Improvising Client Management

In my new role as a freelance consultant I am learning much more about client management, especially when working for more than one client at a time. Interestingly, I was reading Shawn Achor’s article, What Giving Gets You at the Office, in a recent issue of the Harvard Business Review and came across this relevant and appreciated quote:

The past two decades of research on social support has mistakenly focused on how much social support you receive, not how much social support you provide. It turns out, that giving feels better, does more for you, and provides greater returns in the long run, than getting ever does.

As readers of this blog know, this quote embodies much of the developmental approach that I write about and that I practice in my work and in my life.  Yet in my conversations with other freelance consultants I was struck by the pull that we all have to want our clients to give us more support.  That often looks like more feedback, more resources or more time with them.  Reading this quote made me think that, like everyting in life, the performance of giving is always going to be more productive that looking for ways to “get what I need”.

When we improvise we create by always saying “yes” — we make and give “offers” to our fellow player/s.  If an improviser is waiting to get an idea, or waiting to receive a “good offer” she or he will end up “in their head” and unavailable to their fellow player/s.  When an improviser is given an offer she or he must “super accept” that offer, meaning that no matter the offer she or he must use it to create with and build upon it without taking a beat to judge what was given.  The creativity is in the spontaneity of the exchanges and the willingness to accept, give, build — to always say yes.  Improvisers are always giving.

After having a number of conversations with fellow freelance consultants who manage multiple clients and projects, I found it helpful to remember the fundamentals of improvisation.

In fact, in life I always find that to be the case — improvising, performing, and giving is what allows us to create whatever it is that we are creating — a business, a show, or a relationship of any kind.  We are a social species and all that we do is relational.

So if any fellow consultants or freelancers are reading this post, remember to say yes, make offers to your clients, accept and build with what they give you, no matter what it is.  Let’s perform!

Yes and…

(You can read Shawn Achor’s article here: )

Performing our way to confidence

As a recruiting professional I often coach my friends through their career-related issues.  I recently coached two friends who needed similar kinds of coaching.  I was happy to be asked for help and pleased that I could provide a bit of performance coaching. 

One friend is someone who I had coached during a transition into a new role in a new industry. She is an extremely bright and talented professional who, like many of us, can easily become insecure in the face of having to do what she  does not know how to do. 

I think it is fair to say that with today’s economic realities many people are being asked to stretch in new ways, take on new roles, and wear multiple hats. It is a challenge to rise to the occasion and perform at the top of our game even with an underlying feeling of “there’s no way I can do this”.

In the case of this particular friend I had to remind her of all the things she’s done and accomplished without any previous experience — without “knowing” what she was doing. As she and I and many of us can attest to from our life’s experiences, we learn in the doing. Sometimes we need reminding of that. 

The performance I recommended in these moments is a performance of confidence. More than one of my improv coaches has made the offer to me that I work to create more “high status” characters, as my “natural” inclination (behavior) can be to play “low status” — characters who are do not in any way convey confidence.  Playing/performing confident takes self-conscious effort when we are questioning ourselves. I’ve learned the role of confident and accomplished businesswoman through improvisation and most of all by performing in life — and I’ve become that woman. Methodologically the “pretending” ** leads to development,  we become who we were not.  

My other friend is an accomplished and talented producer who is looking for a new opportunity after many years of working with people she knew well and built strong relationships with over many years of working together. It’s both common and disconcerting when looking for a new position to become insecure or frightened, especially in today’s employment market.

I asked her if there is someone she admires for her or his confidence. Someone came to mind immediately. I suggested that she do a “creative imitation” of that person. How is this other person in the world?  How does she express her confidence that makes her an appealing role model?   It turns out that my friend admires this other woman’s ability to take pride in her accomplishments without boasting.  That was an important thing to recognize in the other person, so as to begin to find a way to give expression to her own accomplishments in her field.  In the case of my friend, developing a performance of (just the right amount of) hubris is exactly what she needs.

**For more on “pretending” I refer readers to the paper “Let’s Pretend” by Drs. Lenora Fulani and Fred Newman:

Improvisation, Giving, and Career/Self Reinvention

Today is my first day of work as a freelance recruiting professional.  I am thrilled to have two projects to sink my teeth into.  It’s been a wonderful process to get to today.

This past week my mentor, friend and colleague, Dr. Fred Newman, passed away.  Fred taught me many, many things but one of the most important things he taught me is to give, give again, give some more, and give in the particular way that he expresses in his practical guide to continuous development, Let’s Develop:

Be unexpectedly giving for “no reason at all” to someone who is unlikely to give you anything in return.

It’s been a hard road to learn how to give in this way, after all we live in a culture that is all about getting. Learning this from Fred and other colleagues has changed my life.  How did I get here?  I gave everything to my friends — the fear, the insecurities, the doubt that I could leave a job after 15 years and go out on my own.  And then I accepted the offers that my friends gave to me, I built with them (giving to my friends in this way), even if I thought they were asking me to do the impossible.

Accepting all the offers people give us, saying yes, and building with everything we have is the essence of improvisation.  As human beings we have the opportunity to create and recreate/reinvent our lives.

As one friend put it, “Let’s soak up all the offers the world has to give us” — yes and let’s develop by giving.

Thank you, Fred.

I am quite pleased that a wonderful article written by Jude Trader-Wolff was just published online; it features an interview she conducted with me about improvisation and career/self-reinvention.

Win, lose, create!

I had many thoughts this morning while reading the HBR article “Winning, Losing and Collaboration”

Philosophically can we approach these important issues about what environment is needed to maximize collaboration without the notions of winning and losing?

When teaching beginner improv students to do two person “yes and” scenes the critical direction is “don’t argue, cooperate”. Cooperation is where creativity resides. Improv is a tool that can help organizations learn the skills to collaborate and thereby (hopefully) build with each other and create, irrespective of winning or losing.

The gratification, fun and challenge in the workplace might just reside in the joy of creativity rather than the desire to “win”.

Another take on attention

I read this posting with interest — Five Ways to Hold the Right Kind of Attention —

As a performer and improviser the subject of attention is interesting to me. Any honest performing artist will say that we like attention! In a business context being able to attract and motivate others is an important attribute. It makes me think of why audiences pay attention to an improv show. When I watch an improv show I’m delighted by the activity of creating in the moment, the way the improvisers are connected to each other and how they build upon and create with everything everyone has to offer. Creativity is compelling. Collectivity is powerful. My thoughts on holding attention have everything to do with our capacity to build and create with each other. I’d pay attention to anyone who makes that their number one priority.

Pretend and perform!

I’m surprised that there isn’t more recognition of the power and development possibilities that improvisation affords us in the business world.  I thought of this when I came across this HBR Management Tip: Improve Your Public Speaking by Being Yourself

Improvisation is a playful tool to develop ones public speaking capabilities. I’m not so sure about being “exactly who you are”, in fact there might be more gained from playing around with being who you are not. Perhaps the performance of being a public speaker would be most helpful.

I enjoy introducing people to performance and improvisation in the workplace.  Earlier this week, at the end of an interview for a new position we got on to the topic of my being an improviser and performer. The woman who interviewed me said something that many people say, “Oh, I could never do that”.  I pointed out that she and I just improvised an hour long conversation. She had never thought of it that way.   Human beings can perform!

We can improve our public speaking and all our business interactions through a self-conscious exploration of performance and improvisation.

As my dear colleagues Drs. Lenora Fulani and Fred Newman would say – Let’s Pretend! []

Why improv?

On Friday I was having a conversation with a new friend and colleague I met at the NYC Applied Improvisation Network and he asked me the question, “Why improv?” in business.  My response had a lot to do with my understanding of and appreciation for “the power of play” – play is where development, creativity and innovation takes place.  I invited him to a fundraiser that was held yesterday for the East Side Institute to get a taste of the cutting edge approaches to learning, development, therapeutics and community-building that are sponsored by the organization.   

At the event I introduced my entrepreneurial colleague to the CEO of Performance of a Lifetime, Cathy Salit. POAL is one of the premier training organizations doing theatre-based executive education and Cathy happens to be a long-time colleague of mine (we perform musical improv comedy together in the Proverbial Loons).  It was helpful to hear Cathy talk about the therapeutic aspect of the work she and POAL does, creating new possibilities for individuals and therefore for groups/organizations.

On Sundays I always enjoy reading Adam Bryan’s “Corner Office” column in the New York Times.  Ironically yesterday he started his interview with Mark Fuller, CEO of WET Design with a discussion of improvisation.  I was happy to see this and sent the link to my friend.  This is the quote that jumped out at me:

If you think about it, if you have an argument with your wife or husband, most of the time people are just waiting for the other person to finish so they can say what they’re waiting to say. So usually they’re these serial machine-gun monologues, and very little listening. That doesn’t work in improv. If we’re on the stage, I don’t know what goofball thing you’re going to say, so I can’t be planning anything. I have to really be listening to you so I can make an intelligent — humorous or not — response.

I love that Fuller starts out by talking about the mundane arguments we all have and, although he doesn’t say that, the activity of improvisation, of performing, of pretending in life in a self-conscious manner is undeniably developmental.  And I have to say that most of my day is spent interviewing people and I do have to underline what Fuller is saying about “serial machine-gun monologues, and very little listening” but I will save that topic for another blog post!

Back to the fundraiser at the East Side Institute – Dr. Lenora Fulani, the Dean of the All Stars Project’s new initiative UX, and a co-founder of the All Stars gave a presentation on her work.  She has recently co-written a paper with Dr. Fred Newman, her fellow co-founder of the All Stars called “Let’s Pretend” (use this link to download “Let’s Pretend” ).  Although the paper was written to solve the education crisis in America, I think there is enormous value in taking the fundamental methodology of this paper into boardrooms and offices as well.  If we pretend we can become … better learners, better leaders and better people.

Why improv?  Let’s keep performing our answer to this most important question.  

Lights, camera, action!

I spent my morning taking action – lots of outreach for networking, follow ups and researching new opportunities.  I feel a lot more confident of the myriad of possibilities that lie ahead of me for my career development efforts.  So when I read the HBR post “Four Reasons Any Action is Better Than None” I was smiling.  Having a can-do attitude definitely helps.  Perhaps, as the article suggests, appreciating small wins, as sports fans well know, helps create a positive, can-do posture (and I would say performance).  My household roots for the NY Mets … baseball fans, need I say more?

Here’s an excerpt from Rosabeth Ross Kanter’s piece

It’s well-known that busy people get the most done. Their secret is simple: They never stop moving.  Of course, sitting still can be a good thing if it involves renewal, reflection, and focused attention (or having meals with the family). But sitting still can be a bad thing if it involves procrastination, indecision, and passivity. … These principles represent more than management tips. They reflect a can-do philosophy that is essential for any entrepreneur or any place that wants more entrepreneurs. The only way to activate potential is to support action. … Sometimes it doesn’t seem easy. Organizational cultures, autocratic bosses, uncooperative co-workers, long losing streaks, the uncertainty of shifting industry conditions, and big world events like natural disasters and revolutions can stop people in their tracks. But those who emerge triumphant, and get the most done anyway, are the people who would rather take action, any action, than wait around.

In improvisation it’s all about action.  As I recently learned in a wonderful improvisational workshop led by Dave Razowsky, former Artistic Director of Second City in Los Angeles, even when one’s scene partner is doing “nothing” they are engaged in an action.  In business we might be missing something like that in thinking that a co-worker or employee is “doing nothing” but perhaps they are engaged in creative thought about a problem or perhaps they are daydreaming.  Studies have shown that daydreaming, taking a break from our multitasking, stressful workday can lead to greater innovation and creativity in our work.

So as we say in show biz – lights, camera, action!


Applying improvisation

Yesterday I attended an all day workshop with the New York Chapter of the Applied Improvisation Network (AIN).  Not surprisingly I found myself surrounded with a generous, intellectually stimulating and playful group of professionals who apply improvisation in a number of settings – corporations, education and mental health.

Sue Waldron, of ImprovWorks! in the Bay Area gave a wonderful presentation on the breadth of the field – here are just some of the areas in which improvisation is being applied in the workplace:

Leadership, change management, sales, customer service, team building, community development, creativity and innovation, living the brand/brand management, corporate culture/transformational change, coaching, diversity, agility/resiliency, networking, facilitation skills, train the trainer (T3), burn out prevention, stress prevention, doctor/patient relations, substance abuse prevention.

One company that was mentioned that uses improvisation for collaboration in their corporate culture is Pixar – and what wonderful results they’ve had!  I did a quick Google search and found Pixar’s essential principles:

Accept any offer: when given a new idea try and work with it. Dismissing it causes the idea to be lost.

Make your partner look good: don’t extend work on the basis of making it better, think of it of adding value.

These are wonderful principles for any organization to embrace; they are basic building blocks of good improvisation and good theatrical collaboration.

Funny … that’s empowering!

I was reading a Management Type of the Day from Harvard Business Review – “Find the 3 Ingredients to Job Satisfaction” – and thinking about “mastering what you are good at”.  

A good manager develops their employees’ strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses.  Having once worked for a manager who criticized my work but never appreciated or praised work I performed, I know how demoralizing that can be.  I don’t think this only applies to the boardroom.  I would say that it is something to live by in how we relate to ourselves, to others, and to the world.  

It’s easy to focus on the hardship in the world we live in and it’s easy to focus on people’s weaknesses and rush to judgement.  On any given day we can surely focus on the things we did that were “wrong” – an interaction with a colleague, a harshly worded email, a rushed phone call that we regret.  The challenge is to build on the positives, what IS working in the world, in our lives, in our work.

When I am collaborating with someone who sees my strengths and builds upon them it is empowering – and visa-versa.  It is an improvisational scene in which we build on the offers our partner gives, rather than negating them.  Creativity and innovation arises from this activity.

As a performer of improv comedy humor is one of my strengths, with all of the interpersonal capabilities that go along with my improvisational tool kit.  I have found that using humor and improv in variety of business situations is incredibly valuable and, in my opinion, is under-utilized.

Here’s a wonderful video that exemplifies the playful use of humor in a business setting – enjoy!