Can We Talk?

Watching Johnny Carson host The Tonight Show kept me up past my bedtime as an adolescent and teenager. Although I loved Johnny, it was his (groundbreaking) substitute host, Joan Rivers who inspired me. I loved imitating her signature question, “Can we talk?”

Can we talk about conversation?

During an interview with journalist David Brooks, NBC’s Mike Barnicle shared his perspective on this topic: “We live in a no eye contact nation.” In business, politics, and family life we have to make an extra effort to talk to one another without the interference of a technology platform. One effective way to talk to anyone (whether or not we “agree”) is to follow our curiosity – that makes for great conversation.

Sara McMahon/Radha Ganesan

Can we talk about human connection?

Last month the Applied Improvisation Network held its annual conference at Stony Brook University in conjunction with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. Alda, the featured speaker, engaged in a rich dialogue with Dr. Laura Lindenfeld (Director of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science) and Aretha Sills, teacher of improvisational theatre and granddaughter of Viola Spolin. Spolin’s methods, discoveries, and writings gave birth to the modern improvisational theater movement. Spolin’s son and Aretha’s father, Paul Sills, co-founded The Second City and created Story Theater, among other accomplishments. Alda reminded the international audience of applied improv practitioners of the human need for connection, “We want to hear stories.” Through improvisational play we, “discover ourselves in the other’s eyes.”

Can we talk about open space?

After two days of open space offerings at the Global Improvisation Initiative conference in London in May, I’ve become a fan. Open space technology is a powerful tool for engaging large and small groups of people in discussions to explore particular questions or issues. It can be used with groups of 10 to 1,000 people. In contrast with pre-planned conferences where presentations are scheduled months in advance, participants self-organize to create their own agenda, allowing a dynamic and immediate response to the issues at hand. Open space is participant-driven, requiring discussion and dialogue amongst attendees. How can open space foster more conversation and creativity in your organization?

Can we talk?

Let’s have a conversation about what you’re working on and how I can help. SCHEDULE A CALL TODAY! 

Hire Potential
CRANACH/GETTY IMAGES

Partnering with a great hiring manager is an executive search consultant’s dream. I’ve been fortunate to work with outstanding leaders over the last few months, and in all three projects I placed candidates who will be growing into their new roles. They were all hired for their potential, a successful strategy and approach to talent acquisition and management.

Nearing the end of a search for a VP Product Management role reporting to the Chief Experience Officer of a technology-driven financial services company, the hiring manager received some pushback regarding a leading candidate’s lack of “leadership experience,” as this VP will be tasked with building and growing a new team. I emailed my client to ask if he was, likewise, concerned. I received this response:

You are never going to find someone with 15 years of large-scale leadership experience and the energy to drive the product vision and strategy at pace we want. The good news is the leadership part is reachable if you have the right attitude and create the right environment. The environment part is on me. This is an advantage of stewardship, which people just don’t get. Hire the smartest person you can find, empower them and steward their growth areas. It is not a concept most understand or trust. It requires a very fundamental trust and belief in your team.

I was inspired reading his email, given my training and practice in an improvisational approach to human development. Attention to the environment, empowerment and stewarding growth is so incredibly critical and so often ignored. It reminded me of an important statement about education by one of my mentors, Dr. Fred Newman, the Stanford-trained philosopher and co-founder of the East Side Institute, where I am a faculty member:

The issue is to recognize that who we all are is not simply our potential, which is somehow thought of in popular language as ‘inside us.’  But who we are is some complex combination of who we are and what we are becoming.  We’re not static individuals.  We are continuously changing, and we are continuously growing… This is philosophical, and it’s also the understanding of some of the most frontline 20th, 21st century critical thinkers about how to understand human growth and development.

I was also reminded of a favorite quote from Viola Spolin, an important innovator in 20th century American theater and creator of theatre games, “The heart of improvisation is transformation.”

Looking at these 5 Practices for Transformational Leaders*,I imagine these as best practices for improvisers as well as business leaders:

  1. Pause to move faster.
  2. Embrace your ignorance.
  3. Radically reframe the questions.
  4. Set direction, not destination.
  5. Test your solutions, and yourself.

(* Excerpted from “Leading with inner agility,” by San Bourton, Johanne Lavoie, and Tiffany Vogel, McKinsey Quarterly, March 2018, that appeared in Executive Talent, the Global Magazine from the Association of Executive Search Consultants article, Transformational Leadership: The Other Side of Disruption)

Happily, and not surprisingly, these are some of the new approaches for hiring in the 21stcentury. In a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Hire Leaders for What they Can Do. Not for What They Have Done, authors Josh Bersin and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic sum up their approach to hiring for potential:

In today’s ever-changing world, businesses are expected to grow as fast as the technologies surrounding them. Their models must be in constant transformation. What worked in the past and what is working in the present may not work at all in the future. Companies, then, need to get more comfortable thinking outside the box. This means taking “misfits” or “people who think differently” and placing them into leadership roles. Give them support and time to prove themselves. This is just one way to deepen your leadership pipeline.

You should also take an extra look at the people who “may not be ready,” and analyze them on the basis of their ambition, reputation, and passion for your business. Often the youngest, most agile, and most confident people turn into incredible leaders, even though their track record may not be the best.

It’s time to rethink the notion of leadership. If you move beyond promoting those with the most competence and start thinking more about those who can get you where you want to go, your company will thrive. In other words, start considering those who have high potential, not just top performers.

In the language of improvisation, I give this a hearty “yes, and …” !

Play at Work!

More and more people in business, academia and psychology are recognizing the importance of play throughout our life span. Why do adults need to play? We live in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. In play we create joy and laughter – we can go beyond ourselves.

As a play advocate, I was recently inspired by three days at The Association for the Study of Play conference last week. Sessions like Play Diplomacy; Therapeutic Play; and Physics, Philosophy and Psychology: Play is More Than Everyone Thinks gave expression to the ongoing recognition of the value of play for human beings and our well being.

Why play at work?

Every year Gallup polls show that over 50% of our workforce is disengaged. Research has found evidence that play at work is linked with less fatigue, boredom, stress, and burnout in individual workers. I am an advocate for play at work.

In the abstract of their article, Play at Work: An Integrative Review and Agenda for Future Research, Claire Petelczyc and her research colleagues make this observation:

“Play has gained increasing interest among progressive-minded managers as an important driver of motivation and productivity in work contexts.”

Play at work improves employee engagement and morale, and therefore productivity. When we play, we do things without knowing how. That is increasingly important, given that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet.

Improvising is a form of adult play. Through improvisational activities, adults cultivate active listening skills and spontaneity, social-emotional intelligence and the ability to think on one’s feet, get out of your head and be present. Allowing time for playful learning and development activities at work opens up new possibilities and unleashes everyone’s innate creativity.

Keith Sawyer, an internationally known scientific expert on creativity, collaboration, and learning argues that companies will struggle to be innovative if they don’t have some ability for bottom-up, collaborative improvisational emergence to take place. In other words, improvisational play drives innovation in the workplace.

Play allow us to be who we are and who we are not, which is how human beings develop. We can create something new from what exists. We can play at being who we are becoming.

For more information on how to bring play into your workplace with ImprovNetworking, a playground for social development, please drop me a note. Join me in advocating for play!

Can We Talk about Small Talk?
Macmillan Dictionary Blog

Has the art of conversation slipped away from us? The Chief Data Officer of a fintech company wants her data scientists to do a better job of telling the story behind the data. A Customer Service leader wants to develop more empathy within his team. A client shares her concern that her teenage children spend much of their time in “head-down” conversation (i.e., texting) and less time in face-to-face interactions.

While many executives excel in interpersonal communication, it is still the case that others struggle with the soft skills – networking, building relationships and collaborating with others. It turns out that small talk is a big deal. 

“Jobs requiring high levels of social interaction grew by nearly 12 percentage points as a share of the U.S. labor force between 1980 and 2012, according to a study published last year by David Deming, professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. Less-social, math-intensive jobs fell by 3.3 percentage points over the same period.” (Wall Street Journal, Wanted: Employees Who Can Shake Hands, Make Small Talk; Bank of America teaches empathy in-house; Subaru pays for soft-skills training, December 9, 2018)

It’s no wonder that heads of learning and development, at companies large and small, have turned to performance, bringing in playful and improvisational approaches to advancing communication skills, emotional intelligence/empathy, and collaboration. The essential elements of improvisation – listening and building – have become critical skills for professionals at all levels. Storytelling, performing other than who we are, and creative imitation are some of the tools from the theatre that are so valuable in corporate settings.

ImprovNetworking was designed as a professional and leadership development program to teach new ways of making small talk that are relaxed, natural, and effective. Participants don’t rely on a scripted process (the elevator pitch), instead we rely on our innate human ability to play and perform. Learning to actively listen and build with what people offer strengthens the ability to develop new social connections and deepen existing relationships. Discover what ImprovNetworking can do for your organization. 

Improv Networking
An innovative and off-script approach to networking and relationship building for professionals at all levels, customizable to meet the needs of your organization.


85% of Jobs That Will Exist In 2030 Haven’t Been Invented Yet

A few years ago, Harvard Business Review published an important and interesting article about talent acquisition: 21st Century Talent Spotting by Claudio Fernandez-Araoz.  The article contained valuable research about the nature of potential and the need to hire for potential:

Research points to five markers of potential: a strong motivation to excel in the pursuit of challenging goals combined with the humility to put the group ahead of individual needs; an insatiable curiosity to explore new ideas and avenues; keen insight into connections that others don’t see; a strong engagement with work and people; and the determination to overcome obstacles.

Recruiting talent with an eye to potential means no longer simply relying on core competencies. Recruiting for the new landscape of work means finding people based on their potential to develop. This requires the vision to see who someone is becoming. Organizations routinely ask recruiters to survey the market to find the “A players,” but the scarcity of the talent pool is apparent. Looking for “A players” can be limiting; we end up looking for “special” people (or privileged people from “top schools”).

Four years later we are faced with the fact that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet according to research from Dell Technologies.

Among other trends, the very nature of work will change. Today’s gig economy will transform so that “work will chase people.”

Instead of expecting workers to bear the brunt of finding work, work will compete for the best resource to complete the job.

This raises both challenging and positive developments in how technology will impact talent acquisition and how recruiters will have to approach our work:

Work chasing people could also reduce personal biases and stereotypes in the job seeking process. Integrating VR technology into recruitment protocols, for example, enables the prospective worker to demonstrate competency by showcasing skills without revealing gender or ethnicity. Hiring through immersive technologies could improve the dismal representation of women in computing jobs (currently, in the United States, only 26% of them are held by women), and open more doors to people who, historically, have not had equal opportunity to demonstrate their abilities.

In the meantime, the more that organizations can create development opportunities for their workforce – especially for those in talent acquisition – to do what they don’t know how to do, to perform ahead of themselves, to take risks – the better prepared they will be for what lies ahead.

In today’s ever changing VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, our ability to be see who we and others are becoming is more important than ever.

Good news! Being and Becoming Culture-Changers

Ready for some good news in the midst of a polarized, contentious, hyper-partisan national debate?

People around the world are playing, performing and becoming other than who they are! We are embracing our human capability to be who we are and who we are not. We are being who we are becoming. There’s a conceptual revolution happening … people are creating culture change in many ways and in many places.

In August I attended the Applied Improvisation Network’s annual conference in Paris, the city of love. Barbara Tint, the President of AIN, shared this in her talk about the growth of the organization and of Applied Improvisation:

We need to hold on to the heart and the power of improvisation and what it can do in the world.

Or as my colleagues Caitlin McClure and Theresa Robbins Dudeck put it in their wonderful new book: Applied Improvisation: Leading, Collaborating, and Creating Beyond the Theatre:

Applied Improvisation is changing the way we lead, create, and collaborate. It also brings joy into this uncertain, crazy world.

At the Paris AIN conference I met people who are using Applied Improvisation in diverse settings such as the Israeli Army, sustainability/climate science, Agile teams, and work with refugees in Europe.

We are becoming humanitarians, giving people new ways to play with difficult and challenging problems.

As the co-chair of the NYC chapter of AIN, I’m proud to be the NYC liaison to the Program Committee for the 2019 AIN conference, to be held at Stony Brook University in conjunction with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. See the announcement video here: https://youtu.be/w63vNnIFWX0

Last month the All Stars Project, Inc. and the East Side Institute – two organizations that I have helped to build for more than three decades – hosted the 10th Performing the World conference in New York. Over 400 people came together from 30 countries to address what is needed in order for people to see possibility, to imagine the inconceivable, and to take action.

We asked the question: Can humanity seize the day? And we created the answer: YES!

Workshops brought together a diverse array of creative world-changers: young magicians working/playing in the slums of Latin America, cross-border collaborations challenging current U.S. policies, humanitarian clowns from around the world, innovators in education and youth development from Taiwan, Sweden, and Nigeria, psychologists from Japan and Brazil, theatre-makers from Europe and India, and refugee workers from Greece, Italy and Serbia.

We are becoming a world of people who are challenging the status quo, the roles, institutions and ways of being that prevent us from exploring our creativity, our humanity, and our ability to be culture-changers.

We are discovering that play, performance, humor and improvisation are the tools we need to transform our world.

I’ll end with this terrific quote from one of the many thought provoking workshops at Performing the World: Performing Citizenship through Applied Improvisation led by my NYC-AIN co-chair, Don Waisanen:

Ditch Your Elevator Pitch

Cartoon from The New Yorker magazine

Do you keep your distance at networking events? Do you find yourself repeating the same elevator pitch no matter who you’re talking to? Do you feel lonely in a room full of people?

ImprovNetworking is an off-script approach to relationship building that doesn’t rely on a scripted process or a formulaic solution. In fact, ImprovNetworking reignites the natural curiosity all people have about each other – the key to great networking. Participants reconnect to the innate human ability to play and improvise.

Professionals at all levels come to networking events with preconceived, often negative, associations with the notion of building and sustaining a network of relationships. By introducing performance – the ability to be who we are and who we are not (like actors do when they play a role) – networking can transform into a creative activity.

My advice to anyone tired (or afraid) of networking is to step outside of your comfort zone with ImprovNetworking. You’ll learn how to be more yourself and how to make a more lasting connection with those you meet. It doesn’t matter if you are an introvert or extrovert, ImprovNetworking will give you helpful tools to use right away. 

By pursuing curiosity about others, formulating interesting questions, and sharing our passions and motivations without following the tired and worn out scripts (the elevator pitch), we create a genuine human connection.

Being fully present with another person co-creating an improvisational conversation (“scene”), allows us to step out of our comfort zone, take some risks and get to know others in new ways. By doing so, we have a shot at impacting each other which builds memorable and lasting relationships.

Need to Engage and Retain Millennials?

As more and more companies are looking for ways to engage and retain talent, listening to the needs of millennials becomes critical.

According to a study by Deloitte of 10,455 millennials, there is a demand for skill development in the areas of interpersonal skills, confidence/motivation, innovation and creativity.

ImprovNetworking is an entirely new and off-script approach to networking and relationship building that was designed for professionals at all levels. This approach is particularly useful for millennials, who are often disengaged by traditional learning and development offerings. Half an hour into an ImprovNetworking session, participants are speaking with each other in new ways that are relaxed, natural, and effective. Participants reconnect to the innate human ability to play and improvise.

Rather than relying on a scripted process or a formulaic solution, ImprovNetworking reignites the natural curiosity all people have about each other – the key to great networking. By engaging in a more playful approach to relationship-building younger professionals have the chance to perform confidently, to develop their creative capacity and spontaneity. They learn new ways to build relationships without relying on an “elevator pitch.”

This cost-effective approach has immediate results. ImprovNeworking sessions can be customized to meet the needs of any organization.

How to engage millennial employees? Give them opportunities to grow and develop by stepping out of their comfort zones to improve their capacity to build relationships and communicate in a more spontaneous and confident manner.

A Passion for Learning … yes, and …

Take a look at critical skills needed for success in the 21st century, as listed in CIO.com article The 14 soft skills every IT pro needs:

Salesmanship
Effective communication
The ability to translate tech
A collaborative mindset
Empathy
The ability to put things in context
Customer service — even with colleagues
The ability to ask the right questions
Problem solving
Adaptability
The ability to set aside ego
Emotional intelligence
Comfort with uncertainty

These are typical outcomes from workshops and trainings that teach people the fundamentals of improvisation (yes, and/accept and build with “offers,” active listening, make your partner look good, take risks).

The recently published book Applied Improvisation: Leading, Collaborating, and Creating Beyond the Theatre has catapulted to the number one best seller on Amazon’s list of hot new releases in business entrepreneurship for good reason. According to authors Theresa Robbins Dudeck and Caitlin McClure, applied improvisation is “…changing the way people lead, create and collaborate.” Full disclosure, McClure has long been a mentor, teacher and friend.

According to Capgemini and LinkedIn’s valuable report: The Digital Talent Gap: Are Companies Doing Enough? to succeed in our rapidly changing and digitally-driven workforce, hard digital skills are needed (cybersecurity and cloud computing being most in demand), but equally important are “soft digital skills,” which the report identified as customer-centricity and passion for learning. 59% of employers say that these skills are lacking in their employees.

The report goes on to say, “Employees feel organizations’ training programs are not hugely effective and those who want to excel are looking beyond their organizations’ learning and development. … Close to half actually describe the training as ‘useless and boring.’”

What are the solutions? Two from Capgemini and LinkedIn’s report are worth noting:

  1. “Create an environment that prioritizes and rewards learning.”  As traditional trainings can be experienced as “useless and boring,” more and more organizations are turning to applied improv facilitators and trainers for good reason.
  2. “Diversify your recruiting approach.” In chapter 1 of Dudeck and McClure’s wonderful case studies, “A Burger; Fries and a Side of Improv,” authors Hirsch and Veltman write of the work they did over a decade with the restaurant chain Burgerville in Portland, Oregon. Along with trainings, used improv as a “diagnostic for hiring teams and customer service providers” to great effect. As a longtime recruiter, improviser, and applied improv facilitator I was inspired!

Not only do we lead trainings that enhance the skills needed for success in business, applied improvisation (to quote Dudeck and McClure), “brings joy into this uncertain and crazy world.” I think we can all say “yes, and…” to that!

What I Learned From What Google Learned

I recently revisited research Google has been engaged in with their employees over the last few years. Contrary to what one might expect from the tech giant and 21st century conventional wisdom (“learn to code!”), their findings were that the top characteristics of success are all “soft skills.

Interestingly, but not at all surprising, the findings of Google’s multi-year Project Aristotle supports why corporate executives, scientists, and leaders in multiple industries have turned to improvisational training.

A few excerpts from an article that appeared in The New York Times Magazine before the study was completed: What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team

…the good teams … were skilled at intuiting how others felt based on their tone of voice, their expressions and other nonverbal cues.

Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs.

As an applied improvisational facilitator and trainer, revisiting Google’s findings generated this list of the top attributes of a good improviser:

  • Learn to say “yes, and” in order to build with the contribution of others.
  • Find your way to collaboration, rather than disagreement.
  • Make others look good; build trust and a safe environment so people can take risks and develop new capabilities.
  • Actively listen, be present and sensitive to nonverbal cues.
  • Celebrate mistakes (in order to create a culture of learning and innovation).

Re-reading Google’s findings shed light on why recent trainings with undergraduates and graduate students that I’ve conducted via Career Services, have been so rewarding. Arming young people who are entering the workforce with the tools of improv and performance means that they will, indeed, become our leaders of tomorrow.