What comes to mind when you hear the word “comedian?” Likely someone who takes odd jobs to make ends meet, spends long hours at seedy clubs and discusses uncomfortable material publically. Nothing about that description screams “corporate.” It’s true. Comedians can be a bit unusual. However, they could also teach you a thing or two about how to run an organization effectively.
Comedians are risk takers that are comfortable with failure. They work tirelessly at perfecting their craft. They understand the human condition and use it to their advantage. As it turns out, there is enormous crossover between the skillset required for success in comedy and the one that defines a strong business leader.
Here are three ways you should run your business more like a comedian:
Know your audience
Comedians understand the importance of their audiences. This is obvious, of course, as without an audience a comedy show can become pretty bizarre. (Trust me, I’ve done it before.) The relationship between a comedian and his audience is very special, intimate even. While this trait is inherent in the comedic sphere, it goes largely unpracticed in business yet it is an equally important consideration. Remember, an audience is not limited to a large crowd in front of a stage. In business, it could include employees, customers and other organizational stakeholders.
Mike Burke, a professional stand-up turned sales executive, has used his comedic experience with audiences in the workplace. He told me about the first time he performed and how tense the audience was, waiting for him to fail. “Once they were comfortable with me, I could see them physically relax and absorb my jokes.” Now in sales pitches, he spends time engaging each individual in order to build a rapport that makes his message easier to digest. Strong business leaders don’t just create goals for their employees; they connect with them on a personal level. This creates corporate loyalty in today’s otherwise fickle workforce.
Constantly seek perfection
Great comedians are never satisfied with their product. Even very accomplished comedians spend a good deal of time testing new material and refining existing material in late-night comedy clubs. Their specific process may differ, of course. For example, Jerry Seinfeld is well known for refining the same material over many years. Conversely, Louis CK throws out his material each year and develops an entirely new hour. Neither method is better, but they both assume a personality that seeks perfection.
To be a successful leader, you must adopt the same trait. It is important to note that this does not mean you must be perfect all of the time. Failure is an extremely useful experience in becoming a more impactful leader. Peppercomm, a New York-based public relations firm, sends every incoming employee through stand-up comedy training as a way to build creativity, teamwork and confidence. As far as I can tell, they are the only company in the world with a chief comedy officer, a career comic named Clayton Fletcher. According to him, their training is “not about being funny;” it’s about learning the concepts and growing comfortable with vulnerability.
Again, perfection is not possible, but the pursuit of it certainly can be. The best leaders seek out opportunities to improve regardless of how well they may be currently performing.
Say “yes” to opportunity
Improvisation is a form of comedy where everything is made up on the spot. Saying “yes, and” is the most basic tenant in improvisation. The "and" piece is critical, because it is what drives the idea forward to a new place. (Saying "yes" is just an acceptance of an idea.). For instance,
In business, “no” is often the default decision, especially for leaders. Bob Kulhan, a career improviser and founder of Business Improvisations, thinks this is a problem. He says it’s about “suspending judgment” about new ideas. Good leaders cultivate an environment of “yes,” where employees are encouraged to come up with creative solutions to problems without fear of ridicule. According to Kulhan, the process starts with a simple test. “Take that ‘yes, and’ phrase and test it out at home or in meetings, and try exercising suspension of judgment -- try out the principles in real life.”