What Comedy Teaches Us About Leadership

What Comedy Teaches Us About Leadership

These are two things that sound like they don’t go together; after all, we’re told to set a good example, don’t be sarcastic, set and maintain standards, etc. What I’m talking about here is “improvisational comedy”, specifically one particular aspect called “Yes, and…”

Hopefully you’re still reading and haven’t decided that I’ve gone off the deep end.

“Yes, and…” is a rule in improv that encourages each individual participant to accept what the other players have set up in the scene and also sets the expectation each member will add their own contribution to further advance the story. This usually results in an extremely pleasant (and hilarious) experience for the players and the audience.

Compare this to many meetings and working groups that we all have attended in the workplace that are often not pleasant or hilarious. There are often individuals or factions pushing to have their preferred solution accepted without regard to other stakeholders’ or customers’ interests.  Put a few of these individuals or factions in a room together to come up with a way forward on a problem and it can get downright hostile sometimes. It takes a strong leader to keep people in line and focused on collaboration instead of confrontation.

Implementing a “Yes, and…” rule at your next team working session can foster a more collaborative attitude.  No one can start a new idea, they can only add to what has been previously proposed. Don’t allow your team members to outright dismiss another’s idea, but instead focus them on adding to it to make it better from their perspective. Throw nothing away, keep building on what is there and making it better.

There are two advantages to this:

1)      It forces your team members to listen critically to what others are saying and focus on improvement, not simply advocating their own ideas.

2)      It lets your team members feel like they’re being heard as they add their own contributions.

This isn’t easy to maintain. You may find your team slipping back into competing with each other and settling back into confrontational attitudes. Stay strong! Keep reminding your team that the goal at this meeting is collaboration and keep emphasizing the “Yes, and…” mentality to get the best ideas to the surface. It doesn’t have to go exactly like an improv scene. As the leader you can decide to toss something counterproductive out if you feel it is holding the team back from reaching a solution. Keep your team building on each others’ ideas, strengthening them and combining the best ones to get to a solution that achieves your goal!

Your results probably won’t be as hilarious as those at a comedy club, but hopefully everyone will leave feeling a little more positive than after a meeting that has been confrontational.

You need to choose your first attempt at this a little carefully. It probably works best at the beginning of a new project or in a phase where you are trying to define the structure of something you haven’t attempted before. Try getting your team to use the “Yes,and…” rule next time you are brainstorming solutions to a problem or trying to refine the possible courses of action you will take to achieve your next goal. Tell us about your experience in the comments!

Work and Fun

We’ve all had a boss who wants everyone on the team to be a tight knit group of friends, enjoying each others’ company and hanging out outside of work.  He’s the boss who is always talking about “making work fun” and is always coming up with another “Mandatory Fun” event outside of work that he expects everyone to attend.

And there are some leaders who don’t want to see any fun in the workplace. They prefer that everyone is focused, productive and have as few distractions as possible.  Both of these extremes usually end up alienating people and generally reducing the morale and productivity of the team, exactly the opposite effect the boss was hoping for.

I’m a big believer that allowing people to be relaxed and have fun in the workplace is a great thing that improves results and attitudes overall, but it has to come about in a natural way. Trying to force fun down people’s throats is about as successful as never letting them enjoy a moment.

The amount of “fun” that you, as a leader, should allow to happen on your team can be difficult to gauge.  A lot has been written about organizational culture and how to foster it.  One of the best things you can do for your organizational culture, especially if your organization is new, is to let traditions form and evolve organically. Even older organizations can find new life in their traditions by letting them adapt to the ideas of newer members while still maintaining the original tenets behind the tradition.

As a leader you can let your team develop an organizational culture under your watchful eye and guiding hand. Some tips keep in mind as you let your people build their traditions:

1)      As a leader you are responsible for creating an inclusive environment, free from harassment and bias. It can be a short trip from everyone having a good time in a joking way to someone crossing the line and splitting your team apart.

2)      Set the example. Propose an informal event either during or outside of office time and host it. If being the social director isn’t your thing, chances are one of your team members are and would most likely enjoy getting the ball rolling. Encourage others to put together activities that share their interests with the rest of the team.

3)      Be respectful of people’s time outside of work. Short notice events can cause havoc if a member of your team suddenly needs to rearrange a pickup for their kids or miss one of their events. There are certainly times where the job calls for personal sacrifice, but informal social events probably don’t fall into that category.

4)      Don’t get caught up in how many people participate. If only a few people show up but it’s a fun time, word will get around and more people will show up next time.

The organizations I’ve been in that have had the best balance in their culture are the ones who allow fun to happen, but don’t try to force it in a certain direction. Don’t forget, one of your duties as a leader is to make sure appropriate standards of behavior are maintained at events and in the office.

What are some of the ways you balance work and fun on your team?

Networking and Building Professional Relationships

By Tobias Wolter (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Tobias Wolter (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A lot of people may not consider networking a leadership topic, but it’s more important than you might think.  As a leader, your responsibilities may actually exceed your direct span of control. You may not have the authority or resources at your disposal to achieve the results you’re being held accountable for. In cases like this you’ll need to leverage the contacts you have and their resources to find ways to get to a successful result. If you haven’t developed a network, you won’t have the contacts you need in place and you certainly won’t have the kind of professional relationship in place where you can request their help.

Networking often gets a bad reputation as it can have the connotation of people in business attire milling about an airport hotel ballroom passing out business cards and desperately hoping that somebody calls them with an opportunity. There’s a more positive way to look at networking though; you’re building a group of people with different skills and experience that you can pull together whenever you need to successfully achieve a goal.

Tips for building your network:

Focus on connecting with people in a way that you can offer them something of value, whether that is your time, expertise or your contacts.  Approaching people in a way that conveys you are only looking to get something from them meets with limited success and is unlikely to leave a strong, positive, lasting impression that you have something to offer.

Attend a conference in your field, or in a field that interests you but may not be directly related to your current projects. Conferences can be a great way to find people who are facing similar challenges to yours and provide you with new ideas and a support network to help you both break through to achieve your goals.

Become a mentor to a younger colleague or a peer who is not under your direct supervision. Mentoring allows you to expand your network to an up-and-coming talent pool while providing the value of your experience to people interested in learning. You can also seek out a more experienced mentor for yourself, but it’s very rewarding to give back some of your time and experience to a younger colleague.  (More on the benefits of mentoring in the post “Who Are You a Mentor To?”)

Seek to make connections between people in your network. Chances are you know someone in your network who needs some help with something and you also know someone who can help them. Put those two people together! Your network will grow stronger by connecting the people in it to each other instead of just having a connection to you. If you can get people together who are looking to collaborate, chances are those people will come to you next time they’re looking for a connection since you were able to deliver before. Everyone loves the guy who can connect them with the people they need to achieve their goals!

Reconnect with people in your network on a regular basis. Keep up with what their current projects and areas of interest are.  Actively look for areas you can collaborate with people on.  A solid professional network is like a muscle and must be exercised to stay strong and flexible. If you don’t use it, it will atrophy and won’t be there when you need to call on it.

No matter where or who you choose to network with, remember that your goal is to build a strong network of people who can help each other out.  Focus more on providing value to your new contacts as opposed to getting something from them. Those strong professional relationships will lead to others and will put you at the center of a robust network of individuals who can be called upon when you need them!

Setting Goals Successfully

By Mike Spille (Flickr: CrossingFinishLine) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Mike Spille (Flickr: CrossingFinishLine) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a new year and a great opportunity to set some goals for the coming months. We should all be assessing and setting our goals on a regular basis with some regular self-reflection, but if you’re looking to take on a new challenge, there’s no time like the present! It’s easy to get excited about a new goal but after a few weeks lose momentum on it. Here are some tips to setting effective goals and positioning yourself to achieve them successfully:

  1. Goals should be achievable. There’s a difference between achievable and “realistic”. If someone tells you that your goal isn’t “realistic” they’re probably trying to spare you the disappointment if you don’t achieve it. Don’t worry if your goal is hard to reach, just make sure it is achievable. A goal that breaks the laws of physics may not be achievable, but a goal that might require you to raise a large amount of resources in a short time is certainly achievable, although it may be difficult.
  2. Determine the end state you want to achieve. It should be clearly defined so that you will know when you’ve achieved it. Vague, open-ended goals can leave you drifting without ever making progress. It’s better set multiple narrow goals with clear definitions of success than to set a broad goal you may never know if you achieve.
  3. Set the timeline for achieving your desired end state.
  4. Create a method for measuring your progress based on the end state and take measurements regularly. Setting intermediate objectives can be a good way to chart your progress towards reaching your goal.
  5. Develop specific actions you will take to achieve your goal. Set aside the time in your schedule to do them. Use your calendar, apps or other tools to help build the habit of performing these actions when they need to be done.
  6. Track your progress according to your method and regularly assess how well doing. If you’re not making progress at the desired rate you may need to adjust your specific actions to speed your progress, or adjust your timeline to match your current pace of progress.

It’s a great thing to have multiple goals in your life, but keep in mind the amount of time you have to spend on achieving your goals. I have a slightly bad habit of setting too many goals for myself and not being able to devote enough time to them all. When I find that happening, I prioritize my goals and put one aside until I can devote the time to it so that I can achieve it to a degree of satisfaction I am happy with.

Finally, keep your goal in mind as you go through your daily business. Assess if your daily actions and decisions are contributing to meeting that goal, or hindering it? Are you spending your time on things that are taking time or effort away from meeting that goal?

The best part of setting a goal is when you achieve it. Not only do you get the pride and satisfaction of achieving something that was important to you, you get to set a new goal and take on a new challenge!

What’s your goal for 2014?