This executive tells staff that declining sales soon will result in significant impacts to the company’s financial health. Quickly the questions come. Will there be layoffs? What changes might take place? What are the next steps?
The executives who participate in Don Waisanen’s Improv for Leadership EMBA elective stand a good chance of responding fluently and effectively to the evolving situation in the room. That’s just one of the superpowers of applied improvisation.
When you transfer the skills of improvisational theater to business life, you develop and strengthen a number of key leadership skills, says Waisanen, professor of communication who teaches the course for the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College, The City University of New York.
Improvisation helps EMBA students listen better, think faster, stay flexible and open minded, and present in the moment, innovate, and support others. All in all, they are better prepared to manage the unexpected—an almost daily experience in today’s business world.
“When someone says these are the soft skills, I say no, these are the hard ones,” says Waisanen.
For 20 some years, Waisanen has practiced what he preaches. His love of improvisational theater, which involves unscripted performances by actors or comedians, started as a hobby. Then it collided with his professional career.
When he dug into research about leadership, he found plenty of findings that showed people with improvisational training improved their effectiveness, ability to adapt, and comfort in handling challenging situations. Applied improvisation also fits with decades of field-tested theory and practice from Harvard University’s adaptive leadership project.
The course emphasizes learning by doing and reflecting. “Every activity has a direct application to executive students’ working lives,” says Waisanen.
In a two-chair exercise, students experience what it is really like to stay fully present with another person. When one student starts talking, the other student mimics the words. In another activity, Waisanen asks students to spend the day saying “yes, and…” when they respond to others, reinforcing listening and empathy and cultivating the skill of recognizing and building on colleagues’ ideas.
Students also dive into what Waisanen calls their “personal default settings,” or their natural tendencies when reacting and communicating. How does that help leaders?
“To do leadership and affect many different stakeholders, you have to be adaptable and move beyond your personal default settings.”
Students write journal entries throughout the course to help document their reactions and growth. And while they aren’t training for stand-up, humor does play a role.
“It’s just fun,” says Waisanen. “In terms of both the process and the outcomes for executive students, there is no other course I look forward to more.”
And students love it. “The overwhelmingly positive response from our students confirms that the course is a highlight of the program,” says Raquel Benbunan-Fich, associate professor and EMBA academic director.
More and more schools are adding improv courses to their permanent curricula, says Waisanen, who has taught the course five times. “It’s not a hard sell. It’s so applicable to business and to the kinds of skills that we want to see in leaders.”