No matter what you do in your work and life, at some point there will be things you're going to want or need to change. It could be what you do, how or when you do it, with whom--you get the idea.

In my work as a consultant and coach to business leaders, helping them make changes in order to grow professionally and personally is a big part of what I do. And one of the secret weapons I deploy to aid in the process comes straight out of the toolkit of the professional actor--creative imitation.

Actors routinely use it to prepare for their roles. Most of the greats--think Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis (who notably confined himself to a wheelchair for his role in My Left Foot and became an apprentice butcher for Gangs of New York)--achieve amazing transformations through keen observation and creative imitation.

Note the word "creative" here--I'm not talking about aping or parroting or any other animal-based metaphors for doing exactly what someone else does. Creative imitation is profoundly human; it's more like sampling someone else's way of doing something and adding it to who you are, as a way of accelerating your journey to who you're becoming.

In this way, creative imitation is a crucial catalyst for growth and change. It certainly was in childhood, when a lot of what you did was copy what the older children and adults around you were doing--it's how you played, and you got a lot of applause for it. It made you pretty darn cute, but it's also how you learned to walk and talk and many of the other things that make you who you are today.

Of course, the accolades for imitation start to fade once you go to school (where imitation is largely viewed as "cheating") and pretty much dry up when you enter adulthood (where "lack of originality" is viewed as a character flaw, or worse). Fortunately, the business world is beginning to agree with jazz great Dizzy Gillespie, who said of the legendary Louis Armstrong, "No him, no me."

Imitation has a solid track record as a valid alternative to the fetishization of the "next big idea." Apple, Facebook, and Google didn't invent the products that made them mega-successful--they brought creativity, insight, intelligence, and marketing genius to smartphones, social media platforms, and search engines and the rest is history.

Now, none of the people I've worked with have wielded a meat cleaver or developed an iPhone (yet). But I love telling the story of my client Nicholas, a financial analyst on the brink of big things--if he could come up with the kind of breakthrough performance that would let people know he was ready for his next promotion.

He was a competent speaker but had trouble making eye contact with an audience and came across as a bit wooden. I knew I needed to get Nicholas out of his head and away from worrying about what he was saying, so I gave him a big performance challenge. I suggested that he perform as one of his bosses, Scott, who's an arm grabbing, world class schmoozer and salesperson.

At first he refused. "Scott is the opposite of me," he said. "He makes me cringe. I can't do it." I assured him he was in no danger of turning into Scott--he would just perform as him." Nicholas needed a model, someone who was better at talking to people than he was, someone whose traits he could borrow, try on, and creatively imitate.

He reluctantly agreed. He spent a couple of weeks paying close attention to every move Scott made. Instead of cringing, he kept notes on Scott's body language, how he started and ended conversations, the way he moved through a room. We worked together on breaking those observations down into actions Nicholas could practice, and he began to feel more comfortable with these new performance choices.

He was still nervous, but at a company town hall meeting in front of the top leadership team, Nicholas took the risk and made his presentation as his stylistic arch-nemesis, Scott. The result? Another of his bosses, a legendary speaker himself, told him he knocked it out of the park.

Nicholas got his promotion soon after, and--perhaps as importantly--he now had access to a range of new, more effective options for how he presented himself, and was well on his way to owning and further developing them as part of his professional repertoire.

So try this yourself--no meat-cutting required.

Published on: Aug 15, 2017
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