Over the course of my career, I've worked with more startups than I can count. One thing most of them had in common was a founder who had not been part of an executive suite prior to starting their own company. When it comes to leading people to success, it's a lot harder to nail it during high stakes business growth if you've never led before.
My goal is to make the concept of emotionally intelligent leadership more approachable and therefore easier to internalize for founders everywhere.
Recently, I theorized that one of the greatest acts of emotional intelligence is, in fact, acting. Hear me out. An actor's job is to understand and regulate their character's emotion -- and understand and influence the emotions of other characters in a scene. And this aligns most perfectly with the definition of emotional intelligence.
To that end, I spoke with actor and creator Paul Scheer at SxSW in Austin. Scheer is a veteran of the famous Upright Citizens Brigade improv troupe, a popular feeder into Saturday Night Live, and a star of Showtime's Black Monday. I was curious if the art of acting helped him develop his emotional intelligence, and, if so, how it impacts his leadership across a number of teams.
My theory proved out. Here's how.
1. Cultivate a positive work environment.
"It takes more energy to create a negative environment than it does to foster a positive one," Scheer explains. "It's easier to make people feel heard and welcome than it is to create an environment where everyone feels on edge."
The latter goes against the natural instinct of human nature because it discourages connection, the very essence of emotional intelligence. And going against instinct is, itself, exhausting, which wastes time. (I can speak from personal experience. I've never been more depleted and less effective than the times I got it wrong.)
2. Trust your team.
The fundamental principle of improv is team over self.
"Improv taught me to trust teammates and let them do what they do best. Now I strive to create a sense of trust on my teams," he offers. "I hired them because I trust them. Even if they don't know it. Once I hire someone, I'm making an implicit agreement with them that I like what they do and I want to be there working it out with them."
People who feel trusted work harder and better. Tell them you trust them. Then show them by giving them space to work.
3. Keep the micromanaging to a minimum.
"The reason people micromanage is because they're bad communicators. They don't know how to tell you what they want. The only way they can communicate is through control," he says. "You can micromanage and be on someone's back nonstop, but then you'll stifle or prohibit their creativity. It makes them second guess what they're good at and why they're there in the first place."
Micromanaging is terribly inefficient. It all but guarantees a subpar outcome, one that takes more time and energy to correct. Tell your team what you want, when you want it, what you expect, and when you expect it. Then do them a favor and stay out of it. You have more important things to do than someone else's job.
4. Learn to let your ideas go.
A popular brainstorming technique in the corporate world is "yes, and ... " "Yes, and" was born out of improv. It's simple: Don't shoot down. Add to or redirect.
"We live in a very "no, but" society. It's easier to say "no, but listen to my idea instead," Scheer explains. "'Yes, and' is basically reverse Jenga. You're building and not tearing down. Don't waste time talking about why an idea is bad. It's more efficient -- you can go further, faster -- allowing all ideas on the table and building on them, knowing the best ideas always win."
The trick to this, however, is learning how to let your ideas go when they don't win out. It takes humility and an appreciation for team and desired outcomes over self.
After listening to my playback of our conversation, what struck me the most is how much Scheer has internalized his own counsel. I counted no fewer than six "yes, and's." They were so natural I almost missed them. Those happened to be the moments we truly sparked, leading to a rich and fun dialogue, not one driven by charisma.
I might never speak with him again, but in this conversation, I totally trusted him and thought for 1.3 seconds that I should try improv.
But I probably won't. I'll leave it to the pros.