There to Conquer: 3 Steps to Set the Stage for a High-Performance Culture

The Left for Dead Improv Team from top (l to r): Dan Mulcahy, Roger Dube, Roger Sutphen, Tim Shea, Carol Shea, Patty Farneth and me.

The Left for Dead Improv Team from top (l to r): Dan Mulcahy, Roger Dube, Roger Sutphen, Tim Shea, Carol Shea, Patty Farneth and me.

Last weekend Left for Dead, my team where all seven improvisers are at least 50 years old, performed in the Pittsburgh Comedy Festival. Several team members had the opportunity to catch the 5:00 show featuring three musical improv groups. And they were outstanding. All of us fogies even loved the group that incorporated rap.

But seeing such excellent work worried us because we weren’t sure we were worthy of using the same stage. I, being the most paranoid on our team, even wondered how we had been accepted at all. Not only that, we were opening for the headliner act. How the heck did we get that lofty position in the line-up when the amazing sets we had just seen were scheduled into a non-prime timeslot?

My experience at the festival started me thinking about the Pygmalion effect and the many experiments where people perform according to expectations. Most of the studies focus on education—the effect a teacher’s opinion and how they convey that opinion have on a student’s success in the classroom. Several studies have looked at this dynamic in the workplace too.

This concept of self-fulfilling prophecy, as it’s also called, is controversial. The effect depends on the strength of a person’s intrinsic motivation. Highly motivated people aren’t going to waiver based on what someone thinks of them. For those who aren’t as confident or as inspired, encouraging them and showing confidence in their abilities can make a huge difference.

As a leader, you don’t have to worry about your intrinsically motivated team members. They’re your super stars or at least aspiring ones. The leverage comes from making everyone else believe they too are amazing.

Your front line people managers have the most influence on what individuals think of themselves. They affect their employees’ confidence and self-perception through feedback, performance reviews and goal setting. But you can help your management team (and the people who work for them) by creating an environment where everyone continually strives for excellence—for doing better than they’ve already done.

Step one is envisioning all that’s possible if everyone in your organization worked to best of their ability—better than they themselves believe they could do.

Step two is sharing that vision and getting everyone to see it as a real possibility. If you show the confidence in them as a team, they will begin to believe, simply because you do. But you have to be authentic. (You don’t want to be like the Pinocchio in the GEICO commercial.  )

Step three is setting high standards and sticking to them. If in the past, you accepted mediocre work, stop now. If you’re inconsistent in what you find acceptable, stop now. And if you’ve let certain people get by at a sub-par level, stop now. There’s no room for mediocrity in a high performance culture.

In case you’re wondering how our show in Pittsburgh went… It was one of our best performances ever. Afterward audience members, including other improvisers, told us how much they enjoyed our set. One young woman said, “When it was your turn, we thought we would just have to be polite to the old people, but we really loved what you did.”

That night we were as triumphant as Eliza Doolittle at the ball.


A Plan for a Plan: 3 Ways to Move Forward When You Don’t Know Where to Begin


Having a plan is the business equivalent of hanging out in sweats in front of a fireplace with a mug of steaming hot chocolate on snowy winter day. It keeps you cozy and comfortable.

Unfortunately not every project or task comes ready made for a plan. It may be too vague, too overwhelming or simply too sudden. By definition, that’s always the case in improv comedy. So many times you have to start a scene without having a shred of an idea of what you’re going to do.

Fortunately improvisers have a plan for that or at least a few techniques to get the ball rolling. Three common ones are:

1. Reveal a secret – This tried-and-true method puts the audience smack in the middle of someone’s life (or own private hell). Examples    include:

– I defaulted on my college loan

– I never loved you

– I inadvertently killed my father and slept with my mother

 2.  Become a distinctive character – Improviser extraordinaire Jill Bernard created a character creation toolkit she calls VAPAPO, where you adopt a voice, attitude, posture, animal, prop or obsession. By choosing only one of these, say a Brooklyn accent, you can open up an entire world to build a great scene.

3.  Get physical to establish a location – This can mean anything from doing a cartwheel, to pushing a shopping cart or picking a daisy. Miming any of these actions creates a specific setting for your audience. And the more you do to enhance this imaginary place, the more you’ll have to play with in a scene.

 Although it may not be obvious at first glance, these same techniques or variations on each are useful for starting a project.

1. In a business setting, it’s probably not a great idea to confess to your Oedipal complex, however, it makes a lot of sense to reveal the real problem you’re trying to solve. So often a team gets a generalized task such as improve food-handling safety. But the story behind that objective (e.g. We’ve had eight cases of food poisoning from chicken in the past quarter) is not only motivating but revealing.

2. Instead of becoming a distinctive character, what you want to do is bring in one or more characters (or just plain people.) Someone affected by the problem you’re trying to solve is a great place to start. When I worked for a Rochester, NY health system, we kicked off a campaign to improve hand hygiene by bringing in the father of a 27-year-old man who died of a hospital-acquired infection. Not only did the grieving dad have a compelling story to share, he had become an expert on getting health care workers to follow safer protocols.

3. Some aspects of getting physical are clearly frowned upon in the office. So maybe this one is stretching the theme a bit, my focus here is on the setting. At IBM when my team was tasked with improving cycle time of a manufacturing line, we visited another plant where they had achieved this objective. The team there offered advice and showed us how they did what they did.

Sometimes simply a change of scenery does the trick. Take a team off site where they can focus on the problem and brainstorm ideas.

And so…

When you don’t have a plan, don’t panic. You now have at least three choices always available to you for taking a first step. And once you take it, you’ll be surprised at how clearly you see where you need to go next … including setting a date for a date.


3 Ways to Get More from “Performers”

Seems like there’s at least one in every meeting. The person who takes a lot of time to say very little using seemingly impressive jargon and dramatic pauses. The performer, who can turn a good meeting bad. 

Statistics galore tout how much most people dislike meetings and how they waste so much time. Here are a few now:

  • In a survey by the Centre for Economics and Business Research office workers reported that of the approximate four hours per week spent in meetings, half of that time is wasted.
  • Industry Week’s survey of 2000 managers indicated that at least 30 percent of their meeting time was a waste.
  • When 3M Meeting Network surveyed executives, this group felt they wasted 25 – 50 percent of the time.

Some of that waste can be attributed to a specific office worker archetype that a co-worker from long ago termed performers. You’ve seen them. They’ve been your employees, your co-workers and even your superiors. They appear when there’s someone in the meeting they feel a need to impress.

A performer is usually the third or fourth person to jump on a bandwagon, which then becomes his stage. He or she repeats all that’s been agreed to, except with more flourish and an air of command, as if the ideas being spouted are original and no one has heard them before. And those who most truly portray the archetype take a fair amount of time for their performance.

Also, the performer doesn’t get anywhere near the edge of the bandwagon. There are no additions to the thoughts—except maybe a pooh-poohing of something someone else added that didn’t seem to garner support.

From an improv perspective, this person may seem to be following the time-honored tradition of yes and, where one improviser agrees with what his scene partner said and then adds another piece of information. This is the fundamental building block to get from a single suggestion to a fleshed out, interesting and funny scene. But the meeting performer only goes half way… to the yes.

As much as I get annoyed at performers, I don’t blame them. I blame the person they want to impress. Performing is Pavlovian in nature. People do it because they get the response they want.

Here’s an example of the dynamics:

  1. Employee 1 comes up with a good idea. The leader loves it and praises him.
  2. Employee 2 (like a good improviser) accepts the first idea and then adds something to it. The leader keys in on the enhancement and employee 2 gets some affection.
  3. Maybe a few more people yes and, improving the original idea all along the way. With the leader, spreading the compliments like dandelion fuzz in the wind.
Photo by Daniel Kulinski

Photo by Daniel Kulinski

So of course the performer wants some of that love.

It’s up to the person with the power to recognize the performer and discourage the behavior. After all, it can go beyond wasting time and drain the creative energy that was flowing.

So here are a few ideas:

#1 – When you recognize people performing, don’t let them go on for a long time. In fact, call them out on it. Politely tell them what they’re saying has been established and you’re looking for new thoughts. While you might embarrass them, mitigate that seeking their opinion and asking what they can add.

#2 – The impetus to perform is a powerful tool. People want to please you, so leverage (don’t exploit) that power. Sometimes the performers come out when the flurry of ideas slows down. Perhaps, the attendees aren’t sure where you want to go next with the discussion. So ask probing questions. Let them know what is still unclear to you or what needs more definition.

#2a – If you don’t have a good question or you’re not sure what’s next… move on—either go to the next topic on the agenda or end the meeting. Follow up later.

#3 – While performers want to contribute, they may be afraid of bringing up a completely new idea. To avoid this, you need to establish a reputation for listening and make a point to avoid intimidating behavior. If attendees come up with a new idea and you’re not finished focusing on the previous one, tell them to hold that thought. And then don’t forget to go back and hear it.

Establishing a reputation as a listener may initially waste some time traveling down some dead end streets. But if you’re clear about what doesn’t work for you, people will learn what you like and what you don’t. And over the long haul, that knowledge will earn you even more than extra time.

3 Playful Ways to Engage Your Team in Meetings

When you run a meeting with more than say four or five people, I’ll bet at least 15% of the attendees don’t add or take away any value. It’s probably even more for regularly scheduled meetings.

Meeting room stencil graffiti by Richard Rutter

Meeting stencil graffiti by Richard Rutter

Talk about not being engaged… If meeting attendees were focused and interactive, think what all that charged and synergistic brainpower could do. Instead a good portion is wasted, along with many people’s time.

Here are three improv warm-up exercises that might help, if you dare to use them. I say that because there’s always a risk when you introduce something different into such a time-honored institutional process. But nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Warm-up #1: Bunny Bunny

Oh yes, that’s the name of this exercise and it’s as stupid as it sounds. But note stupidity doesn’t necessarily mean uselessness. It’s the counter example to Forest Gump’s “Stupid is as stupid does.”

Appropriate for what type of meetings:

  • Ones where people might be afraid to speak up – Perhaps you could use it for round table discussions between leaders and employees they barely know.
  • Regularly scheduled ones where people wander in and zone out

Purpose it serves:

Once people have played this game, they will have already done and said the stupidest thing they will say the entire meeting. It loosens people up and breaks down internal barriers. Or in the case of the regularly scheduled meeting, it’s a way to shake up the ordinary.

How You Play:

Oh I love Google and YouTube. I found the perfect video and I happen to be friends with the woman who created it: Theresa Rothhaar. To see how it’s done, visit I play slightly differently than Theresa does. Her group slaps their knees than their hands. I just go for the straight knee slap and I pronounce some of the words differently but who cares… this way I don’t have to explain it! She has it covered.

Warm-up #2: The Clover and a variation

This warm-up is an old standby. I love doing this right before a show. It gets me in the right mode for doing improv but I see how it can add a spark to meetings as well and it’s not silly like Bunny Bunny.

Appropriate for what type of meetings:

  • Ones that require creative participation to solve a problem or look at something in a new way
  • Team building

Purpose it serves:

It stimulates people’s associative thinking. It forces them to listen and not think about what they’re going to say. The variation provides an insight into how others think and can help create group mind, where people “get” what others are saying.

How You Play:

  1. Arrange people in a circle. They can be sitting around a table or stand.
  2. Ask someone to choose a random word. (If you want to be a purist and not have someone in the room influence the game, I recommend an app called Improv Buddy that generates words based on categories.)
  3. Going around the circle, each person says the first word that pops into their head when the hear the word of the previous player.
  4. You continue around the circle until you organically get back to the original word. (We call this clover because you want to get back to the original word three times.)

Example of now it works:

The starter word is puff.

Clover table

Note: It usually takes longer to get back to the starter word than in this example.

Things to watch out for:

  • People often don’t listen to the person right before them… they’ll choose a word based on something they heard earlier. Call them out for this because they’ve been thinking ahead.
  • Encourage people to go fast so that they’re responding, not thinking of a way to be clever.

The Variation:

  1. Instead of saying the first word that pops into your head, say what that word makes you think of. For example, if the word I hear is “Sun”. The first word that comes into my mind is “Shine”. So I say “Shoe”
  2. The person next to you then has to guess what the first word was that you thought of. So in the example above, hopefully they’d say “Shine”.
  3. The person who guessed would then use the word “Shoe” to do step number one.

Warm-up #3: Tee shirt slogan

This game is similar to the Clover but it adds a memory element.

Appropriate for what type of meetings:

  • Ones where you want people to be creative, access their memory and remember what happens

Purpose it serves:

This game is more fun than Clover and people get a bit more creative, using more than one word to follow up on what the previous person said.

How You Play:

  1. Once again you play in a circle and start with a random word. Say “chalk”.
  2. The person after the initiator says, “chalk” then adds his own word or phrase “board.
  3. The next one says, “chalk, board” then adds on “school days”.
  4. The game continues with everyone repeating all that came before and adding to it.

You want to be very obvious with the connections because that’s the only way that it’s possible to remember everything.

And So

My hope is for this post to really shake up meeting rooms across the world, making them more fun, more interactive and more productive.

Let me know if you take a chance and use any of these.

3 Coaching Tips: Giving Feedback with a Pleasant Aftertaste

Thirty minutes after you drink it, you can still enjoy the aftertaste from excellent coffee.

How do you feel when people give you feedback on your performance and you don’t know when you’ll have the chance to incorporate their input? I’ll tell you how I feel: frustrated.

And yet people think giving feedback as soon as possible after the event is the critical factor. The OPM.GOV web site states: Supervisors should describe specific results they have observed as close to the event as possible so ideas stay fresh and any needed adjustments can be made in a timely manner.

I agree. Timeliness is critical. But they have the timing wrong. People are much more apt to incorporate feedback, if it’s given right before the next time they get to use it.

A few weeks ago, I watched an improv workshop given by two of the best coaches in Rochester, NY. After  new improvisers completed an exercise, they received outstanding advice on how they could do better the next time. The problem was that the workshop wasn’t organized so that there was a next time.

When I’m rehearsing improv and my coach gives me a note, I want the chance right then to run the scene again. Or if there’s no time, I’ll ask that they remind me at the beginning of our next rehearsal or before we perform the next show. That timing makes a huge difference.

As a communications consultant, I used this approach. One client held quarterly conference calls with his sales team. During his presentation I took notes whenever I noticed something wasn’t as good as it could be. Instead of reviewing my critique with him right after the meeting, I waited until we were preparing for the next quarter. This way the feedback was fresh and he could use it right away.

For this to work you have to do the following:

  1. Take good notes. You need to have enough details for people to remember what they did originally. (Keep track of those notes so you have them when you need them.)
  2. For every criticism give a complement so that your critique is balanced and you reinforce what they did well.
  3. If there’s no opportunity within a few months for the person you coached to implement your suggestions, create one. If you don’t there’s no use in giving feedback at all.

Feedback given this way doesn’t feel like criticism. It makes it clear that your intention is to help people improve.

The Meta Version

A colleague of mine told me his company was very disciplined about having formal project kickoff meetings and debriefings at the conclusion of the work. Unfortunately, they never applied what they learned from debriefing on the previous project to the next one. That is, until a new employee pointed it out to them.

The Battle Between Rejection and Self-Worth

gargoyleoval Today I was rejected.

1Matchfire, the duo improv team with my husband Roger, did not make it into the Pittsburgh Comedy Festival. This is the third rejection this year. (Well maybe it’s the second and a half. We were a last minute substitution at one local festival.)

No matter the score, I took this one hard. I tried fighting these feelings. I had breakfast, walked the dog with Roger and sat down at my computer to work, hoping to transform my misery into a blog post, but it came off as just a lot of whining. I finally gave up. I went to bed with my iPad and played 2048. I cried when I kept losing. Of course I never win, that’s what makes the game addictive.

I wallowed in my misery and submitted to intense feelings of self-hatred.

DISCLAIMER: Before I lure you into complete sympathy, you need to know that Roger and I will perform at the Pittsburgh festival with Left for Dead, our other improv team. So I still get to go and experience the festivities. And if only one of my teams could make the cut, I’d rather it be Left for Dead because it’s so much fun traveling with them.

Now seeing the full picture, I think you’ll agree: This rejection was all ego, making it a perfect situation to analyze.

When I shifted from wallowing to self-analysis, I realized I didn’t hate myself. People who hate themselves don’t self-soothe by playing electronic games. The core emotion was fear.

Paying attention to the specific thoughts streaming through my head, I found three that scared me.

  1. I have been discovered for the hack I really am. Worse than that… even though some improv friends already knew it, they didn’t want to bother telling me.


  1. I’m not as good as I thought I was, which means I have no ability to distinguish between good and bad improv. Therefore I’ll never improve. (The logical disconnect between this fear and the previous one didn’t bother me at all. In fact, I only realized this as I worked on my second draft.)


  1. This rejection symbolizes my entire life. If I’m not good enough for this festival, I am not good enough for anything. I can’t do anything well. I will never accomplish anything of value again in my life.

As I type these out, they seem ridiculous. And even though I’m pretty confident you have similar thought processes, I’m a little worried you’ll think I’m a nut case.

But two hours ago, these conclusions seemed completely valid and believable. Plus I validated and confirmed them by scanning my memory for other rejections, disappointments and failures. Along with that I dismissed any prior achievements or forward movement as either insignificant or anomalies.

After documenting all this with pen and paper, I eventually came to my senses and realized:

Today’s rejection is only today’s. It’s not a predictor of the future, nor symbolic of my past.

Even after this epiphany, which is obvious when fear isn’t in charge of my brain, I still felt crappy. So I dug some more and hit my personal mother lode.

 I measure my self-worth based on how I compare to others.

 Moreover, when I fall short of others, I’m not just less, I leap over all gradations of less to completely unworthy. In other words, if I’m not the best, then I’m nothing.

Admitting this makes me feel shallow and dirty. But by stating it I can work on it. And I already realized something:

 Everyone comes to the party we call life with a different set of gifts and challenges, making all comparisons between us meaningless.

 But wait there’s more:

There is inherent self-worth in just showing up and struggling through each day.

And So…

No matter what happens—what rejections, disappointments and failures I endure or what accomplishments I achieve—I am worthy. And you as well. We are all equally worthy.

So thank you Pittsburgh Comedy Festival for the opportunity to remember that self worth should defeat rejection every time.

I’d love to hear your comments about how you handle rejection.

3 Improv-inspired Mindsets for Leading without a Script


Read the post to find out why I call these Fuzzy Butt Dice!

For the month of July I was honored as one of many guest bloggers focused on the topic of Leadership for the UK’s People Development Magazine. To support the magazine, you can find this week’s blog post at

Let me know if you liked the article and if you found other posts there that you’d like to recommend.

Thanks for your support.


Recognition of a Higher Purpose

Taylor + Canyon 2

L -R: Taylor Blue Waters, Canyon Red Ryder

Although she displays undisputed dignity and grace, especially when it comes to aging and her blindness, my 13-year-old dog Taylor is an unabashed food slut. She will do anything, even swallow a bitter pill (literally), if the process involves a tasty treat.

While Canyon, my other dog, appreciates people food as much as any pet, he will not prostitute himself out for it. He is so principled that he will even skip meals for a couple of days if he uncovers a pill hidden in liverwurst or peanut butter inside his food bowl.

When it comes to recognition, I can act like both my dogs. Like Canyon with medication, I can ferret out an insincere compliment. It hardens me and makes me distrustful. On the other hand, I’ll give 200% for someone who sincerely recognizes my contributions, even when the exchange takes all of two minutes.

In the improv world some performers do anything for a laugh, even if it diminishes the quality of the overall show. Thinking about dogs, laughter and recognition led me to two adaptations of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The first scale, conveyed in the table below, rank orders the quality of the energy produced by the various types of audience reactions.

Ranking Laughter & Applause

Audience Reaction

Source Effect


Cheap Laugh One improviser made fun of another or denied the reality of the scene. Depletes energy of the players
Audience doesn’t care about the characters or gets confused
Beginner improvisers don’t distinguish this kind of laugh from any other. Since they love making people laugh, they are like Pavlov’s dogs. They repeat the behavior until they elicit the reaction again.
Scattered & Tittering Laughter A few audience members recognized themselves or someone they know in something an improviser did or said. Neutral effect – It doesn’t take away energy but it doesn’t build it either. Improvisers who follow this laughter may wind up creating an esoteric show. Some people love it, but others walk away bored.
Deep & Lasting Laughs Audience empathized with the improviser’s character. They saw the humor in the situation. Creates energy in the audience and for the improvisers. The first time this happens in a set, experienced improvisers take note. They use the concept as a theme or create a pattern with it.
Laughter combined with Applause Everyone in the audience recognizes a truth about themselves or someone they know. The players can’t help but notice the audience appreciation. It creates energy on stage and a kind of love in the audience. The players need to keep mining themselves for truth and emotion. The audience may wind up quoting the line or at least sharing the moment with friends.
Standing Ovation The theme of the show is profound. And the performance is artful. The players realize they have created art. The audience recognizes that they have witnessed something great that will never take place again. This is improv’s hole-in-one. It’s the same as Taylor getting a bacon-wrapped steak bone that still has plenty of meat on it.

The table portrays three key components for each level:

  • The characterization of the laugh
  • Why people laughed
  • The type of energy created by it
  • We can look at employee recognition in a similar way by:

We can look at employee recognition in a similar way by:

  • Characterizing the type of recognition
  • Understanding the motivation for giving it
  • Anticipating its effect on the energy of the workplace

Recognition HierarchyLaugh Hierarchy

The main difference between the two hierarchies is that laughter and applause happen spontaneously in an improv show. Leaders have the luxury of thinking through the recognition they give.

Undeserved Praise

Starting at the bottom of the picture is the lowliest form of recognition. It’s so low that it’s not really recognition. It’s out-right manipulation or the recipients are merely bit players in a drama that doesn’t involve them.

The manipulation scenario is obvious. You need someone to do a thankless task, so you butter her up with exxagerated accolades. This can happen either publicly or privately.

The bit player scenario is more public.  Maybe a leader has recently heard feedback that she never compliments or gives credit to anyone. Independent of the scale of an accomplishment, the leader recognizes an individual or team where other employees and, more importantly, her manager see her do it.

This kind of recognition depletes energy. Even if it comes with money or some benefit, the recipient will still feel either used or manipulated. True they may enjoy the treat, but it won’t translate into extra work effort–especially from co-workers who accomplished at least as much but weren’t praised.

Cursory Thank You

The next level up isn’t too different. In both cases, the recognition has more to do with the giver than the receiver. Someone who gives a quick, meaningless thanks feels like he’s shown appreciation and he didn’t even have to spend time thinking about it. Thoughtless recognition follows Newton’s law of conservation of energy. None is put out, so none is created. That is, if you don’t count getting a reputation as a “glib suit” or worse as a form of negative energy.

Sincere Praise & Thanks

At this level, there begins to be some payoff. You have put some thought into how, when and where you’re going to recognize your employee.

A good leader makes this happen often—during appraisals, annual raises and one-on-one or team meetings on any topic. While the praise doesn’t need to be overly detailed, it should be specific, showing that you are  aware of the contribution made and the effort expended.

I know from personal experience how much energy this can create. After working for an organization only a few months, I received an increase during the annual raise period.  The increase was barely noticeable, but the positive message was loud and clear.

My excitement and energy lasted until I got my next raise, which was almost three times the first year’s. But since it was less than average percentage and I had been led to believe my contributions were way above the norm, it was my most demotivating raise ever!

Public Recognition

When the right person is publically recognized for significant contributions, good will and positive energy abound. When you make this an opportunity for storytelling, you add to company lore and strengthen your culture.

For IBM Americas Software Sales I created a deliverable called Inside Us, which featured a respected employee each month. While the write-up mentioned work accomplishments, it focused on what motivated and energized such a high-achieving contributor. Not only did the featured people enjoy the interview process, when the publication was distributed, they received congratulatory notes from  colleagues throughout the organization.

Besides enjoying it, everyone learned what the leadership team expected from them and what they considered exemplary contributions.

Higher Purpose

The most sustainable and enduring recognition isn’t something that’s given once in a while. It’s embodied in the culture and environment when the work itself is significant and important enough to be its own reward. As a leader, your role is to remind the team on a regular basis with stories and celebrations.

The other day my husband test-drove a Tesla and I had the opportunity to talk to the woman who brought the car to us and answered every question we had. She often works 70-hour weeks, but she is completely committed to her job and the company because it is making such an impact. Clearly working for such a company was her reward.

Of course not every organization is changing the world in such an obvious way. Often you need to help your team see the higher purpose and greater good that they do.

It can also work for individuals. Find out what is important to the person you want to recognize and design a project that encompasses that. For the individual, the result is both personal and professional growth. For others who see that, there’s the motivation to work for that same kind of reward.

And So…

Recognition encompasses so much more than the task or accomplishment it’s lauding. At it’s worst, it can be disappointing and demotivating. But done well, it is a gift of renewed energy and commitment to both the individuals being recognized and those around them.

Of course I hope that this hierarchy of recognition will someday earn the same recognition as Maslow’s famous triangle (or at least a few likes, comments, reblogs and tweets). Until then, I’m fine because I see a higher purpose through my blogging.


Commit to Boldness

handonhand BW

Fear is Temporary. Regret is Forever – Dierdre Van Nest

When is the last time you didn’t move on one of your game-changing ideas? Hopefully the answer is never. But my gut along with some stats found on the Internet make me believe that you regret not being bold at least once in the past year.

Daniel Gulati, in a 2012 blog post for Harvard Business Review,  listed the top five career regrets. Lack of boldness was the reason for two of them. In his unscientific survey of 30 professionals aged 28 to 58, third on the list was lacking the confidence to start their own business. Number five was letting a “now or never” moment pass them by because they didn’t act on a career hunch.

Of course it’s easy to look back at those moments and analyze what might have been. What’s more challenging, yet so much more impactful, is manifesting boldness when the opportunity presents itself.


The Underbelly of Bold

Fear often precedes boldness. It weakens your knees, sucks dry your confidence and depletes your energy. Despite its cortisol-inducing effect, it’s only an emotion and it cannot be the force in charge of whether you move forward with your bold ideas.

I saw this quote on Twitter recently and it’s a good one:

Don’t let fear make the decision for you.

Then again… Boldness is important when you want to break out of a funk, change your life or make a difference in this world. For these kind of big moves, many times fear isn’t entirely ungrounded. Regret can work the other way too.

Commitment to boldness doesn’t mean “go bold or go home.” It’s about being open to the possibility of making a bold step, but not stepping into quicksand. If you want to move in the direction of becoming more bold, making a bad decision doesn’t inspire self trust.


Nurturing Your Boldness…

On the other hand, if you build a good track record of being bold, you’ll have the confidence to fight unfounded fears. As you might have guessed, since I haven’t mentioned it yet, improv has helped me grow bolder.

In general, it’s a confidence-instilling avocation, but back when I was doing mostly short form improv, we specifically practiced boldness for this game called, Sounds Like a Song. During a two-person scene, a director would yell out ‘sounds like a song’ when he heard a line he liked and then the improviser has to start and keep singing until the director says, ‘back to scene.’

At first I hated this game because I’m not a good singer. More specifically, I have a nice voice; I just can’t keep a tune. What I learned is: Don’t worry what I sound like, just sing out like I’m Ethel Merman. They call it “Jack Black it up” and surprisingly it works. I’ll never perform on Broadway, but when I carry myself with the confidence of a rock star, no one cares if I miss a note or two. And the funny thing is I missed fewer notes when I felt confident.

On stage is the one place where I feel safe to exercise all that’s outrageous within me. So when a moment seems ripe for singing and I break out in song, I’m building that muscle.

Another strategy for nourishing your boldness is to look for that characteristic in people close to you. It’s one thing to marvel at the likes of Elon Musk and his audacious moves. But when you see it in someone you know well, you can imagine it more clearly for yourself.

Although she’s no longer alive, my grandma Fifi still inspires me. (Her real name was Phoebe. As a toddler I transformed it, making her Fifi forever to me.) I loved her for her wisdom, how grounded she was and her joyous approach to life. Although she never minced her words, dozens of friends adored her. She was always a leader, who didn’t let social norms define her. Her acts of boldness include:

  • Marching for Women’s Suffrage at age 11
  • Wearing pants before it was socially acceptable for women
  • Secretly eloping with my grandfather, then having a formal wedding months later
  • Working outside the home as a bookkeeper and selling slipcovers, not for the money but because she wanted to
  • Handling the family finances
  • Buying and wearing a tee shirt that featured a black and white photo of a woman’s naked breasts

She left that tee shirt to me. As an example of boldness, I thought I might include a photograph of me wearing it along with this post. But I’ve been battling fear for the past few days. Here’s a sampling of my inner dialogue:

Emerging Emboldened Me (EEM): Isn’t this a cool idea? 

Fear Influenced Me (FIM): Sure. If you don’t care what anybody thinks of you.

EEM: They’re not my breasts. It’s just a photo.

FIM: It’s the Internet. Suppose it goes viral.

EEM: That would be great. Then maybe more than 30 people will read my blog.

FIM: Suppose someone who wants to hire you sees the picture? What about colleagues? Past customers? People whose respect you want?

EEM: That could be bad.

FIM: What if your son sees it?

EEM: That would be worse.

FIM: Is this picture worth risking your reputation?

EEM: I guess there are better ways I could make my point.

FIM: You betcha. (My FIM sounds a bit like Sarah Palin.)

EEM: But then I’m not being bold. (I’m more argumentative when the Sarah vernacular comes into play.)


Honoring Your Fear

This morning I decided to honor my fear. FIM made some good points. If there were no other way to convey boldness, then I would fight her.

Wearing that tee shirt would sexualize me in an arena where I want to be known for my smarts. It might even look like I’m sexualizing myself. And that would be even worse.

By listening to my fear, I figured out:

  • What could go wrong
  • The risk wasn’t worth the reward
  • There are other less risky ways to accomplish the same end
  • I don’t want to lose any momentum I’ve built so far


Hedging Your Bold

So here’s the picture.

Mitigating my bold.

Mitigating my bold.

In discussing his customers wanting his company to create bold and outlandish ads, president of Maverick Marketing Scott Place said, “In their quest to stand out in an increasingly ad-cluttered world, many marketers forget that not all attention is created equal.”

While you may think I let fear win, I respectfully disagree. There’s a definite boldness to using counterexamples.


And So…

Your ability to be bold (or to mitigate it when appropriate) comes down to trust in yourself. Most of the time, you’ll know what to do. And on the off chance you make a mistake, well then read my post from last week!

What D’ya Think?

Leave a comment. Did I wuss out or wake up?

3 Approaches to Mastering Mistakes

Mastering Mistakes  How long have your mistakes haunted you?

I’ve got one from 2008. The reason it’s stuck with me so long is because I should have known better.

It was the fourth time a senior vice president (SVP) of worldwide sales had hired me to help with his annual worldwide kickoff event. We had a great relationship. He and his entire staff made for a dream account. That is, until the company hired a director of global field communications.

The most important part of this project was creating three presentations for the SVP. Wanting to help the new director get on board, I invited her to the review sessions, even though her boss hadn’t asked her to join us. This was probably my first mistake.

As we’d go through the slides, the new director nitpicked at my work. I didn’t mind her wanting to participate. In the early stages of developing a presentation I welcome new ideas and suggestions. But her comments were about off center text boxes or the clarity of a stock photo I hadn’t yet purchased.

After weeks of this, I made mistake number two. When she pointed out a nit, I laughed and explained that this new slide was still in the conceptual phase and nowhere near final. The executive laughed too.

Fast forward to the sales event. Wanting to build a relationship with this director, who could have been a strong ally in this account, I took her to lunch. After we ate, she told me I didn’t need to bother coming to that evening’s awards presentation.

Mistake #3: Since the slides were done and there was little chance of last-minute changes, I listened to her and stayed in my hotel room, hoping to catch up on sleep. I was in my pajamas and watching TV when the SVP called to find out where I was. I told him why I wasn’t there and offered to come. He said, “That’s okay.” Mistake #4: I didn’t get dressed and run down there.

Other than that, the SVP was pleased. His presentations were well received and his people left energized for the year. But when it came time to work on his next event, he didn’t hire me. In 2009, they cut back and didn’t do a sales kickoff. Although we stayed in touch, I never worked for that exec again.

Maybe it was the economy. Or perhaps the director brought in a vendor she liked. No matter the real reason, six years after it happened, I still blamed myself.

In general I’ve improved how I deal with mistakes because of improv. I had to. Working in an art form where you don’t know what’s coming next makes mistakes inevitable. And sometimes they’re even gifts. But when they’re not, there’s a rule of thumb: You can only remain upset for the length of your performance.

 Love the Lesson

Sometimes a mistake becomes a gift while you’re still on stage. Other times, the gift lasts a little longer. Messing up is how I finally learned comedy’s rule of threes.

You can see what happened in this video, where Roger and I are food shopping. We’re looking at milk and I say, “Soy?”. Responding with “I don’t speak Spanish,“ Roger gets a nice laugh. We continue to the meat case and I say, “Filet mignon?” He says, “I don’t speak French.” To complete the pattern (or in improv-speak “the game”), I needed to move on to the frozen foods and say, “Edamame?” But I didn’t. I left the audience hanging, unconsciously waiting for the magical third hit.

Savor the Story

The other long-lasting gift is the story.

One time I sang “You’re So Vain” at a karaoke bar after having a few drinks. Who knew this Carly Simon favorite was such a hard song? Even with easier ones, I often wander away from the intended notes. That night my wandering was epic. My performance was so bad that the DJ, who typically sells a CD to each singer, gave me mine for free. He said the recording had a problem.

The next day, completely sober, I listened to the CD. It took a few minutes for it to sink in, but then I realized there wasn’t a thing wrong with the recording except for my ability to stay on key. Obviously the DJ felt he was doing a charitable service hoping I’d never do karaoke again. Not wanting to belittle his charity, I complied.

(Through the miracle of being able to find everything on the Internet, here’s a link to someone else similarly challenged by this song.)

A few years later when I hosted a karaoke night for an organization, I had a great warm up story. And now I’m using it again!

Disown the Damage

Like most cultures, the improv world has a certain etiquette, which includes taking care of the people sharing the stage with you. Last fall, I was on a team where we opened our set acting like human Wikipedia entries. Someone would start and then another team member would tap the first guy out and continue from where the prior player left off.

In one show, I mispronounced or misused a word. Instead of having fun with the mistake, he made fun of my ignorance and got a laugh. It wasn’t a big deal, but it wasn’t pleasant either. However, it didn’t bother me for long because the guy who pimped me out caused the real damage, when he could have turned it into a gift.

As I thought about disowning the damage, I realized I should do that with my 2008 mistake. After all, my series of missteps were indeed stupid, but in no way unforgiveable. Things didn’t have to end the way they did. What ultimately happened was on them.

I want to be clear. I’m not advocating blaming someone else. My mistakes were mine. Your mistakes are yours. But the mistake maker is not the only one responsible for what happens next. There are many ways to handle it and sometimes other involved parties take you down a less-than-optimal path.

And So…

Clearly the consequences of mistakes are not all created equal. Some are life altering. Some cause others to look at you differently. Some change how you see yourself and behave. But no matter the impact, all mistakes have the potential for transformation.

Often the change is for the better. Other times not so much. No matter what, mistakes will happen. Since you can’t avoid them, you just have to show them who’s boss.