Andrew Bright has spent the last 20 years working as a professional comedian with The Panic Squad Improv Comedy group. He’s also learned a whole lot about teamwork and leadership and shares what he’s learned as my guest this week in a fascinating interview on Episode 102 of my Leadership Podcast. I asked Andrew if he would also be willing to share some leadership principles of improv with you. Here’s his guest post.
By Andrew Bright
I’ll bet your natural default can be to put your mission before your team.
It’s natural to put the mission first because all of your dreams, fears and hard work are woven into the mission.
You dream that this will be more incredible than you ever imagined. You worry that it might all crumble or slip away. But your dreams and fears can actually cause you to lose sight of the people who will help get you there.
You may want to rethink that.
Well, however bold your mission statement, it leads you to the next question: “How will I accomplish this?”
Try to come up with a good answer that doesn’t involve exceptional work by a healthy, motivated team.
As a leader, your team should be your priority. Because you can’t accomplish your mission without a team.
Wise leaders learn to view their team as their most important relationship and resource.
Care for them, train them and equip them to succeed. Then, together as a healthy and motivated team, deliver an amazing experience to your congregation and community.
My work in Improv Comedy hasn’t just taught me about the importance of timing; I’ve also learned what it looks like when you make your team important.
Here are 5 lessons I think you can apply to your own team and inspire them to do great work.
1. Listen…really listen
For improv to work, everyone on stage must be present. As in fully present.
This means they are engaged with the scene. An actor who is present is listening for the opportunity and also contributing to the story. Improv is 100% dependent on one comedian building on what the other has given them.
So listen well. Put down your phone and make eye contact.
Ask follow-up questions to get more clarity. Listening demonstrates to your team that you value their contribution.
After you’ve listened, make a point to act on the information.
Some leaders are good listeners, but they are horrible at follow-up. Nothing says “I don’t really care” like dropping someone else’s idea or concern.
A non-answer shouts loudly, “You and your idea are not worth another second of my time!” Of course, you don’t really feel that way. So why would you communicate that sentiment by neglecting to act on someone’s questions or concerns?
2. Offer a Call Back
This is an age-old strategy in comedy. A call back is simply bringing a successful joke back in a different way. Audiences love it.
In Improv, call backs also demonstrate support and unity. Calling back another actor’s line is like giving them a giant high-five in front of everyone. This develops great camaraderie.
You can use Call Backs as a leader, too.
Please don’t try to perform stand-up in your staff meetings. Chances are you’re horrible at it. What I mean is, bring good work back into focus for the entire team to enjoy.
“Sarah showed me some amazing research she put together that I think you all should see.”
When you use Call Backs you bring the rest of the team into the process and give them a chance to acknowledge and celebrate great work. Best of all, you are giving Sarah a giant high-five in front of everyone.
Want to see more ideas and effort coming from your team? Use Call Backs as a leader.
3. Use company time to help leaders grow
Does your staff have the tools and training they need to be excellent? A great way to show your team that you value their work is to use company time and resources to help them grow.
The Panic Squad has done some great training over the years. We’ve attended workshops and hired instructors to critique our performances. Training has helped us hone our craft and become the excellent improv team we are today.
Developing your team is a wonderful way to show them you are in tune with their needs and care about their personal and professional growth.
4. Admit you need the team
Asking your team for help is not weakness, it’s good leadership. It’s the strength to see you are not capable of doing something as well as someone else on your team. It’s the humility to ask for help, it’s the awareness to offer your team an opportunity to grow through leading you.
This is a great way to be present as a leader. It demonstrates that you are aware of your team’s unique abilities and also aware of your own need for growth and improvement.
5. Lose to win
Sometimes you have to lose to win.
There I was, my feet hanging off the end of the twin bed I was in, laying between Star Wars sheets and staring up at a galaxy of glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the ceiling.
The 10-year-old whose room I’d been given to sleep in was staying at a friend’s house. His shaggy dog, the one that usually slept with him, did not go to the friend’s house.
It whined and scratched at my door.
I hoped the others guys were having better luck with their hosts. I remember thinking, “I can’t wait to get on the plane tomorrow so I can get some sleep.” Not a thought I often have.
I also remember thinking, “I can’t do this anymore.”
By “this”, I didn’t mean perform improv comedy. I loved my job. I still love my job. But I could no longer keep bending so far backwards for a client that it affected my ability to do my job. I could no longer keep making decisions which put my teammates in a position that frustrated them and made them feel devalued.
I realized I’d wanted so badly to give the client an amazing performance, both on and off the stage, that I was hurting our ability to perform amazingly as a team. I so desperately wanted to please my clients that I was willing to sacrifice basic comfort for my team.
This is completely backwards when you think about it.
What event organizer has ever said this? “They looked exhausted, weren’t very funny, and smelled like dogs. But we saved money on accommodations. What a success!”
A team needs to be healthy if they are to consistently perform excellent work. It is our responsibility as leaders to care for our teams.
The beautiful thing is that when you equip your team to perform amazingly they will consistently create amazing performances.
I know I have lost at least one client due to standing up for my team and pushing on some items we needed to be changed, so we could create an excellent experience for the audience. What I lost in business from that client has been replaced tenfold in the trust and respect of my teammates. Growing a professional backbone has been difficult yet rewarding. I now have a fantastic relationship with my team. The best part is that we consistently perform amazingly together.
Have you found yourself caving and giving in to other people, while eroding the trust and respect of your most valuable relationships?
What are some areas where you may need to stand up for your team? Are you willing to lose with others so you can win with your team?
Are you a leader who is caught up in creating an amazing performance to the detriment of your team? Become a leader who equips your team to perform amazingly, so that together you can consistently create amazing performances.
For more information about Andrew, visit his website and check out his new book, Improv[e] Leadership – A Comedian’s Guide to Effective Leadership in an Unscripted Workplace. Want to know more about The Panic Squad, Andrew’s improv group? Visit panicsquad.com.