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For Leaders, Improv Training Is No Laughing Matter

 -  2/1/13

Improv can help leaders become more self-aware while fine tuning soft skills like listening and relationship building.

Improvisation, or “improv,” isn’t just for laughs. As is turns out, hidden beneath the sketches seen on popular shows like Saturday Night Live or Chicago’s famous Second City are skills leaders and business executives could use, especially in today’s frenetic business environment.

That’s why business schools at esteemed institutions such as Duke, MIT and UCLA have all made investments in improv training. It’s not that executives these days need to be funny or able to act — although some might argue it couldn’t hurt — but the skills used in improv are rooted in communication, influence, engagement, listening, relationship building and awareness.

To Bob Kulhan, CEO of improv consultancy Business Improvisations, the root of improv isn’t comedy but the ability to react and be present in the moment — and both are skills he said business executives must have.

“[Improv] is adapting — you’re reacting and adapting,” said Kulhan, who is also an adjunct professor at Duke and Columbia University in New York.

When it comes to developing so-called soft skills in leadership development, Kulhan said improv is essentially a forum for practice. He said learning leaders could bring some elements of improv training to bolster soft skill development, an area where many would argue rising leaders could use the most improvement.

Kulhan said the improv training he offers is all custom, meaning the training should fit to an organization’s needs. Some may use it for team building or as a fun, social activity. But the real benefit is when improv is used to drive improved leadership behaviors.

Kulhan offered an example exercise he called the one-word story.

With a group of as little as two people and as many as 10, a story is told one word at a time, with each person pausing between words and adding to the story. The act of completing each sentence, Kulhan said, does not belong to one person; it belongs to the group.

“When the group is acting authentically, the story moves actively and is still complementary,” Kulhan said. Even in a two-person team, the skills it would take to do it effectively are focus, concentration [and] not being married to your own thoughts.”

Article Keywords:   executive coaching   leadership development   training  


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