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. 

Leadership in Hyperdrive – Powered by Improv™

Leadership and improv are not opposing forces.  Improv is a strategic component of good leadership.  WHAT?!  That is what I said, I stand by it, and I can prove it by what has been written in the Wall Street Journal (Oh, My God, Where Is This Going?’ When Computer-Science Majors Take Improv), Forbes (Improv Training: The Power of Funny Business), and Harvard Business Review (Negotiation Research: Negotiation Skills from the World of Improv for Conflict Management: A Negotiation Skills Q&A), just to name a few.  I have curated 38 business articles, 22 books, and 23 videos on the intersection of leadership and improv.  
 
Let’s start this discussion around the key principle of improv, which is these two powerful words, Yes! And. Yes! And has many applications. First, Yes! And is about agreement but not always agreeing. It is about pushing forward a conversation and exploring the possibilities.  Yes! And is the opposite of “No because” or “Yes, But” because those are negative responses that invoke a negative emotion and are used far too often in today’s corporate environment. They are way too punitive where Yes And is open to possibilities. 
 
For Yes And to be effective, you must suspend your judgment and park your ego.  That’s right and let me say that again, suspend your judgment and park your ego – PERIOD. Push the conversation forward through a series of questions and positive comments in order to gain a better understanding of the issue the other person is experiencing.  This is called empathy. It’s about understanding the issue from their point of view, not your point of view. 

The process of listening and being empathetic is a powerful way of showing the other person that you appreciate what they are saying.  I read somewhere that 73% of people leave their job due to a lack of appreciation. How do you feel when you know someone is listening to you and trying to gain a better understanding versus shutting you down by saying NO?  

I am not saying NO should never be used because there are times where NO or “not now”, is appropriate. For example, someone is trying to push you into an unethical situation; the response should be NO. When you are leaving a meeting and going into another meeting, and an associate stops you to ask you a question, your answer should be, this isn’t the best time. Let me find a break in my day when we can discuss it without any major distractions. 

I believe that most conversations we have in the corporate environment should explore using Yes And principle as their dialog.

When I am working with a group of CPAs, finance professionals, or sales teams the first exercise I use to demonstrate the use of Yes And is called – No Because, Yes But, Yes! And. 

Round 1

Improviser A: Pitch an idea to Person B. For example, “After this class, let’s go out to dinner.”

Improviser B: Respond to the pitch with – No, because and gives a reason.  For example, No, because I want to avoid crowds so I can avoid COVID-19.

Improviser A: Responds back with No because, and give their reason. 

Improviser B: Responds back with No because, and give their reason. 

This round is no longer than 60 seconds

Round 2

Improviser A: Pitch the same idea in round 1 to Improvisor B. 

Improviser B: Respond to the pitch with – Yes, but and give a reason. 

Improviser A: Responds back with Yes, but, and give their reason. 

Improviser B: Responds back with Yes, but, and give their reason. 

This round is no longer than 60 seconds

Round 3

Improviser A: Pitch the same idea in round 1 to Improvisor B. 

Improviser B: Respond to the pitch with – Yes, and give a reason.  

Improviser A: Responds back with Yes, And, and give their reason. 

Improviser B: Responds back with Yes, And, and give their reason. 

This round is no longer than 60 seconds

When the exercise is over, I debrief them by first asking them how they felt during the No, because round.  They respond with words or phrases like: negative, no progress, confrontational, defeating and, argumentative. Then I ask them how they felt during Yes But. They respond with words or phrases like: it felt a little better, feels like lip service because they initially agree, BUT then they add their ideas without fully understanding where I am coming from.  Then I ask them how they felt during Yes! And. I get responses of – positive, found a solution, inspiring, motivating, and it felt so much better.

Wouldn’t you rather have a leader listen to you and try to help solve a problem using Yes! And versus shutting you down or making you feel bad? One of my favorite leadership quotes comes from Simon Sinek, and it is – “Leadership has nothing to do with a title. Leadership is the positive effect you have on another person.”

YES! And is a conduit to having a positive effect on another person.

Brainstorming solutions is another application of Yes! And. Let me start by saying you can’t create something and be critical in the same space. These are two different exercises.  When I hear the word innovation – I separate it into two separate pieces – creativity and effectively applied creativity.  Creativity or the initial search for the solution (brainstorming) requires divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is the process of generating as many creative ideas as possible (ideation).  Divergent thinking is about quantity, not quality.  The effectively applied creativity quality assessment comes through convergent thinking; we search for the right solution from the ideas generated.

Yes! And in a brainstorming session is about agreeing with an idea and adding on to it. In improv, we say, “bad ideas are bridges to good ideas, no ideas lead to nothing.” Take a moment and think about that phrase.  It makes perfect sense… Yes! And only if you have created a culture that accepts terrible ideas.  Once you have that culture in place, then you can take it up another level up and ask for crazy ideas.  The crazier the idea allows us a lot more bandwidth to find the solution.  We will not institute the insane idea but will walk it back to the middle to find a workable solution.  

We also say in improv “bring a brick, not the cathedral,” which means bring an open mind with lots of ideas and not the solution. My improv coach, Jay Sukow, reminds me that “Your idea is not the end idea; it is the setup.” You have to dial back your ego and accept that someone else’s idea is better than yours.  I have been quoted as saying, “the collective knowledge outside of your office far exceeds the collective knowledge inside your office. We all have participated in a brainstorming session where the boss has already decided what the solution is but solicits everyone’s ideas only to shoot them down. I call this an “ask-hole.” 

YES! And is a conduit in dealing with the unknown, like COVID – 19.  

There is something new every day in this global pandemic, or it just feels like it. Improvisors focus on the things they have control over and not the things we don’t have control over.  Another way to think about is “to improvise the scene you are in, not the one you want to be in,” and focus on today as much as possible.  

In March, when the country was shutting down, we stepped into a state of unknown and uncertainty.  At first, my mind went to a dark place in the future, and my business was completely shutting down.  But then, my improvisor skills kicked in and discarded those dark thoughts and just focused on the issues at hand, one day. Each day, I would shed the reality of yesterday and accept the fact of that day. The deeper we went into quarantine, the more I realized that the pre-COVID-19 world would no longer exist, and I needed to accept that fact and adapt.  

On a personal note, please stop using the term pivot.  The short definition of a pivot is “to turn on.” Whereas, the short definition of adapt is “to become adjusted to new conditions.” We are adjusting to our new conditions every single day.  This pandemic will be with us until a vaccine can be developed and widely and successfully administered. 

I have been adapting my business model to the new normal because that is the only thing I control. The facts – 85 percent of my speaking business either canceled or was postponed to later this year or 2021.  65% of my speaking revenue occurs during the months of August through December.  I have only nine scheduled engagements during this time frame for 2020, which is down 70%. 

I have been using this time to re-create my business so that it will not be as dependent on live speaking engagements to generate growth and revenue.  I’ve been working on building a consulting practice, sketching out my third book, moving my face-to-face presentations to a virtual, and creating a virtual improv workshop that I will launch in September 2020. 

Virtual presentations are not new to me because I have been doing them for more than five years, either pre-recorded or live.  I am familiar with Zoom, Cisco WebEx, and gotomeetings.com. I am a certified virtual presenter through eSpeakers, a business partner of the National Speakers Association.

The mindset of an improvisor is always adjusting to the new landscape and letting go of past realities. Think about this – how many of you all felt that the internet was just a fad, or online shopping would never replace “brick and mortar” shopping. Just ask Sears, Toys R Us, or Neiman Marcus, or Macy’s if they could go back in time, would they have taken online shopping more seriously?  I think we all know that answer.  

How about working remotely? I used to hear that people who worked remotely could not be as productive as those who work in an office setting. Those employees were sitting at home eating bon-bons and watching Ellen. However, during the pandemic, when offices were closed, we learned that we could be more productive working remotely to the point that companies are trying to reduce their corporate real estate footprint and shed excess overhead.

Leadership in Hyperdrive – Powered by Improv and the power of Yes! And, is a way of adapting to the changing landscape, becoming more creative and collaborative, and showing you do appreciate the people that you work with by taking time to listen and show empathy to them. Leadership in Hyperdrive – Powered by Improv is the type of leadership that will produce the most significant results.

If you have any questions or comments about anything in this episode, please feel free in emailing me at peter@petermargaritis.com.  

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 

Controlling Feelings of Anxiety

I’ve been constantly reminded of the need to understand our limits. As a diabetic, for example, I have to listen to what my body is telling me all the time. If my blood sugar is calling for me to tweak my schedule, I must listen and adapt. When you are aware of the signals, no matter your specific situation, you will know what to do—and that’s true whether you’re trying to pick up on the messages that your body is sending you or on the messages that an audience is sending you. It is the awareness itself that plays a major role in reducing stress.

Improvisation and awareness has helped me manage stress so that I can take better care of myself – allowing me to better respond and plan my next step. The skills of improv clearly are a strength in times of crisis. As you listen, assess, and adapt to each scenario presented to you, you can more effectively overcome anything. And, as you do it more and more, you become confident that you are indeed able to deal with a situation. As a result, your confidence increases…while your stress decreases.

If you understand that you can control how your body reacts to a medical condition, then you should also be able to understand that you can control feelings of anxiety when confronted with a new and uncomfortable situation. We all have found ourselves facing appearances we might prefer to avoid, whether we’re called into the office or hauled into court or going on a job interview or delivering a speech. Again, you have the power to silence that inner critic’s prognostications of impending failure. Tell yourself, “Yes, this feels difficult for me, and I can do it.”

We must do a lot of things that we don’t want to tackle. Those tasks become much harder if we cop a bad attitude. “I hate talking to people and networking” will defeat any chance of doing well at such activities. There is a huge difference between “I will do the best I can” and “This is going to fail.” If you adopt a better attitude, one that doesn’t broadcast defeat, you might actually find that you are doing pretty well. You can feel good about your accomplishment.

Whether your stress results from a physical condition or something else, so much depends on your ability to perceive things positively. Either you win, or you let the stress win. Your choice.

Learn more about how improv principles can improve your career by taking the Yes, And Challenge. Sign-up at www.petermargaritis.com and share your experience on Twitter and Facebook using #YesAndChallenge.