Improv-Bization: Business lessons from the world of comedy

So, the pressure is on. But that’s okay because it's really about how you “show up.” In fact, just showing up is a big step. As leaders, there’s always a part of our conscious and subconscious mind that questions whether our actions, what we say, and what we do will be received with gusto. Maybe we’ll be met with criticism, judgment, or worse — become irrelevant. Once we accomplish something great, like write a well-received blog, the expectations are there and we start feeling like we need to live up to the facade created by that old cliché, “everything we touch turns to gold.” However, we aren’t perfect, we do make mistakes, and we won’t always have brilliance. 

The reality is that even as leaders, we have fears and issues to overcome, and we are not much different than the people we lead. What’s important is that we show up and push ourselves out of our comfort zones.  

With a desire to draw out our quirky sensibilities, be more present with those we lead, and tame our inner critics, my husband, Bruce, and I decided to take our first-ever comedy improv class this past winter.  

You’re most likely saying, “What does improv have to do with leadership and being afraid to show up as a leader?” But that's what we learned. Seriously!

Bruce and I went into the improv class thinking that it would be fun to be like Wayne Brady and Colin Mochrie on Whose Line Is It Anyway, only with more female comedians (yes, that’s my dig at the problem comedy still has with highlighting women). It wasn’t as glamorous as what you might think, and it was definitely hard work.

The first few weeks were pretty boring and draining, because in improv training that’s when you’re breaking down the barriers to get to your “comedic soul.” At one point, in one of the first classes, I had to be a “monster of my making” and scream at the top of my lungs, flailing my arms about until I was “convincing enough.” I needed to find my zone and really believe that I was a monster, a completely original monster that no one else in the group had already embodied. 

I was not only embarrassed to the core of my soul, but I also lost my voice from screaming loud enough to be convincing for two days. I pushed myself through the discomfort and the late nights for a greater purpose — to become a better leader. In the words of the immortal Tina Fey, “You can’t be that kid standing at the top of the water slide, overthinking it. You have to go down the chute.”

So what did we learn that is applied to your leadership?

1. Celebrate your mistakes

In making mistakes, which every leader does, every day, we learn valuable lessons. Mistakes can be beautiful and they can show you a perspective or an angle on problems that you wouldn’t let your conscious be aware of. We must learn how to respond to failure without judgment. We must tame our inner critics and cheer ourselves on!

2. Say “Yes, and,” and learn how to run with it.

As a leader and an improv comedian, you will be presented with situations that you do not expect, or necessarily agree with, or even think are where the conversation was going, but you just have to go with it and use the feedback you get from the people you’re working with to make the final product better than what you started with. The big difference between stand-up comedy and improv comedy is that in improv you don’t have anything prepared. You just show up as you are — something we do every day as a leader — and see where things take you. You think you can prepare to be prepared, but it actually screws up your delivery. As my improv teacher would say, it’s all about receiving the gift that the other person gives to you and then offering something in return. So don’t just say “yes,” learn to say “yes, and.” It opens the door for creativity and active thought, creating a synergistic effect to propel your team to success.

3. Every contribution is valuable and everyone has value.

We learned the game Genius, which was my least favorite game; however, I made it a point to participate because it reminded me that the outcome is greater than just my contribution. Our improv guru, Casem Abulughod, would say there needs to be one person to say “I,” “and,” and “the.” They’re not great comedic words, they will not elicit laughter or even a minor guffaw, but they are necessary to move the dialogue forward and get to the punch line.



4. Support your team.

You cannot do improv without a team, or in comedy speak a troupe. A lot of those brain-draining exercises that you participate in the first few classes are what imprint you to your team/troupe. They break you down to your truest fibers, leaving you exposed and vulnerable. This makes you a leader others want to follow, or alternatively a leader who is the glue that keeps the team together. Ultimately, everyone on the team should be a leader at some point. Check out this very entertaining TED talk, what I call “the funny chicken group,” by Margaret Heffernan. When a team is highly attuned and sensitive to each other, they advance their productivity by not having a “pecking order.”

5. Diversity is key.

We all develop impersonations and characters. Not everyone in your troupe/team can or should be a one-eyed Irish river dancer. You need different personalities and skills to create the comedic reality of life. Curate your team with a broad set of expectations, skills, and backgrounds.

6. Be mindful that not everyone comes to the table with the same views as you do.

This goes hand in hand with the last point. Not everyone is going to laugh at your joke or your portrayal. You must anticipate that beliefs, background, experiences, and perceptions will not be homogeneous. However, we can find comedic relief in the reality that improv portrays. As my improv teacher would say, people find the comedy in the reality of the situation. So if you’re not real, you won’t get the comedic reaction. It’s the same for leaders — if you’re not mindful or present, you could risk really alienating the people you’re leading.

We all need a little bit more comedy and laughter in our life. Especially human resources professionals — we’re not funny at all. We’re actually the opposite of funny. Well, they’re not funny. I am funny — I’m a funny HR person. 

One of my favorite improv skits is actually a set of jokes called “165.” Every set begins with “165 (fill in with a noun here) walk into a bar. The bartender says, “We don’t serve (previous noun).” 165 (previous nouns) reply, (punch line here).

For example: 165 HR managers walk into a bar. The bartender says, “We don’t serve HR managers.” 165 HR managers reply, “We can break the rules, bring on the dissention.” Said no HR manager ever!

So, do you think Netflix would jump at my pitch to have funny HR ladies live on tour for a two-hour special? Maybe not.

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