You've heard this advice before, including right here at Inc.: Studying improv comedy is a great way to boost creativity--and it forces you to think on your feet. But can it also improve your leadership skills? And are there principles from improv that you can apply in the workplace--with or without taking actual improv classes?
Yes and yes, according to Isaac Rodriguez, CEO of Provident Loan. In his off hours, Rodriguez is an avid amateur improv artist who performs in front of demanding New York City audiences. "I've applied it to every aspect of my job and life," he says. Though Rodriguez recommends that entrepreneurs and executives who want to improve as leaders take at least a few improv classes, he shared some of the leadership lessons he's learned:
1. Don't stay comfortable.
Improv will get you out of your comfort zone in a big hurry. There's nothing like standing up in front of an expectant audience when you have no script and no idea what kind of scene you're about to play to put the fear of making a pitch or cold call into perspective. "For entrepreneurs who haven't gotten out of their comfort zones, studying improv will give you the ability to stretch those comfort zones," Rodriguez says.
In fact, he gets some of Provident's executives out of their own comfort zones by bringing in exercises that he learned from improv training. One of the simplest is to have them stand in a circle, and require them to ask for and obtain another person's permission to occupy that person's spot. Even that is challenging for bosses accustomed to telling people what to do, he says. And as for their comfort zones, "You would laugh to see how uncomfortable middle managers are just standing around in a circle. They want to sit at their desks and play with their smartphones."
2. Make positive and active choices.
This improv skill was especially helpful when his mother received treatment for Alzheimer's, he says. He frequently encountered new caregivers in a very stressful situation, but he made sure to greet each with positive and active statements. And as an entrepreneur, he says, "I would use these principles in meetings with prospects and customers. When I met someone for the first time, I wouldn't say something negative about how bad the traffic was. I would say something active and positive and immediate, for instance how nice the surroundings were at that moment."
That kind of attitude can be contagious, he says. It helped him get more positive reactions from customers and ultimately close more sales.
3. Respect the reality of the scene.
If your scene partner is pretending there's a table right in front of you, and you walk right through the table as though it weren't there, the audience won't buy in. Worse, you'll alienate your scene partner, making both of you ineffective.
So respect reality as the person you're working with sees it. "If someone feels the challenge is X and you say that's wrong, it's really Y, you're going to have a difficult time advancing that scene," Rodriguez says. "But if you respect that reality and acknowledge the problem that person is facing, then you can introduce a solution."
4. Take time to check in.
Before you follow any of the above tips, please begin each interaction by stopping to check in with the other person and get a sense of his or her emotional state. "In improv, before you even say a word, you check in with your scene partner. Look and wait and see what that person's body language is telling you," Rodriguez says.
That emotional sensitivity is an essential skill in the loan business, he adds. "We have customers come in with various stages of emotions," he says. "We have some who come in tears because they're distraught or in financial distress. Our customer service people have to take a moment and take in the individual's demeanor and empathize. They have to be extremely sensitive to people's state of mind."
Checking in isn't just for lenders. "It's a selling skill as well," he says. "You always want to establish a positive relationship so you can actively take the next steps. Checking in first allows you to do that." Then use the other improv skills to get the results you want.