How Impro made me a better manager

by Kevin Yank on 19 September, 2020 in blog, Workshops

Today's guest blogger is Impro Melbourne ensemble member Kevin Yank. 

Impro Melbourne audiences probably know me as that tall, lanky Canadian guy who seems to have as much fun hosting a show as he does performing in scenes, and is just a little too happy to play a character in a science fiction story.

By day, however, I’m a manager. I lead 25 user interface engineers at Culture Amp, the world’s leading people and culture platform. We build a web application that companies use to improve employee engagement, retention and performance.

Leading people is a tough job, and it’s one that I don’t consider myself naturally gifted in. In fact, I owe most of my leadership skills to improvisation training I’ve had over the years as a performer with Impro Melbourne!

I used to think that being a leader was about becoming enough of an expert that you could be right most of the time, and then telling other people what to do. They’d do it because your ideas were “better” than theirs, right? Wrong. First of all, I don’t know how I’d ever deal with the pressure if I felt like the success of 25 people’s work depended on me giving each of them instructions that they would follow to the letter. Secondly, who wants to work for that kind of boss?

Something you learn early in an Impro Melbourne Spontaneity workshop is that improvised theatre works best when your focus is to make your partner look good. You create space for them to contribute their ideas to the scene, you listen actively to those ideas, and you put all your energy into making them flourish. If I’m doing that for you, and you’re doing that for me, then neither of us is worried about our own success or failure, and our creativity can flow freely as we build the characters and story together.

A great manager needs all these same skills. Far from telling everyone to do, they create and maintain an environment where every individual feels supported to contribute their ideas, leverage their expertise, and grow to their full potential. Here are some of the ways I do this every day:

• I ask questions and pose challenges, rather than giving directions.

• I provide emotional support.

• I remove barriers.

• I listen.

Leadership training courses often call these behaviours “coaching”. As an improviser, I know them as “making your partner look good”, and I had years of practice doing them on the Impro Melbourne stage before I was put in charge of my first team at work.

To this day, whenever I’m asked for advice on how to grow leadership skills, I recommend Impro Melbourne’s Spontaneity workshops. That's where I learned how to make my people look good. That’s where I learned how to be a leader.