from failure.

"Clearly, a business leader of today is in need of any advantage they can get," advises Desiderio.

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