Six Ways Improv Can Improve Your Leadership Skills

Looking to take your leadership style to the next level? Try improv! Seriously.

Last year, as part of my performance evaluation, I was told in kinder terms that for my career development I should boost my executive leadership presence. My review was solid, but if I wanted to take it to the next level, this was something to address. No one doubted my capability or capacity, but my brand had lost some of its sizzle as I was bogged down by my daily grind as the Chief Marketing Officer of one of GE Healthcare’s biggest and most profitable businesses.

I did some soul searching and acknowledged that I needed to freshen up my leadership style. As I considered alternatives and I began to evaluate development tools. I’ve benefited from best-in-class leadership courses in universities and in corporate programs at GE and J&J, but I was looking for something different that could significantly impact my behavior. Then I recalled something I’ve always wanted to do, but never took the time to—always with the excuse of “that’s not for me”—improv.

Improv, as defined by Wikipedia, “is a form of theater where most or all of what is performed is created at the moment it is performed. In its purest form, the dialogue, the action, the story and the characters are created collaboratively by the players as the improvisation unfolds in present time, without use of an already prepared, written script.”  I’ve always prided myself in being prepared, on strategy and with a clear objective in mind, not…well, being improvisational.

The Benefits of Improv: PILLAR

Challenged by the concept, I looked up the local club and decided to give it a try. Ten months later, I am a convert. Improv has boosted my leadership skills in unforeseen ways which corporate or university programs previously have not:

1. Poise: Although I’ve always been a good speaker, facing a completely foreign audience on any topic without the benefit of any preparation is sure to challenge the best of us. Poise, conviction and resolve are crucial to your delivery, on and off stage.

2. Innovation: The only rule in improv is that there are no rules. Through a series of “yes, and” you and your colleagues build a spontaneous reality that is both creative and original.

3. Listening: By far, the biggest surprise I’ve had is the realization that improv has remarkably improved my listening skills. I find myself much more attuned to what people say, particularly in interviews, presentations and the often dreaded marathon teleconferences.

4. Laughter: I’ve always wanted to be that leader who uses the right humor with impeccable timing to diffuse tense situations.  While I’m not there yet, I can tell you that I am laughing a lot more in all aspects of my life and that my laughter is contagious with my team and workplace.

5. Adaptability: The market, competition and unforeseen forces challenge us to be adaptable leaders.  Improv fortifies these muscles. On stage you can be told to become someone with specific personality traits and you must make the story work—same as in business life.

6. Risk-taking: Improv is 100% risk, in real time. What’s more, the more you do it, the more you crave it. The ability to take risks, rapidly, plays well in our competitive business environment.

Results

This year, my performance review significantly improved in this developmental area, largely as a result of my newfound improvisational skills. If you find yourself stuck in the same development conundrum, try improv! You’ll be amazed if you stick with it.

Keep growing!

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