Creative Business

Improv for MBAs

The room erupts with loud, supportive laughter. A student who was quite shy at the start of class only an hour later surprises herself by jumping up on stage into an improv acting exercise. She is flush with self-confidence from her audacity, entering a state that improvisers know well: the moment where fear meets exhilaration and inhibitions drop away in an atmosphere of trust.

We’re not in theater school—far from it. These are UC Davis MBA students, and they are learning the art of improvisational theater.

In a seminal New York Times story on the new creative economy and the value of imaginative right-brain thinkers, author Daniel Pink noted that, “The master of fine arts is the new MBA.” While Pink’s commentary borders on the dramatic, its implications are powerful.

We are in an exciting, albeit sometimes frightening time, where old paradigms no longer serve us. Since the mid-1990s the ideal for the modern leader has been shifting.

Where we once revered the rational strategist, we now want the nimble renaissance wo/man with emotional sophistication. People who thrive in today’s economy are willing to jump out of their comfort zones, test the boundaries of possibility and show up as their authentic selves.

UC Davis is among the pioneering business schools that are effectively bridging the creative and management communities, embracing improv to help with team building and communication. Many top tech and Fortune 500 companies—including Google, General Motors, Twitter, McKinsey and PepsiCo—have also turned to improv training.

TEAMWORK: At the UC Davis Della Davidson Performance Studio in Nelson Hall, UC Davis graduate business students come together in a circle to focus on the group dynamic and making eye contact.

Improving EQ with Improv

While I was pursuing my master of fine arts at UC Davis, Elisabeth Moon, the Graduate School of Management’s associate director of career development, got in touch looking for teachers to design an improv/theater training program. I jumped at the opportunity. I have always understood theater as a tool—one that could and should be applied beyond the stage. As a teaching artist, I am familiar with the profound impact of studying theater: heightened empathy, listening, self-knowledge, interpersonal awareness, how to stay present in the face of anxiety and how to trust your instincts. In other words, soft skills, also known as emotional intelligence.

#GLEE: First-year MBA student Shabeeb Rabbany breaks out in laughter, which is common in the workshops.

Author and psychologist Daniel Goleman put the term “emotional intelligence” on the map in 1995 with his best-selling book of the same title. According to Goleman, the ability to navigate the world emotionally—emotional intelligence, or “EQ”—is starting to be recognized as equally important as IQ. Emotional intelligence is now understood to be a core competency for business students. Unlike the IQ, which is thought to be static, EQ can be strengthened.

Dramatists have been perfecting techniques to teach these skills for thousands of years. With minimal adjustments, they are able to translate this teaching to a diverse range of groups, including MBA students and business leaders. At the Graduate Management Admissions Council’s 2016 Leadership Conference, I shared the value of improv with business school leaders in a session titled: “An MBA Must Have.” The medical field is also following the trend. As Viola Spolin, a pioneer of the modern improv theater movement, put it, “The techniques of the theater are the techniques of communication.”

Learning about emotional intelligence in an experiential process is critical. You can read about these things until you are blue in the face, but unless you are learning on your feet, they remain concepts. We have seen that learning by doing in improv workshops quickly pays dividends. “My communications class made so much sense to me after being exposed to this workshop,” said Dylan Lee, a master of professional accountancy student.

UNSCRIPTED: Early in the workshop, first-year MBA students Mat Adair, Ana Carolina Lopez Pinaya and Reuben Edelson get on their feet, invent and improvise.

Thinking on Your Feet: An Extra Edge

IN SYNC:First-year MBA students Reuben Edelson, Nikesh Pahuja, Mike Mayall and Jinsuk Kim learn how to read each other’s non-verbal language.

For many UC Davis graduate business students, the trainings that I lead during their orientation are the first time they have experienced this type of creative environment. It’s participatory, egalitarian, playful and naturally generative. They are expected to show up emotionally and connect in an authentic way, not only with others, but also with themselves. People have a misconception that improv is about being “wacky” or “silly,” and they are always surprised by the deeper layers of this training.

“I had no idea what to expect,” said MBA student Jesse Boulton, who came to the School after serving more than nine years active duty as an artillery officer in the U.S. Army. “I thought to myself, ‘This is interesting, I wonder why we’re doing this?’ But within five minutes I realized, this is very powerful. This is a real skill that you can leverage for interpersonal relationships and everything that is important to a business school student like networking, interviewing and interpersonal skills.”

ICEBREAKERS: First-year MBA students Robin Greenspan and Mat Adair and improv instructor Joyful Simpson get to know each other through a series of opening games.

Elizabeth Liu, a second-year MBA student from China who recently landed a marketing position at EcoLab, said the training should be mandatory for all MBA students internationally. “It is a great team learning opportunity,” she said. “People arrive not knowing each other that well, and you get to take your mask off and be yourself. You may feel a little bit weird during the process, but that is the meaningful part. You want to have this weird feeling because you are uncomfortable and that is when you can change your perspective.”

That feeling of weirdness is the sweet spot. I like to think of improv theater exercises as a scrimmage match for real life. You find out what it feels like to take risks in a low-pressure arena. You learn to fail and get right back on your feet. They say necessity is the mother of invention, (a.k.a. innovation), and the practice of improv constantly throws you into a situation where you need invent in the moment and listen to your instincts. “The ability to think on your feet is an underappreciated skill, and it is one that a lot of hiring manages talk about,” said Boulton. “The more you can practice that the better. I ran into that all the time in interviews. Recruiters are probing to see how fast you can shift from one topic to another, or they throw something at you to see if you can speak intelligently about it on the fly.”

Chris Ditto, the School’s senior director of career development, said the improv experience gives the students an advantage when they walk into a room. “Networking for both domestic and international business students is like a locked science that everyone wants the formula to, and this class helps demystify that process.”

The art and science is learning how to deeply listen and be present in the moment. “Most of the time you are so concerned with your own problems, but when you hear what other people have to deal with, it gives you a different perspective,” said Dominik Altheimer, a first-year international MBA student. “I would very much enjoy having this class on a regular basis. It just makes you more confident and more connected to yourself.”

MBA student Liu said the improv training helps students stand out. “Everybody has core classes,” she said. “But this is that extra thing make you different—that gives you the competitive edge.”

FAST-FORWARD: First-year MBA students Justin Chen, Nassrin Bakhshi, Mike Mayall and Kelly Liang make a playful event to celebrate a mistake. This helps teach the practice of moving on from “failure” quickly in an atmosphere as free of competition as possible. Photos courtesy of Elijah Nouvelage Photography

Joyful Simpson

About the Author: Joyful Simpson

Joyful Simpson is an actress, writer and creativity educator who combines improv theater, storytelling and mindfulness-training to create unique team building and leadership workshops for businesses and institutions.