Awakened to Change! An Improvisor’s Journey

In a recent conversation with a colleague about social justice reform and eliminating racism, I made the comment that racism is something you learn over time through your family, culture, and your environment.  Growing up in Lexington, KY in the 1960s through the early ’80s, I witnessed racism in a variety of ways. However, I never thought of those actions as racist because they were commonplace and part of the family, culture, and environment. The reality, however, and I am sad to say it – is that at one point in my life, I was a racist. 

It was in early 1984 when I recognized that my thoughts and attitudes had begun to change.  I was the new general manager of Ken’s Pizza in Griffin, GA.  When I asked people if they knew where Griffin, GA is located, most did not, so I would respond, “somewhere between Atlanta and the Civil War”. The reason for that reference came from an encounter I had with two customers on my first day as a general manager.  It went like this:  after our lunch rush, two little mature ladies called me over to their booth.  I walked over and introduced myself and asked if they like their pizza.  They both said that they enjoyed the pizza. Then one of the ladies looked me in the eye and said, “It is nice to have a white general manager for a change.” I was stunned and said, “excuse me I need to get back to work.” 

It was 1997 when I realized that my opinions, attitude, and mindset had totally changed.  The realization came to me during a conversation with my father about the potential hiring of Tubby Smith, African American, to be the new basketball head coach at the University of Kentucky.  My father swore that there would never be a black Head Coach at UK. When I pointed out that Tubby was an assistant coach at UK from 1989 – 1991 he said that being an assistant was okay.  Turns out my dad was wrong. Tubby Smith was hired as the Head Coach at UK in March 1997.  It is a little ironic that my father said that because he told me a story about his Greek stepfather trying to open a second business in Harlan, KY in the ’50s, only for it to be burned to the ground by the KKK because a Greek could only have one business. A perfect example of some self-appointed superior group telling someone else, they are not allowed to do something. 

That was also the year I was introduced to improv comedy.  As I began to recognize that improv was more than just being funny – that it is really a leadership philosophy and way of life – my awareness, attitudes and beliefs began to change dramatically. The Improv concept of Yes! And teaches us to suspend our judgment, park our ego, listen to understand, and to be empathetic.  

Yes! And, and Improv isn’t about pushing a tired old belief forward just because this is the way it always has been. It isn’t about looking at others as second- or third-class citizens and making decisions based upon stereotypes. It is not about listening and only responding to push your tired and outdated agenda. 

Yes! And is just the opposite – with a lot of empathy. Empathy is not putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is trying to understand how that person feels in their shoes.   

Yes! And, and Improv is about humanity. No matter someone’s race, everyone is a human being, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds & cultures. These people are sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, oxygen breathing, emotional humans. It is about acceptance and moving forward.  It is about trying to understand how the other person feels in their shoes.  When was the last time you tried doing that by suspending your judgment, parking your ego, and truly listening to understand rather than just responding? 

Last year, an African American friend of mine and I were talking just before my family’s annual vacation to Sanibel Island, FL in August. Just before we hung up, he said, “Be careful that you don’t get too dark, the police might pull you over.” I can’t imagine getting pulled over just because of the color of my skin, but we see and hear about it all the time. What would I feel like if a police officer pulled me over just because of the color of my skin or that he/she simply could?  Especially when I knew that I had done nothing wrong. 

My favorite conference to speak at was the National Association of Black Accountants, and I spoke there for 5 years in a row.  I remember the first time I was there; I was walking the halls with an African American woman who asked me, “Don’t you feel nervous?” I replied, “By what?” She said, “You know, you kind of stand out from almost everyone attending.” I replied, “When I see someone who is a different color than me, I try to see them as who they are – father, husband, wife, mother, son, daughter, who is trying to make the best life for them and their families, just like I am trying to do. 

A female colleague shared a story with me about traveling the east coast on business, missing her Amtrak train, and having to walk into a small town in Connecticut in a notably ‘bad’ area.  As she was leaving the train platform, she saw a group of young black men heading toward the platform – and her – through an empty parking lot. She admittedly had a moment. A moment of fear based on familial and cultural conditioning.  And then she stopped.  Changed her thought – that moment – to one of gratitude, and instead of being afraid, she walked up to the young men, dropped her bags and thanked them for coming to her rescue.  They gathered round her and helped her find a place to stay for the night – exactly what they had intended when they first saw her. 

Being silent and not enacting positive change is not the way to create change, especially in difficult times like these. There are too many leaders who think they are leaders when they are not.  As I heard Simon Sinek say during an interview, “Leadership has nothing to do with your title. Leadership is the positive effect you have on another person.”  

To enact positive change in the elimination of social injustice and racism, white people need to quit talking and start listening. We need to hear the conversation for what it is, not what we want it to be. We need to take an improvisor’s mindset to search for a solution versus creating a bigger divide for our own self interests. I have heard many of an improvisor say, “if everyone would just take one improv course, this world would be a better place.”

This is an example of Leadership in Hyperdrive: Powered by Improv™. If you would like to learn more about how improv is a powerful leadership philosophy, please contact me at peter@petermargaritis.com

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Improvisation is the Fulcrum to Leveraging Your Greatest Asset

Do you know what your greatest asset is as a CEO, CFO, or partner in an accounting firm? If you answered your employees, you would be correct. Leveraging your greatest asset means multiplying the productivity of that resource without a significant input. Each one of your employees can be leveraged by incorporating improvisation to create positive results in a business economy that favors innovation.

Creativity is the Foundation of Innovation

When I hold creativity workshops, the common theme I run into is that people think they have bad ideas. I say, bad ideas lead to good ideas and that having no ideas leads to nothing. In order for creativity to flow, the inner critic inside of all of us has to be silenced. The inner critic is that voice that says you will fail. It is the voice that says they will think your idea is stupid or that, if your suggestion is not used, you are a failure.

When you get a whole office being dictated by a collective force of inner critics, you end up dead in the water because today’s market is based on the current innovation running all around the world.  You get stuck doing the same thing as last year and the year before. It has become a race to see who will meet the shifting needs of the rising generations in both your external and internal customers.

Many times, when we leverage sales, we will upsell or upgrade, throw in a bonus right before the sale. It yields a greater profit. To, leverage the profitability of your employees you are looking for a way to silence their inner critics and release a collective flow of creativity so innovation can lead the way.

Improv Silences the Inner Critic

There are unlimited team building workshops and activities we send our employees on. But most people will attend because they are required and as soon as Monday rolls back around, it is back to counting beans and pushing papers. There was no real connection made between the employees and the events have become more of an excuse to have fun, as a type of paid for bonus rather than applying real team building principles. The inner critics remain alive and creativity dead.

What if you brought in a completely new approach? What if the organizational status is left out of the room when brainstorming ways to innovate the processes and what if everyone’s ideas are respected? What if you began to approach employees using the skills of improv?

The concept of improv is more popular now off stage. Business schools are rapidly adding improvisational acting classes to their curriculum. Kip Kelly is the Director of Marketing and Business Development at UNC Executive Development. He wrote a paper on leadership agility and how to use improvisation to build the critical skills needed in our rapidly evolving business climate. In response to how to develop agile business leaders, he hit the nail on the head. “While knowledge and experience remain critical, it is becoming increasingly important to develop leaders with the ability to deal with ambiguity and change, to lead and foster innovation and creativity, and to make and implement decisions quickly.

The Principle of “Yes, And…” Promotes Creativity

Focus on creating a culture that encourages bad ideas! Better yet, throw out a bad idea on purpose to see what your team does with it. Lead by example. Bad ideas lead to good ideas and though it may be intimidating for a first-year analyst to be tossing ideas around with the CFO, try to start incorporating regular brainstorming sessions.

Their inner critic will probably go crazy. But when that one person speaks up and throws an idea in the hat that doesn’t fit in the budget right now, how you respond will make or break the climate you are trying to cultivate. “Yes, that is a good idea, but… that won’t work right now. Anyone else?” Saying “yes… but…” shuts things down. Listen to the difference when you use the “yes, and…” approach.

Yes, that is a good idea, and I think that is worth looking into more. How can we make this something we can jump on even quicker?” Maybe the event can be scaled down. Maybe it can be planned for in the future. “Yes, and…” is about being agreeable and continuing the conversation. When the conversation is continued, you are promoting an atmosphere of acceptance and possibilities, not one of rejection and defeat.

Every effective leader knows how to leverage their greatest asset. It may be by implementing regular brainstorming sessions, mind mapping, and even bringing in improv educators to improve communication within the workplace. When employees communicate better, get along better, and have a more open line of communication all the way up the chain, productivity goes up because innovation is flowing through a strong current of acceptance. 

Focus on creating a culture that encourages bad ideas. Bad ideas lead to good ideas. No ideas lead to nothing. 

At Last, The Secret to Active and Authentic Listening

Have you ever had a conversation with someone – and you know the entire time that they are not listening to you? You can feel it in their energy, you can hear it in their tone, and you can see it in their body language.  They’re leaning back, with the “deer in the headlights” look; and if you look down at their feet, they are pointed to either the left or right because they want out of the conversation. Or, perhaps they are not listening to you because they have an agenda to push and they are just waiting for their turn to talk? 

If it’s about their agenda, then their body language is the exact opposite from before – leaning forward, rolling their eyes, and trying to make themselves taller with their feet pointed at you. They have something important to say, and they are either waiting for you to stop talking or better yet, they rudely interrupt you. Any of this sound familiar?  We’ve all been on the giving and/or receiving end of poor listening – how does it make you feel – and how are you making others feel? 

I used to be a terrible listener.  My over-inflated ego was driving the scene and I wanted my ideas to be accepted by all. Arrogant I was (think ‘Yoda voice’). 

Then, I was introduced to, and stepped into, the world of improv. One of the very first lessons I learned, was that to be successful in the art of improv, you need to “listen to understand,” aka, active listening. Listening to understand means you park your ideas, your biases, and eliminate all distractions. You suspend your judgment (set your ego aside), so you can focus on listening to what the other person is trying to communicate while managing your emotions. It is authentic.

Easy enough, right? WRONG!

Listening to understand is a skill that needs ongoing practice and strengthening. Over the last 20 years, I have become a better listener, with plenty of setbacks. In my book, Improv Is No Joke: Using Improvisation to Create Positive Results in Leadership and Life, I share this story.

Let’s say a CPA has a client across the table who is pouring out her angst about what’s keeping her up at night. The client is making it clear what she needs and wants, but the CPA is thinking of the services that they came in to sell and is waiting for their opening.

“Well,” the CPA tells the long-faced client, “we have this new product here that we’ve developed…”

The client wonders whether the CPA was listening to her – and he wasn’t. He was waiting to deliver a sales pitch. Far better if he could have put those products and services to the side and truly heard his client’s wants and needs and asked questions to learn more about them. A real conversation results in a meeting of minds. That’s the way to a genuine sale—one that’s a real fit.

We all can strengthen our listening skills if we work on them every single day. And when we do this consistently over time, you might just hear a client, customer, or co-worker say, “

“I am not sure why I told you that?” Or, “do you mind if I rant about a situation that happened to me without judging, only listening”? (Google – “It’s Not About the Nail”.  This is a perfect video to understand my last sentence.)

The other critical part of listening is empathy.  Empathy is being fully present and listening deeply to understand what they are saying from their point of view. In the Forbes.com article, Empathy Is an Essential Leadership Skill — And There’s Nothing Soft About It by Prudy Gourguechon, she states, “Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience, perspective, and feelings. Also called “vicarious introspection,” it’s commonly described as the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. But make sure you are assessing how they would feel in their shoes, not how you would feel in their shoes.”

Learning how another person feels in their shoes is critical and challenging to becoming a better listener.  We need to ask many questions – many good questions – to understand the other person’s situation and feelings. We all come from different backgrounds, ethnicity, and race. As a friend of mine, Dino Tripodis, once said, “we are the sum of our experiences.” Take the time to understand the other person’s journey, listen and learn, and think about how you may need to change your mindset based on the information you are receiving. 

If you would like to discuss ways that you can improve yours and your co-workers listening skills, please contact me at peter@petermargaritis.com and in the subject line put – At Last, The Secret to Active and Authentic Listening 

THANK YOU to all the heroes!

The coronavirus will be part of our lives until a vaccine is developed and administered. As of May 14, 2020, there are 4,387,438 confirmed cases with 298,392 (7%) deaths, globally. In the U.S., there are 1,395,265 confirmed cases with 84,313 (6%) deaths. These facts are from the COVID-19 Dashboard by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

When you take a step back from these numbers, they are entirely staggering since the first known case was discovered on November 17, 2019, according to the South Morning China Post. The virus came ashore in the U.S. in February 2020, just three months ago. 

There are hundreds, if not thousands of heroes in this battle, and we owe each and every one of them a big THANK YOU for putting their lives on the front lines to protect every one of us. Here’s to the doctors, nurses, healthcare professionals and scientists working on the vaccine and therapy’s; truck drivers, grocery store personnel, those who work in distribution centers, those who are making masks and giving them away, food delivery people, funeral directors, police, firefighters, governors, state officials, directors of state health departments; those essential profit and non-profit businesses; those who have recovered from the virus and have donated their plasma;  all of these are just some off the top of my head who deserve our gratitude.  And there are many, many more. 

The coronavirus has touched us all in some manner. You may know someone who had the virus and recovered, or you may know someone who has died from the virus, or you know one of the heroes of the virus. I know:

  • A personal friend contracted the virus early in March when the key questions were – have you traveled to China or one of the other infected countries? OR, have you come in contact with anyone who has tested positive? He was not tested, but his doctor told him to self-quarantine. It took three long weeks to recover and has no idea how or where he contacted the virus. During the three weeks of his battle, I would text him about every other day to see how he was feeling and check on his progress. Now that he has recovered, he is going to donate his plasma to help others.  
  • I have a friend who is a nurse in Lexington, KY, and she volunteered to go to New York City during the peak of the outbreak and help out in any way possible. I sent my friend a thank you note for her service.
  • I have a friend and his fiancée who are doctors and are working in the COVID-19 wings within their hospitals in Boston. We have sent them thank you cards for their service and will send them Cheryl Cookies once Cheryl’s and begin delivery.  
  • When I visit a grocery store, I try to thank all of those people who working to keep the shelves stocked and the store sanitized for the betterment of their customers.  

Take a moment and think of those heroes that you know.  Have you thanked them for their courage and service during this crisis? If not, then take a moment and thank them. I am sure they will be very appreciative. Stay healthy, be safe, and practice social distancing.

Step Away from the Script

The unlikely blending of Accounting and Improvisation is something I have in common with my two guests, Kristen Rampe and Jason Lieu, from Slide Deck Improv. Both Kristen and Jason started their careers in the Accounting field but later discovered Improv as a creative outlet. This prompted Kristen to create Slide Deck Improv, which features improv-based workshops as a way to put the fun back into the way professionals communicate in their workplace.  

Slide Deck Improv marries both worlds by working on presentation and communication skills with an improv angle. Besides being in a classroom learning environment, the audience also plays improv games, which is a great way to teach people to think on their feet. The experience not only taps into the creative process, but it also gives you more faith in your abilities and boosts confidence. Participants learn to enhance their speaking and storytelling skills so that they can connect with others in more impactful ways. It teaches people how to observe and try new skills while having much fun in the process. 

Kristen designed the program, so there is “a little bit of learning, a little bit of practice, and just a whole lot of fun.” Also, the course helps participants build confidence by assisting them to get “comfortable in the uncomfortable.”  

Professional development workshops are notoriously dull, but this one is not. According to Slide Deck Improv, they offer “a fresh and fun classroom experience to help professionals tap into their creativity and gain confidence presenting to groups.”  

Besides teaching improv skills, volunteers in the workshop present before the group. They present five slides (one picture per slide) that they have never seen before and a topic that will be selected by the audience. Just imagine a seasoned tax professional speaking on the subject of Botany. At the same time, a picture of cows pops up on the screen. While laughter ripples through the room, the group learns how to make public speaking a little less scary.  

All professional groups from sales to engineers will benefit from learning how to engage people with the newfound confidence that Slide Deck Improv provides. Whether it is interacting with your sales team, customers, or management, these skills can be utilized in your profession, but also transfer over into your daily life.  

Many professionals are highly analytical and spend a lot of time in their heads. Jason described his experience with Improv as, “In any given moment, I’m in my head trying to digest information. And I like to go back and analyze everything before I come up with an answer. Improv gave me this tool that allowed me to live in the moment, listen to people, and to engage in real-time, and I love the feeling and energy of it.”  

Jason expands on the benefits of the program. “I love Improv because it’s such a general skill. It’s not just a business communication skill. It’s a life skill. You can bring this into all your facets of everyday life. And it’s all about connecting with your audience no matter who the audience is. It could be your customers, clients, sales team, internal, external, whatever. It comes down to people talking to people. And if you can connect and engage people, you’re going to have this newfound confidence in your work.”

Everyone can benefit from this kind of workshop, whether you are a CEO or a young professional. Improving your communication skills while in a less traditional forum sparks more productive business relationships. 

You can join in on the fun, while Kristen and Jason show off their improv skills during season 2, episode 13 of Change Your Mindset podcast by clicking here. You’ll get a taste of how the programs work while gaining valuable insight into the process. Thank you, Kristen and Jason, for taking the time to share your innovative program.

Visit SlideDeckImprov.com to find out more about how you can ‘Step Away from the Script.’