As a business leader, you may not think a comedy club can offer you anything useful, beyond perhaps some laughs to lower your blood pressure. But the venerable 56-year-old Second City theater, which helped season comedy legends like John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Tina Fey, has succeeded through a combination of tried-and-true business tactics like branding, collaboration, and adaptability.
In their new book Yes, And, Second City executives Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton dish out lessons on how improv can help empower leaders, bolster creative and positive thinking, and increase team collaboration and adaptability. "What we really are is an innovation laboratory. Over about 56 years, we have had groups of people working together to create something out of nothing," Leonard says in an interview with Knowledge@Wharton, University of Pennsylvania's business school blog. "We are a content creator, and we never stop. They keep doing it in these groups, and we're very, very successful at it."
Countless talented individuals from the theater have gone on to have successful careers--comedians, actors, even Dick Costolo, the former CEO of Twitter. Yorton, the CEO of Second City's business-to-business improv school Second City Works, says the program helps executives become better leaders.
"For me, business is an act of improvisation. For all the planning, all the controls, all the governance, and all the things we try to do to keep the variables down, business doesn't cooperate," he says.
Below, find out the skills Second City teaches its members and how they translate so well to business.
Yoga for social skills.
Yorton says everyone knows that if you want to be healthy physically, you need to work out. So why don't people think the same way about their social fitness? He says improv can help you keep your leadership skills lean.
"Improvisation is yoga for your social skills." Yorton says. "It puts you in a mindful, present place, where you're concentrating with eye contact with the person in front of you. You're not thinking about before, or about after."
Leonard says executives are typically adept at analysis, critical thinking, and decision-making, but every leader can benefit from practicing softer skills. "It's how to listen, how to read a room, how to work collaboratively on teams, how to respond to failure and how to be nimble and agile and adaptive when the unexpected happens," he tells Knowledge@Wharton. "Those are really foreign skills to many people. You could have all the quantitative skills, and you could have all the strategy skills, and all that other stuff. They are important skills to have--make no mistake--but unless you can work well with an ensemble, create something out of nothing, and respond to the unexpected, you're only gonna go so far in business."
Fail at no charge to your customers.
Failure is part of success. Your company cannot grow and be great if it never fails at some point first. Leonard and Yorton say Second City fails every third act--it's built into their business model. And like most startups, Second City has a deep, almost ceremonial respect for failure.
"At Second City, we have a failure methodology. We have a failure format. The two-act scripted revue that you pay your good money to see, everyone's gonna love, and they laugh, because we've tested it out. The place we've tested it out is in the Third Act, which is free," Leonard says.
The Third Act is Second City's improv set. There is no charge for admission because the artists use the format to test out material. This is where people and content grow and develop, where risks are taken.
"It's not just that we have this to test out with the audiences, but for the employees--in this case, the actors. They get to model failure. They get to survive failure. They get to fail and bring something back," he says.
Second City has high standards, but like most fail-fast startups, it's aware of how important failure is to learning. As a leader, you need to make a lab, of sorts, where employees can test ideas and help build your company's next hit.
Don't say no.
How many times a day do you shut down your employees with an immediate negative response to their ideas and requests? Probably a lot more than you would think. One of the lessons Leonard and Yorton write in their book is to not say "no" for a full day.
"Take one day, and don't say no the entire day. Even if you're in a situation where you have to say no, you have to find another way to get there. It will change your view. It will change how you feel. It's hard. It is not easy. I've done it, and it's problematic," Leonard says. "But it is ultimately very rewarding because you have put yourself out in a far more positive way.
"The other thing is, you start to make that list of how many times you would have said no, and it's a lot," he adds. "You recognize that really, out of the 25 times that I would have said no, 23 of them, I didn't need to."