Four Questions Every Effective Leader Needs to Answer

As 2020 is coming to a close (good riddance), I have decided it is time to start writing my next book. Instead of blogging, or writing it in a quiet place, I have decided to write it through my podcast. A new and untraditional approach to writing a book.  You, my audience, will get a sneak preview of the content and can send me comments, suggestions, and ideas for the book.  Kind of a crowdsourcing approach.  There are two working titles to the book: Improv for the C-Suite and Leadership in Hyperdrive Powered by Improv.  My first call out to you is which of the two do you like?  Send me an email at peter@petermargaritis.com on the title you like the best. 

Over the past two years, I have been doing much research on the topic of improvisational leadership. I have curated 43 articles, 23 books, and 23 YouTube videos based on improv or improv leadership characteristic references. In the book “Getting to YES AND” by Bob Kulman, he discusses that effective leaders can answer four questions about themselves – Why this? Why now? What do I have to do? What’s in it for me? Bob discusses these four questions as if he was to bring the tenets of improvisation into his firm. I will answer those four questions and frame my answers as to – why you should consider bringing improv into your organization.

Why this? 

Improv is where strategy & planning meet implementation. Improvisation is a communication-based technique that requires leaders to be present and, in the moment, to listen as the business depends on it, to respond honestly, put other’s thoughts and needs ahead of theirs, and adapt to the unexpected challenges and opportunities.

Improvisational communication lets the leader focus on the things they have control over and ignore the things they have no control over. This helps the leader to be able to have clarity during chaotic times. By doing so, your brain will slow down to focus on the details, the context, and subtext of the conversation to guarantee nothing is missed. The principles of improvisation are respect, trust, support, listen, focus, adapt, and maintain the Yes And mindset.

Improvisation is all about reacting and adapting to a changing landscape by accurately assessing a given situation’s needs, which allows the conversation to move forward in a positive new direction. Improvisation is about building stronger teams, being creative and innovative, collaborate with others, negotiate from a place of win-win, highly focused during times of stress, setting your ego aside for the good of the organization and others, demonstrating empathy, and being very comfortable with the uncomfortable. Improvisation strengthens the leader’s emotional intelligence and their interpersonal skills.

Why now? 

I am writing this book during the COVID-19 global pandemic. If there ever was a time to adopt the improviser’s mindset, it is now. Change is happening all the time – change is either imposed or designed. Leaders need to be adaptable, collaborative, creative, innovative, and embrace risk.  

Embracing risk is not punitive to those who come up with the ideas; it celebrates those ideas even when they F.A.I.L – First Attempt In Learning. If you don’t allow your team to FAIL and punish them for taking a risk, it will take you longer to solve the problem because everyone is living in fear of being punished. Give you team the freedom to fail and watch them grow.

Showing vulnerability as a leader makes them relatable and human. Your leadership inspires your team to become vulnerable and requires the team to set aside their ego for the organization’s good.  The improvisational philosophy is not the 1950s – 1990s leadership, “I will tell you what to do” leadership style.  It is the collaborative and inclusive leadership style that focuses on the team, and not themselves.

Improvisational leadership provides phycological safety to the team. In the article titled “The Five Keys to a Successful Google team” phycological safety is defined as – the ability to speak your mind and feel safe taking risks in front of each other. Google feels “far and away” that phycological safety is most important dynamic behind a successful team  

It is also the exact opposite of the traditional methods of learning and development.  Sitting in a classroom being lectured to for hours upon hours does not increase retention. It increases boredom. It is just a mind mind-numbing data dump of facts, figures, and content that is uninspiring.  We have lost the motivation to engage the audience to action.  When you take the improviser’s mindset, we turn the content into stories, analogies, and metaphors so the audience will pay attention, which increases retention. This is the reason I wrote the book “Taking the Numb Out of Numbers.”

Change is a constant. You can either lead change, follow change, or ignore change.  Leading change gives you a voice in the conversation. Following change allows you to be a witness in the conversation. Ignoring change will lead to unemployment. Which do you prefer?

What do I have to do? 

Leaders need to learn to live in the moment and become engaging with their team. Improvisation helps in building and maintaining relationships while strengthening their focus. Do you have the ability to park your ego and to suspend judgment? If not, give it a try.  Think of it this way – naturally cross your over your chest.  Now cross them the opposite way.  Uncomfortable right? Of course, it is AND if you began crossing your arms differently, at some point it will be comfortable.  That is exactly what change feel like.   Uncomfortable at first AND you will get comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Be respectful, be trustworthy, and provide support to others. Influential leaders are better communicators because they “listen to understand,” not “listen to respond.” Empathize with your team and be more vulnerable. Embrace the principles of improvisation into your leadership style and the way you live your life. This sounds simple, and it takes work. Here is an analogy that I have used when taking on large tasks, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!  Practice improvisational leadership every day and watch your team respond positively and become more productive. The best thing is that it doesn’t cost a thing other than changing your mindset to an improviser’s mindset. 

What’s in it for me?

There is a lot in it for you, as the leader—more tremendous respect from your team and others in the organization. You will be the improviser/leader that everyone admires and wants to work with. I have never felt that people work for a leader, that is, a boss. 

Today’s leadership demands more collaboration, less “it’s all about me” approach.  You may have the authority and the power, and that is not leadership. Leadership is the POSITIVE effect you have on another person – Simon Sinek. When you adopt that mindset, you teach everyone in your organization that they are all leaders, no matter the title. Create a culture that inspires others to action, and your influence will be contagious to all. Ask for bad ideas because in the world of improv, “bad ideas are bridges to good ideas – no ideas lead to nothing.” Show that your idea is the setup, not the end solution.  Involve your employees in decision-making, problem-solving, and strategy.  Listen to their ideas, their issues, listen to their feelings with empathy.  Increase your emotional intelligence, along with your teams. Don’t be afraid.  By doing so, your turnover will reduce, engagement will increase, problem-solving with require less time, and your bottom line with grow in ways you could ever imagine.    

Join me on this journey of writing my next book through the vehicle of my podcast.  If you would like to be in this next book on improvisational leadership, please submit stories to me about your improvisational leadership at peter@petermargaritis.com and if I use them in the book, you will receive a free autographed copy once it is published. 

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

Getting Creative

Silhouette People Meeting Team Creative Process ConceptWhen asked what you do for a living, what do you answer? Accountant or business manager or maybe partner in a CPA firm? That may be what your business card says, but in reality what you should say is “I am a problem solver”. That’s the value you bring to clients: you make their businesses run more smoothly by resolving problems that create obstacles to success.

The best problem solvers are also very creative. They look beyond the obvious job duties and investigate opportunities. Rather than complete the tasks assigned by clients (or bosses), creative problem solvers look deeper into the project. They identify potential liabilities, brainstorm potential solutions, do their research and discuss the options with their client.

Now you may say that you just aren’t creative, that it’s right brain versus left brain, that it’s something you are born with or you aren’t. Not true. Creativity can and should be nurtured and developed in every person. Even accountants!

Most business leaders are driven by the bottom line. Investing in developing creativity in your staff has to yield dividends, and it does. Here are the facts*.

•  Companies that embrace creativity outperform those that don’t 1.5 to 1
•  58% of those who foster creativity increased annual revenue by 10% or more. Only 20% of less creative companies had similar growth.
•  82% of companies believe there is a strong connection between creativity and business results.
•  60% of companies who foster creativity in their team have received award and recognition as a “best place to work.”
•  Despite the facts, 61% of senior managers do not describe their companies as creative!

So what does it take to bring out the creativity in your team? Start with yourself.
•  As the leader of your team, are you open and receptive to new ideas?
•  Is brainstorming a part of the process – actively soliciting ideas that challenge the norm.
•  Is your team encouraged to try something new, to avoid SALY (Same As Last Year).
•  Are you a “Yes, but…” leader or a “Yes, and…” leader?

If you answered no to any of these points, you may be the problem. The solution: get professional help. Let’s talk – you can be a creative, problem solver.

 

* Results from a Forrester Consulting Survey

Poor Soft Skills = Poor Executive Advancement

exec_communication_picRecently I was reviewing a 2013 survey published by Robert Half that clearly highlighted the disconnect between the investment in soft skill training and the demand for those skills in management.  CFOs reported that poor interpersonal skills, those are soft skills, were the top reason for lack of advancement from within their firm.  Here are some outstanding results from this survey:

“In your opinion, which one of the following is the most common reason for an employee’s failure to advance at your company?”

30% – Poor interpersonal skills

25% – Poor work ethic

23% – Not developing new skills

15% – Failure to enhance his/her visibility within the organization

5% – Failure to proactively see promotions and career advancement

2% – Other

Yet of these same CFOs only 19% say they would invest in soft skills training. The very reasons their staff is not ready for executive promotion, the communication and interpersonal skills that hold an employee back, are not being trained in a vast majority of firms.

To be fair, soft skills training has increased in the last 5 or so years, but that isn’t enough. Firms that want to promote from within must look at helping their staff develop both accounting/finance skills and interpersonal skills. Churning through employees and hiring top executives from the outside are demoralizing and expensive. Invest in training now or invest in recruiting new staff later. It’s that simple.

 

CFOs were asked, “In your opinion, which one of the following is the most common reason for an employee’s failure to advance at your company?” Their responses:

Poor interpersonal skills

30%

Poor work ethic

25%

Not developing new skills

23%

Failure to enhance his or her visibility within the organization

15%

Failure to proactively seek promotions and career advancement

5%

None of these

1%

Don’t know/no answer

2%

– See more at: http://accountemps.rhi.mediaroom.com/2013-06-19-Survey-Few-CFOs-Plan-to-Invest-in-Interpersonal-Skills-Development-for-Their-Teams#sthash.Fe1ROGx0.dpuf

CFOs were asked, “In your opinion, which one of the following is the most common reason for an employee’s failure to advance at your company?” Their responses:

Poor interpersonal skills

30%

Poor work ethic

25%

Not developing new skills

23%

Failure to enhance his or her visibility within the organization

15%

Failure to proactively seek promotions and career advancement

5%

None of these

1%

Don’t know/no answer

2%

– See more at: http://accountemps.rhi.mediaroom.com/2013-06-19-Survey-Few-CFOs-Plan-to-Invest-in-Interpersonal-Skills-Development-for-Their-Teams#sthash.Fe1ROGx0.dpuf

Embrace Your Inner Superhero!

It’s true…every CPA has Superhero potential. One of my most popular keynotes and presentation, Embrace Your Inner Superhero, presents helps break down barriers and provides tips and tools for pushing yourself to a placed that allows you to perform great feats!

Here’s a portion of my presentation…Enjoy!