S3E21. Awakened to Change! An Improviser’s Journey

Racism is something you learn over time through your family, your culture, and your environment.

Growing up in Kentucky in the 1960s, I witnessed racism in a variety of ways. However, I never thought of those actions as racist—because they were so commonplace in the community, culture, and environment. The reality of it is that—as hard and shameful as it is to admit—at one point in my life, I was a racist.

In 1984, I recognized my thoughts and attitudes had begun to change. As the general manager of a pizza restaurant, two customers called me over to their booth and said “It’s nice to have a white general manager for a change.” I was stunned.

By 1997, my opinions, attitudes, and mindset had totally changed. In a conversation with my father about the hiring of Toby Smith, an African-American, to be the new head coach of basketball at the University of Kentucky, he said a Black man could never be a head coach. He was wrong.

That was also the year I started improv, and as I recognized that improv was a leadership philosophy and way of life, my awareness, attitudes, and beliefs changed even more dramatically. The improv concept of “Yes, and” teaches us to suspend our judgment, park our ego, listen to understand, and to be empathetic. It is not about pushing forward a belief just because it’s the way things have always been done.

Being silent and not enacting positive change is not the way to create change. There are too many leaders who think they are leaders when they are not. As Simon Sinek once said, “Leadership has nothing to do with your title. Leadership is the positive effect you have on another person.” To enact positive change and the elimination of systemic injustice and racism, white people need to quit talking and start listening. We need to hear the conversation for what it is, take the improviser’s mindset to search for a solution instead of creating a divide for our own self-interests.

S3E20. Small Town Leadership with Natalie Siston

What can we learn about leadership from someone who grew up in a small town?

Natalie Siston is the founder of Small Town Leadership. She takes the lessons she’s learned from small-town living and applies them to achieve significant business success. Whether you’re a corporate leader looking for an effective way to motivate today’s workforce, a manager striving to bring out the best in each individual, or someone hoping to make sure your work matters, big success starts by thinking small.

Natalie has always loved to speak and write, and topics she loved to talk and write about most were the lessons she learned from growing up in Republic, Ohio. She woke up in the middle of the night one night, and the name Small Town Leadership just came to her. She knew that this was the name of her leadership style, and with a name she could start spreading the idea.

There are a lot of things people can learn about leadership style from a small town life. One example is the idea of work ethic. When you grow up in a small town, you see people working hard every day. Even at a young age, you start contributing. This leads to the idea that no job is beneath you or outside of the scope of what you should be doing.

Another small town lesson that’s incredibly important is how to move with agility and pivot. In a small town, you use what you have on hand, and if you don’t have what’s needed, you improvise. When you grow up in a small town you don’t have any other choice, but when things are going right for so long we get spoiled and forget how to improvise when the time comes. Don’t ever lose sight of the ability to think outside of the box.

Lastly, at least for now, is the concept of the small town motto. 6-10 words displayed proudly in the middle of town for everyone to see. Those words give everyone in town something to connect with and believe in. How can you take that concept and apply it to your team, your business, or yourself?

Active listening, saying yes, trust, and empathy are key components of improv leadership—and they all apply to small town leadership as well. How can you change your mindset to embrace the opportunities presented to you, no matter how big or small?


S3E19. Being More Present: 3 Exercises to Make You a Great Leader

Do you get distracted during meetings or even simple conversations?

Of course you do. You’re thinking about the work you should be doing, or the meeting you’re leading later, or how long it is until lunch. The crazy world we live in is full of distractions, so if you’re finding it hard to stay present and in the moment, you’re not alone. People actually spend 47% of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they are doing, according to an article titled “How to Practice Mindfulness Throughout Your Work Day” by the Harvard Business Review

In improv, being present is critical to the success of the ensemble. If you’re trying to think ahead or staying stuck in the past, your scene will fall flat.

It’s impossible to be present every minute of every day, but there are times where we need to be focused on essential tasks and eliminate distractions. One main distraction that needs to be eliminated is our internal dialogue. If we’re constantly talking to ourselves while we should be listening to others, we’re not truly hearing what they have to say.

Luckily, there are improv exercises your team can do to practice being present and in the moment? The two exercises featured in Season 3 Episode 17, the one word story and last word spoken, are great ones to follow. Another exercise to demonstrate presence is called “repetition.” 

Two people start a conversation, speaking one sentence at a time. One participant starts a conversation, and before the other person can respond, they have to repeat the sentence they just heard before adding on to it. The purpose is to listen to the entire sentence before you formulate a response.

To be proficient in improv, you must be a good listener and be present during those crucial moments. To be a proficient leader, you must be a good listener and be present during those crucial moments. The ability to eliminate all distractions and become focused is very hard. It’s something that requires practice. But it is essential.


S3E18. Raising Sensational Children with Sensory Processing Differences with Eric & Rebecca Scott

Eric and Rebecca Scott are a married couple with the perfect combination of math and writing skills. Eric is a licensed CPA in Kentucky and is a Tax Senior Manager at Ernst & Young, focusing on a wide variety of technical topics. Rebecca, who was an autism behavioral intervention specialist before staying home to raise her two children, is now an accomplished author. Her book “Sensational Kids, Sensational Families: Hope For Sensory Processing Differences” chronicles the research, interventions, and mindset shifts that helped their family through their son’s sensory processing disorder diagnoses. She also directs a local homeschool cooperative organization in which she works hard to accommodate all special needs. 

And when you think about it, choosing to adapt to an unexpected challenge is the embodiment of improv and creating a supportive community for special needs individuals requires great leadership — so there’s a lot to learn from Eric and Rebecca even if you don’t have any children at all.

When Rebecca and Eric’s youngest son was around two years old, they started to identify some concerning behaviors. Rebecca had experience working with children who had autism and could tell it wasn’t that, but she didn’t know what it was. After seeing a speech therapist and moving on to occupational therapy, he was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder. They took on seven years of medical intervention, diet changes, and occupational therapy, and he began to experience things he had never experienced before: pain and temperature. Today he’s ahead of the curve in a lot of school subjects and doing very well, which encouraged Rebecca to write “Sensational Kids, Sensational Families” to help other families who didn’t know what was going on with their own children.

As our understanding of neurodiversity and sensory processing differences grows, it becomes apparent that parts of society are not adequately set up to accommodate diversity of ability or experience. As a society, we have made wheelchair accessibility mandatory for most businesses, but we have not made sure that businesses and workplaces are accessible to people with various sensory impairments. Part of that could be due to technology and not understanding these disorders enough, but as we rapidly develop new technology and understanding, there are fewer and fewer excuses to not make the world more accessible to everyone. The way we have done things does not need to be the way we do things moving forward — nor should it be.

Businesses also need to be more accepting of people of neurodiversity in the workplace, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because, with the right support and understanding, these differences can become superpowers instead of handicaps.

If you have a kid going through the challenges associated with sensory processing differences, you will want to check out this book. It is packed full of tips and strategies for you to support your child in the best way possible, setting them up for a future that makes them truly sensational.


S3E17. Listening to Understand Vs. Listening to Respond

Do you listen to respond… or do you listen to understand?

In my introduction to improv, I realized I was not that great of a listener. This was largely due to my inflated ego. To be a good listener, you need to adopt the “Yes, and” philosophy. Instead of pulling a conversation away from somebody else and back onto yourself, you need to add to it. There’s no room for ego.

We all live in a culture of listening to respond because we believe what we have to add is more valuable or profound than whatever else anyone has to say. This is a limiting belief that holds us back from true collaboration and prevents us from being a truly great leader.

We can all strengthen our listening skills if we work on them every single day. When you do this consistently, you may hear a client, a customer, or a coworker say: “I’m not sure why I told you that” or “do you mind if I rant to you about a situation without judging, only listening?”

The other critical component in listening is empathy. Empathy is being fully present and listening deeply to understand what the other person is saying from their perspective. Make sure you are assessing how they feel in their shoes, not how you would feel in their shoes. Learning how another person feels is a critical part of becoming a better listener.

Active listening is hard. It takes intention, time, and effort. Start working on strengthening your listening skills every single day. As each day passes you will become closer to becoming a better listener, developing better relationships, and having more significant impact on the world.