How improv can help you become a better leader

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What do former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo and Tina Fey have in common? They are both alumni of The Second City, the legendary improvisational enterprise that began in Chicago and also houses famous stages in Toronto and Hollywood.

While Fey took her comedic talents to the small and big screen, Costolo became CEO of one of the most popular social media platforms in the world. Despite different career trajectories, the skills of improvisation have been essential in their respective fields.

In fact, Costolo credits the skills of improvisation with helping him become a more effective leader.

Improv training for business is not a new concept, The Second City’s B2B arm, The Second City Works, has been leading the charge for more than 15 years. With more than 400 client projects annually and a quarter of the Fortune 500 among its client base, Doug Hutton, Vice President of Operations, says their goal for clients is to simply make work better.

“Through immersive workshops we are applying things like agility, resiliency, active listening, communication skills; all those things that an improviser needs to be great on stage we apply them for the business world. Be that in leadership development, be that in sales training, you name it, there’s an application for it.”

And if you’re a B2B leader looking for innovative ways to inspire yourself and your team, improv could be just the ticket.

Say ‘yes’ to progress

In improv, there are no wrong answers, in fact, what you will hear most in any improv training session is “Yes, and…” By saying “yes” you are acknowledging your scene partner’s idea (or colleague’s idea as the case may be) and then building upon it to create a collaborative conversation that can, literally, go anywhere.

“You don’t have to love every idea, but you should at least love it for just a little bit. Give each opportunity, give each idea just a little bit of time to breath, see where it goes, you never know,” says Hutton.

In an age where we are forever distracted by emails, tweets, photos and newsfeeds, all downloaded to our phones every second of the day, keeping yourself from being distracted can be a challenge. Good listening skills are the backbone of success. You can’t meet your clients’ needs, or your employee’s needs if you’re not listening to what they’re trying to tell you.

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Shari Hollett, a senior facilitator at The Second City, says when she’s running a session, the gap between how good of a listener someone thinks they are and how good they actually are is often wide. Generally, most of us are thinking about what we’re going to say before someone has finished talking. Which means we’re not 100% focused on what is being said.

Hollett says to think of it as, “I’m going to empower myself as a listener…I can listen until it’s my turn to talk, and then when it’s my turn to talk I’m going to know exactly what to say because I now have all the power of information of everything you just said rather than just part of it.” At its core, improv is about paying attention, being in the moment, active listening and collaboration.

Hollett says when that time happens, when people feel like they are actually being listened to, being heard and understood, it’s a complete a-ha moment. “Improv is empowering as a tool. When you feel like nothing can throw you off your game because you’re comfortable in the moment you’re in, it’s an amazing thing for your confidence. You see the change in people when that lands.”

Improv training has also found its way into some of the biggest MBA programs in the world. Stanford, Duke, MIT and McGill are among the many that are teaching their best and brightest how to think on their feet and outside of the box.

The next generation of business leaders will be working in an ever more fast-paced and global environment. Which is why Hutton believes, “If you’ve got a team that’s dispersed remotely across the United States and Canada, they rarely see each other. If you bring them in for an improvisational workshop where they are working together with games and exercises and actually communicating with one another on a one-to-one or one-to-many level in a very personal fashion, that is super powerful in a social media age where a lot of that communication has become completely impersonal.”

Improv can build stronger relationships, increase morale and create some fun in the workplace. What have you got to lose other than your inhibition?

Photo Courtesy of The Second City Works

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Kareen Madian

Kareen Madian

Kareen Madian started her business journalism career as an intern at CNBC. As the Web Editor for MoneySense.ca and Senior Web Editor for CanadianBusiness.com she created and produced content on all matters of business related news. Whether it be personal finance, daily market activity or interviews with some of Canada’s top CEOs, Kareen’s desire to make business news exciting and entertaining for her readers is always her top priority. Kareen is based in Toronto, and in her spare time she enjoys helping the Canadian economy by shopping for shoes. Find her on Twitter here