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. 

Virtual Presentations Don’t Have to Suck – 10 Tips so you don’t suck!

We were thrown into the virtual world kicking and screaming. Virtual meetings, virtual presentations, and virtual happy hours have become the norm. 

So, there are few things to keep in mind when facilitating virtual meetings/presentations AND when you are part of the audience. Here are some of them:

As a presenter, I don’t want to: 

  1. Look up your nose
  2. See you walking around your house
  3. See your cat in front of your camera
  4. Hear your dog barking 
  5. See a silhouette of you because you are sitting with a window behind you
  6. See you disappear into your virtual wallpaper – or watch various body parts appear and disappear.

And those are just a few observations and complaints from the presenters, not the audience.  

For myself, the number one challenge is remembering to look at the camera during the presentation. It is critical to make eye contact with your audience to help keep them engaged. Think about it, in a live presentation, if the presenter never makes eye contact with you, would you feel that the presenter cared about you or their presentation?

As to the audience, many things cause an extreme disconnect, and in some cases, disrespect – however unintended. 

My top three are:

  1. Audience members do not have their camera on. To a presenter, this gives the impression that you are not paying attention, are disengaged, and, more than likely, multi-tasking… taking the dog for a walk? making lunch? answering emails? You may or may not be doing any of these things, but it appears as though you are!  
  2. They forget that a virtual meeting/presentation is a professional event. Not taking into consideration the camera angle, personal appearance, or background that others are seeing. Many participants show up – often late – while driving their car with their phone in their lap.  
  3. You are forgetting to mute the audio line when not talking. Every noise in the background – dogs barking, kids screaming, car horns honking, Starbucks espresso machines screeching, etc., will be heard by everyone else in the virtual meeting – and be distracted and disconnected because of it.

These are the kinds of things that make virtual events suck. But here’s the point – a Virtual ANYTHING does not have to suck! And it is the presenter’s responsibility to make sure it doesn’t suck by engaging the audience.  

If you are the presenter or running the virtual meeting, here are eight tips to not suck and engage your audience. As a special bonus, two tips on how to improve your internet speed and stability. 

  1. Eye contact: Raise your laptop or desktop monitor, so you are eye-to-eye with the webcam. You can achieve this by a stack of books under your laptop to raise it to your eye level. Also, remember to look into the webcam 70% of the time. This will increase the engagement with the audience. 
  2. Stand up: Standing up in front of an audience and delivering your content is how presentations, preCOVID-19 were done, so why should they be any different when giving a live virtual presentation? When we are standing, we increase our energy and passion. Go out and buy yourself a standing desk, a desk riser, or use your MacGyver skills. A colleague took a basket and a lobster pot and put their monitor on top of it to stand and deliver their virtual presentation. 
  3. Purchase a good microphone without breaking the bank. Suppose your internet is running as it should, but the audience can’t hear you well, or there are crackling noises in your microphone. In that case, your audience will stop listening to you. You can get a decent microphone for under $100.00, and it is worth the investment.
  4. Breakout Rooms: If you are using Zoom, MS Teams, Gotomeeting,com, or Cisco Webex, utilized the breakout rooms for discussions, role-play, brainstorming, debates, strategy discussions, improv exercise, or anything that requires a minimum of 2 people. 
  5. Polling questions: Poll the audience frequently and often to ensure they understand the concepts and content you deliver. Also, get to know your audience with some demographic information. 
  6. Conferences IO: According to their website, Conferences i/o improves attendee engagement, participation & learning by empowering audiences to interact in real-time during presentations. In Conferences IO, you can ask multiple choice questions, short answers, numerical average, or brainstorming ideas. There is also a Q&A feature where someone can ask a question, and if others think it is a good or bad question, they can vote it up or down. I am starting to use more of Conferences IO than having the audience submit answers to my questions via the chatbox. The reason is that after your session is over, you can download a report to review and to give it to your client. Now they have something tangible to review from your presentation.
  7. Use a multi-camera shoot: When you are looking at your webcam, switch to another camera, and go back and forth. The audience will likely still be engaged because they get different video angles, which helps them pay attention. Go old school, use your 2nd camera, and focus on a flip chart or whiteboard in your office. That will raise some eyebrows and make it way more interesting and fun. 
  8. Simplify your slides and tell more stories:  When I say simplify, think like Abe Lincoln. Abe wrote the Gettysburg address using only 272 words, which, if spoken 100 words per minute, Lincoln spoke for just under 3 minutes. Former Secretary of State Edward Everett spoke before Lincoln, and he spoke for two hours. Use fewer words on your PowerPoint slides and tell more stories. That is how you keep the audience engaged. A data dump of faces and figures shoved on a PPT slide with the font size of 12 is just another way of telling the audience to read their email and play their favorite app game.  
  9. Know your minimum internet speed, upload bandwidth, and network latency:  The minimum internet speed should be 200 Mbps, upload bandwidth of 1.5 Mbps, and network latency should be less than 100 ms. Per Netflix’s website, latency refers to the time it takes for data to travel from a user’s device to the server and back – will be measured on both unloaded and loaded connections. Unloaded latency measures the round-trip time of a request when there is no other traffic present on a user’s network, while loaded latency measures the round-trip time when data-heavy applications are being used on the network. For example, your unloaded latency is 25, and your loaded latency is 50, that is good. However, if your unloaded latency is 25 and your loaded latency is 175, which is not good, and you are suffering from BufferBloat, which can cause your Zoom meetings to buffer or freeze, even though your speed is 300 Mbps. Check with your internet provider. 
  10. Improve your internet speed: You can improve your speed by 
    1. shutting down any program running in the background like Dropbox and a File backup app.  
    2. If your hard drive is almost full, then move files off your hard drive to an external drive. Free up more space. 
    3. Reboot your modem and router once a week.

I have been working with three regional salespeople for a manufacturer in the Midwest to give a more engaging virtual presentation. These are the tips and techniques I have been sharing with them to continue to do their job and engage their customers and prospects. 

If you would like me to work with you or your team on how do give a more engaging virtual presentation, please email me at peter@petermargaritis.com and put in the subject line,Virtual Presentations Don’t Have to Suck.

All Ideas Are Important Ideas

Are you looking for a new way to generate ideas to solve your problems? Do you have a culture in place that accepts that all ideas are important ideas? Do you think of yourself as a creative person? What about your team?

David Kelley, CEO of legendary design firm IDEO, spoke about the importance of building creative confidence. He relayed a classmate’s experience early on in elementary school, being ridiculed by a peer about the project he was trying to create. As a result, his classmate immediately shut down and quit the project, feeling discouraged about his peer’s opinion. Kelley went on to talk about how we can often “opt-out” of being creative due to this kind of experience – we tell ourselves that we’re not creative, so, therefore, it’s somehow true. He stressed how wrong this is and how important it is for us to understand and realize that we are all naturally creative – we’re not divided into “creatives” and “non-creatives.”

In creative workshops with accounting professionals, I always stress the need to think about more than just facts. Accountants are very facts-oriented people. The challenge is to get them to see more to their profession than just the facts and figures. Many of them feel just as Kelley described, that they somehow aren’t cut out to be creative or that they aren’t capable.

However, the important thing for all of us in technical professions and a few other professions that are generally considered “not creative” is to realize that – indeed, we are creative! Creativity is, simply put, your ability to generate ideas.  And we all certainly do that, and the more, the better!  So, remember, your involvement in the creative process is just as real and just as important as anyone else’s.

IMPROV BEYOND THE STAGE

Business schools across America have taken note of the importance of idea generation and creative thinking in the business world. For the past several years, programs have started offering courses that help students not only learn ways to promote freer thinking and brainstorming, but to adopt principles of improvisation in order to facilitate this creativity. One of the most powerful principles of improv is found in the practice of the “yes, and…” approach.

Bob Kulhan, an influential promoter of getting improvisation into business schools across America, summed up the idea of “yes, and…” in a Slate article, “When they’re collaborating onstage, improv performers never reject one another’s ideas—they say “yes, and” to accept and build upon each new contribution.” “It’s a total philosophy of creativity,” says Holly Mandel, founder of the performance school Improvolution and its corporate-targeted offshoot Imergence. “Yes, and” creates; while ‘no’ stops the flow.

It’s this “yes, and…” principle of improv that gets ideas churning up and out of people’s heads. This is not only applicable for others, but for ourselves as well. We are often our own harshest critic – a critic that is quick to dismiss our ideas as ‘stupid’.  We need to silence that critic in order for creativity to surface! In reality, there are no stupid ideas – every one of them leads somewhere, and it’s especially important in brainstorming to let all ideas rise. In creativity workshops, I stress the importance that no idea is a bad idea.  All ideas lead to a better idea. Therefore, ALL ideas are important. So, whatever is in your head, let it out!  Even if the inner critic is shouting at you – shout it down and let the idea out! Ideas (good or bad) lead to better ideas. No ideas lead to nothing.

GETTING THOSE IDEAS OUT

Remember, when we are brainstorming ideas, we are looking for quantity not quality. You can’t create and criticize in the same space.  Successful ideation requires divergent thinking, which is a process used to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Once we have completed the generation of ideas, we then change to convergent thinking. Convergent thinking is where we take those ideas and organize them and take steps to see if we can arrive at the correct solution. In other words, you can now become the critic! 

There are many exercises that you can employ in your brainstorming process. One of my favorites is outrageous opposites.  If you have a problem to solve, step one is to brainstorm traditional approaches in solving the problem.  Step 2 is to brainstorm outrageous ideas in solving the problem.  When you are finished, look at the outrageous ideas and see if there is anything you can expand on.  For example:

Number of participants: 1 – 20

Problem: Recruiting seasoned staff for our company

Traditional approaches: Monster.com adds, Indeed.com ads, hire a headhunter, offer a referral bonus to current staff, etc…

Outrageous approaches: hire a blimp to fly over sporting event, place ads in restrooms, have an open house, create a fun YouTube video about your company, etc…

Review your outrageous approaches and see which ones might actually work for your organization.  There is a regional accounting firm, Withum Smith + Brown, that did fun YouTube videos to help increase the moral in the company.  These were actually so good that seasoned staffed from other accounting firms applied for positions with their firm.  Here is a link to one of those videos https://youtu.be/ZCs7O6cJgiQ.

Another favorite brainstorming exercise is called “Kill the business.” Instead of thinking of ways to grow your business, this is an exercise that focuses on ways to put your company out of business.  Your team is looking at the company’s weaknesses and listing them as a small, medium, or large threat.  Once these weaknesses have been identified and categorized, then answer a couple of questions: 

What did we not think about before that we can see now? 

What could attack us now and how can we quickly eliminate the threat?

Which one is the most important weaknesses that we must fix? 

This is an eye-opening exercise that will uncover opportunities that you may not have discovered using conventional thinking.  

There are a number of resources where you can find brainstorming exercises.  Here are a couple:

  • SmartStorming: The Game-Changing Process for Generating Bigger, Better Ideas. By Keith Harmeyer and Mitchell Rigie. 
  • Improvisation for the Theater, Third Edition, Viola Spolin (these exercises can be debriefed from a business perspective).

IMPLEMENTING A CREATIVE WORKPLACE

In the end, the workplace needs leaders that inspire and encourage the expression of creativity. John Dragoon, CMO of Novell was quoted in Forbes saying, “Truly creative leaders invite disruptive innovation, encourage others to drop outdated approaches and take balanced risks. They are openminded and inventive in expanding their management and communication styles, particularly to engage with a new generation of employees, partners and customers.”

This doesn’t happen overnight, but if the leadership encourages the generation of ideas, some of them are bound to produce impressive results. Not all the ideas are going to work, no matter how much product testing and field work a company conducts. Some ideas will go nowhere, but if you have no ideas, you certainly will go nowhere.

When it comes to creativity and generating ideas, all are needed, and all are wanted. While what comes out might be a bit rough, with a little polishing and fine tuning, the result can be quite extraordinary.

If you would like to discuss having me facilitate a brainstorming session for your organization, contact me at peter@petermargaritis.com and in the subject line put “ALL IDEAS ARE IMPORTANT IDEAS.”

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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. 

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.’