Podcast Episodes

Business Improv – with Bob Kulhan

Bob Kulhan is the Founder & CEO of Business Improv® and Author of “Getting to Yes, And” as well as Adjunct Prof. Duke Fuqua School of Business / Forbes Contributor.
Why improv for business?
Resilience, well-being, and health are top of mind. Team cohesion, communication, collaboration, trust, and morale are being tried more than ever before. It is time for leaders to shine!

Tobin Slaven 0:00

This is book of experts TV. I'm your host Tobin, and we're back today. Interestingly, our guest today, I was just chatting with him before we went live. And he, he just came from keynoting, another session, and we're talking about the ability to create energy and deliver it through the screen, kind of like what we're doing right now. We're going to be doing this in our interview as well. But this, we are going to be speaking with an expert in this space, someone who talks about leadership and talks about communication, and most importantly, improv in the business space. So why don't we bring on our guests, Bob Cole, and welcome to book of experts TV. Hi, Tobin. Thanks for having me. I'm excited to be here. Yeah, you know, I really appreciate you making the time. First of all, because I know you just came from an event, which was kind of an interesting way to maybe you'll just share a moment or two about what that because I think that plays into our bigger discussion, we're going to talk about improv. We'll talk about Second City, we'll talk about your I mean, your list of clients looks like a who's who of the Fortune 50, not just the 500. But the 50. You've got some incredible names there. You've worked with big names in the business, Tina Fey, Amy polars, you know, Second City folks like this, like your backgrounds. Amazing. But let's start with where you just came from? And then we'll we'll work ourselves backwards from there.

Bob Kulhan 1:16

Absolutely. So I just hot off of a 90 minute keynote for the WB s Wits Business School in South Africa, in Johannesburg, South Africa. And yeah, I'm coming to momentum hot. And the major focus was how to create high functioning virtual teams. And so I was breaking down on a step by step basis, what we do in business improv, both on an internal level and what we do with our clients as well as we share that consultancy coaching space. We're working with executives and teams on how to set themselves up for success using these specific techniques.

Tobin Slaven 1:55

How were you in the improv sort of performance space first and then enter business or vice versa? When you got into this Originally, I

Bob Kulhan 2:08

was vice versa to a degree in so much that I graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a and I always say this tongue in cheek with a BS in business. And I actually was very successful though, at a very young age. I was fortunate to win a Bank of America Award for creative marketing in Chicago and was being headhunted by a lot of those great advertising agencies and publicity agencies in Chicago. And at about that time, I had taken improvisation on a Summer Intensive I'm originally from downstate Illinois, traveled up when I was 19 years old and slept on my cousin's flower floor wooden floor for a couple of months, learning improv from the person who would eventually become my my mentor, a master teacher of improvisation known for creating the second city Training Center. I was mentored by that person, kind of Martin demand, just brilliant guy. And I thought, well, I should probably finish up my degree. So I transferred from Illinois State University in Central Illinois to Chicago. And as soon as I could I got back in improv classes. And this would have been December 94. And so at this pivotal point of what am I doing my business, I'm being headhunted after this award, offered crazy money as a 23 year old and fascinated promises of being fast track to leadership and teams for like Leo Burnett and Sachi, Sachi and foot cone buildings really great advertising and publicity houses. And it was at this time that as I'm taking classes, and when I was 19, I knew I mean, I knew improv like, Oh my gosh, this is what I'm supposed to be doing. So when it was at this pivotal point of, well, if I go down business, I'm not going to be a business person, I can still do improv yet. I want to really just immerse myself in improvisation. I want to be all in so I left business and was all in and improvident everything under the sun humanly possible to never get back into business cut to five years later, I prove, and this would be 1999. So in the mid 90s, who you know, what was happening within nothing, you know, pockets of it around the country, pockets of it in universities as well. It's not nearly what it is right now. And so I proved that. The term professional improviser was a contradiction in terms. And I was broke as a joke, and I had another pivotal moment in my life. What am I going to do next? What am I gonna do now and, and, you know, waiting tables, nanny, I was hauling sheet rock was doing, I was coaching, improv, teaching improv, and that was seven days a week, all of that type of stuff, but everybody else in the mid 90s, in Chicago, and it was at this point that I had the opportunity to create the first program in any business school in the entire world that focused solely on linking improvisation to business. And that was at the Duke University, Fuqua School of Business. And at that moment, I was like, I really did love business, I was good at business and some that I knew was part of who I am. And then I love improv. That's my blood. So core who I am. And so the opportunity to create this program gave me control over how to do it in a meaningful and impactful way, for this specific audience, an audience that I know very well knew very well at that time. And so from that the program just blew up at Fuqua and we were off and running.

Tobin Slaven 5:29

I want to step back for a moment for our audience to I want you to notice the the pattern here because one of the things that I love about Bob's story is that when you find a person that is, it really doesn't matter what the two subjects are, sometimes it's even more than two. But if you take two disparate subjects that do not normally go in the conversation together, whatever that means for you, for you guys out there, I'm looking at you right now, and I know there's something that you love to do. And there's probably something else that you're doing that pays the bills, and or maybe you just know an awful lot about. But when you can take two different subjects, and you you overlap them, I'm going to make a Venn diagram with my hands, when you're able to bring those two together in and really focus in on that tiny space of overlap between the two, you have a shot at being one of the world's best in that category. Because nobody else brings that unique combination to the table. And, and Bob has just given us His story. One One was, you know, a gift that was sort of recognized at an early age, sort of on the business side of things, winning awards. And then also this driving passion where he was willing to do all the hard stuff, including sleeping on hardwood floors, to get this experience and immerse himself in a space and then tell us what happened when you brought them together.

Bob Kulhan 6:53

So the our specific approach, which was different than any other thing that was happening in Chicago was I was teaching at a very high level for all of those great university great schools rather visit, excuse me, all of those great improv houses. That's where I come from. You know, when I left Chicago, I was fortunate not only was I able to work with some legendary people that you mentioned before, they were my coaches, Tina and Amy. And I played alongside Jason Sudeikis. And Seth Meyers, who really great jack McBrayer is my boy, you know, great, great talented people. So as at the highest level on multiple levels. And when I had the opportunity to create this program, I wanted to make it different than everything else I had had already been teaching and everything else I had seen. So I took the path of partnering with great business schools and great academics, specifically in the behavioral science field, how and why we make decisions in real time over the last 21 years. That's where I've really created a great passion. I don't know if I'd call that an expertise yet. You know, if you get to play with the great greatest people, then you reach a certain level. And that's the same in academia and in the behavioral science field as well, emotional intelligence, all of that. And this is where it all started coming together for me, you take something known to be high energy and immersive improvisation that at its core, improv is a communication and collaboration based art form. I mean, that's the bare minimum of what improv is. You can also link that over to creativity right away. Like if anybody's taking any improv programs, Surely you've learned that and if not, go get your money back even now. Maybe not what take a breath however, it should be a communication collaboration based art form. Now, the next levels of this those that how do you really make it sticky? What do you do with this, and this is where the Behavioral Sciences started coming in play, because then you can link it to real world examples as well. And then for me, the realization that that was the lowest hanging fruit meant that there's other fruit out there. And so we really started driving this, from the point of being an adjunct professor at the Duke University, Fuqua School of Business right away, I was working with UCLA Anderson, then working with Columbia Business School. And then we've worked with like Wharton, a whole lot of other great business schools, and business professionals out there, and really looking at like, how to move the needle, how to create behavior change, how to create culture change, and what is the core aspect of what we need to do, which is so relevant right now, because we are all in change, right now everybody is forced into change right now. And you either lead the charge of change, you just go with the change, or you get drugged behind the change those for my dollar, the three choices we all have. And so you talk about this great Venn diagram that we all can find, ultimately, of like, what do we really love to do? What are we really good at? Are they the same thing and then what's the overlap between them, how to differentiate ourselves, you're hearing how we differentiate ourselves in business improv from any other great improv house in the entire world, because our focus is very clear on what we want to do. And that's impact impact impact, make a difference? teach people how to use these tools, techniques authentically on any single person's terms. So Whether it's a consultant, a coach, a solopreneur, everybody knows how to use these tools, techniques authentically, to get the best not only out of themselves get the best out of the people around them, their support team, which could include their family as well, and get the best out of their clients get people talking with each other and sharing with each other. And so those core aspects of the Behavioral Sciences for me is really where we, we just lose a springboard away from anybody else doing this.

Tobin Slaven 10:29

I want to talk about improv specifically for a second, not the not the, well, actually, maybe some of it is the theater performance side of things. But you use the phrase, it is an art form this this it's a art form of communication. And I think it was Pablo Picasso who said that art, art is the, I'm not gonna use the right words here. But paraphrase. The creation of constraints is what art is art is the addition of constraints on a medium. And that's how we create art because we're, we have to work within that frame, whatever it is, for the medium, what, what is the art or the constraints of improv?

Bob Kulhan 11:13

Ah, alright, so I do want to go down the path of the performance side the art of improvisation because there is an overlap. Yet, I think you're bringing it up Tobin, a really great point, which is a lot of people think improv is just like making it up as you go along. It's like, what happens when the excrement hits the oscillator, everything else is just failing. And what the scramble aspect of of this and it's completely incorrect. And just like it's incorrect to say improv is comedy. You know, that's an outcome of improvisation. That's a very specific outcome of improvisation. Yet, if anybody watches any cooking shows, you know, they open up a basket and are surprised by these crazy ingredients inside, no one's trying to do a comedy show. They're trying to make a dish that competes with everybody else. And then when $10,000 or whatever the prize money is, in the military, when they're in scramble mode doesn't use comedy as a form of improvisation and football teams, or bastiaan, eSports teams. So those are outcomes of it. improvisation then is based in training. It's based in getting comfort with those those restrictions that you just mentioned before. And so I'm going to do an overlap between the art of improvisation which has that outcome of art of entertainment, drama or comedy, you know, we're really where we come from, and then carry that over into business. So a key rule to improvisation. One key core foundational block of improvisation is yes. And, you know, that is the cornerstone of all improv around the world. Now, for many, yes, it will just be an ideation technique or basic communication technique. And that's incorrect. It's a Swiss Army Knife of techniques. It is so powerful, and so versatile. Most people just don't get past it. Because they're like, well, I took an improv class once as opposed to be like, What is this thing? How can I impact this thing? With this, though, comes a core tenet of postponing judgment. And this is another key aspect to performing improvisation. Just getting out of your own head and being open to possibility potential can open to anything that's going to happen at any given time. because keep in mind, on an improv stage, we're alone with chairs and other people. That's it. So those other people become super important to us and everything they do, everything they say, becomes super valuable to us, transpose that to relationship building, transpose that to clients, to internal team development, if you put that level of focus, concentration, presence, being in the moment, listening to someone at such a high level, that words are gold, everything they say is going to be gold, if you look at words being gold, you know, just can't gold everybody or throw golden everyone out there. And if somebody, you give it to specific people for specific reasons, and if specific people are giving you gold as well, you're not ignoring them, you're not like No, I'll take your goal, I'm using gold as money, you know, I can turn this into stuff. If you look at words the same way they create a lot of value around them carry a lot of weight, which means that the people delivering them become important to you as well. And so these core aspects and this is just like beginning fundamental stuff for improvisation, whether it's the art of as it relates to comedy or drama, or as it applies to business people.

Tobin Slaven 14:31

I want to seize on the the yes and because this this phrase you kind of hit on this a little bit earlier it's often talked almost in a synonymous way of meaning improv this this openness. You've written the book on this let me get back so everyone can see they literally written the book on this I've going deeper into this this topic, Bob, can you we don't have a wall A lot of time today, but can you give us why people need to look beyond just Yes. And that may be the door you walk through, but what's on the other side of that door?

Bob Kulhan 15:09

agility, adaptability, the opportunity to recognize what's happening in real time. So awareness presents the opportunity to make small changes, subtle changes, or macro changes, really big ones in a simple conversation based on what you're hearing from somebody else, you know, and all this is just rooted in that great two word phrase. So that dismissal of like, well, it's either improv Yes. And I heard Yes. And before or, yeah, we use? Yes. And in our brainstorming, meeting, everyone has this. It's a dangerous dismissal. Because really the power of what that brings to the table, the power of just let us break one element this down, slowing the brain down to be present. And in the moment, you know, we get tapped on the shoulder all the time, because people are like, how do I how do I create presence? How do I create engagement, to be engaged, is to be engaging, just like to be interested is to be interesting. So if you can show that you're engaged, you increase the probability that people are going to be engaged as well, because they're engaged by your level of engagement. And so now we're talking about slowing the brain down just simply to show presence, to show that you are here right now. And that's powerful. And you don't need to speak to do that either. You know, the power of silence is strong. And there's tons of behavioral science literature around how much power authority status we get from being silent to being good listeners. And this is where Yes, and become very, very powerful, because you cannot respond to somebody using guessing without listening to them, without being present without being in the moment. And so this is just one simple aspect of how you can really take this two word phrase and bring it to the next level, I would very quickly challenge your listeners to think about conflict management, and difficult conversations, and on the sales or consumer customer side where the customer is first turning a loss into a lead. Now how to use a simple phrase is a way to take relationships that could be splintering, and make them stronger.

Tobin Slaven 17:13

It sounds to me, I'm gonna try to feed back what I think I'm hearing from you. Again, I'm doing this for our audience. But I'm also doing it from my cell phone. I'm being selfish about this bar, I want to make sure I'm getting what you're what you're giving us today. I think I'm hearing you say that, yes, and is a force function that's doing two key things, probably more. But I'm focused on two right now, one is suspending the judgmental mind the disbelief in saying you can stay on the side for a little bit, because we're gonna have a lot more energy in this conversation if we're not trying to edit at the same time we create. Secondly, it is additive. You cannot use that phrase without listening carefully, listening deeply, to gather the pieces that you're going to have to work with. When you do go to build on top of that. How am I doing?

Bob Kulhan 18:07

You hit it right on the head. I mean, those are, those are just two core aspects of what we're talking about right here.

Tobin Slaven 18:15

Give us and I know there's there's more in the book than we can cover today. Give us one or two more that build on that starting point.

Bob Kulhan 18:27

So look at the challenges that we faced over the last year and a half specifically, and hopefully someone listens to this in a year from now. So to confirm the timeline starting March, to where we are June 2021, how much change has taken place? How much unknown has taken place with that change? And how much unknown is coming in the future? This is challenging for many people, if not even paralyzing for a lot of people. So if you take this simple approach of using yes and to postpone judgment of like, yeah, this is happening. I may not like that this has been happening. It's happening. So rather than focusing on what I can't do with this, what can I do? What do I have at my immediately at my immediate fingertips at my disposal? What do I have in my close proximity, including people that I'm with resources, network, whatever it might be that defines value to you have something that you can use, and then objectively as possible, looking at the challenges that we're facing. And now how do I proceed going forward from there? And the reason why I think this is so powerful right now is because it seems potentially that we could be at a turning point. Now this is not the virus 3.0 doesn't come back in full force, like most experts think it's going to either way, the reason Reality is that the social technology technologies of like zoom and teams and WebEx and all these platforms that allow us to hear each other and see each other at the same time it communicate, collaborate are not going away. Do we have rounded the corner? You know, business improv started going virtual in 2010. You know, the writing was on the wall. And as an innovation creativity think tank that we are, we're like, we got to figure out how to move from immersive high energy on site stuff to this element, which took about seven years of casual piloting, prototyping, you know, wasn't a full drive yet, seven years to figure out like, Oh, this is the missing pieces of the puzzle. This is this, how you click it into place. With this right now, some people I'm a kind of meander here a little bit, are denying that this is going to be a medium that we use going forward the same way that some people denied the phone is going to be something that catches on or movies that no one's gonna want to go to a movie, we could just talk to each other here. Well, who's gonna who's gonna want a TV set? We can go to the movies are just talking to each other? Well, who's gonna want to watch a movie on a computer? No one's gonna who's gonna watch a movie on a handheld

Tobin Slaven 21:03

or this internet thing? What's the deal with this internet,

Bob Kulhan 21:07

it's always going to be deniers, people who are late to the game, when it comes to change. Those are the ones I mentioned before they're gonna get drugged behind, whether they like it or not. I am firmly in this camp of Well, people are gonna get so used to using this technology, that this will be a way we communicate going forward, not the only way, and may not even be the strongest way, yet, it's going to be a way we communicate going forward. So now at this moment, where a lot of people are looking at that, and looking at this hybrid leadership, how do I manage on site versus virtually versus at the same time. Third is blue water, there is so much opportunity out there. There's possibility that we haven't even begun to explore yet. So going back to the CSN and the postponement of judgment, it's that opportunity to assess and evaluate and reevaluate where we are and what we need to do individually and collectively to succeed individually and together.

Tobin Slaven 22:04

Yeah, I think an argument could be made that going forward, the ability to collaborate in these virtual environments is going to become even more of a differentiator, because in person, you some companies, I'm not advising, this should be the case, but some companies might be able to enforce that more authoritarian, top down structure, I see you working, therefore, I know value is being created, or I see you at your desk, you appear to be working therefore, we're in a we're in agreement of what's happening here, you, Petrus, as opposed to these folks quitting jobs like this is when you read the news cycle. This is one of the big trends right now is there are a lot of folks that had a heart to heart with themselves over the last year. And they're making decisions about whether they even want to go back into their former positions. And one of the decision factors is, is the opportunity to stay remote in some shape or form in this in this team. So I think we're in agreement, there's, there's opportunity around that to to be better at creating influence, impact and communication in these new forms. And it seems like the improv improvisational toolkit is one of the things that I would want to bring to the table to be better in that environment.

Bob Kulhan 23:28

It's a great driver for change. And I and I think it's worth being redundant to what you just said, we're talking about a competitive advantage, because there's enough people out there who are either dragging their heels with it, denying it or dragging their heels with it, or don't know how to do it. So to figure out how to do it on your own or partner with other people who are have that same motivating drive creates a competitive advantage, especially for people. You know, I started as a solopreneur. And now I am an entrepreneur. And it's a consultancy, we went from a training house to a consultancy. So your audience, you know, seems to me, and this is something that's going to help make you more marketable and your organization remarkable.

Tobin Slaven 24:10

building off that Bob, as we start to wrap up here, I know the book is going to be I'm going to get this up against them, see if I can hold this so people can see the full cover. This is going to be one resource that folks could could get their feet wet, learn more start to bring themselves up to speed with this toolkit that we talked about. I know you have an online course let me find the link. I'll put that in the chat because some folks may be interested in pulling that. Looking at that more closely as well. What else should should they be thinking about? And how can folks enter your world they want to continue this conversation with you What would that look like?

Bob Kulhan 24:47

Find me I business improv comm pretty simple. You reach out to us and we will get back to you. You can also find me on LinkedIn. And Tobin, thanks for mentioning the online course that online course improv Visual Communication is exactly what we're focusing on this business improv specific focus of improvisation for communication, collaboration, creativity, dealing with change, dealing with conflict, creating a culture, that it's not just a one off can sustain this. And if you go through the program and actually download the worksheets, you walk out with a tangible action plan that says this is how I, in your own words, will use these tools and techniques going forward. So we really put you in that position to apply these strategically and methodically, in a way that's beneficial to you and the people around you. And if you need additional support with that we do, we're working on open enrollment programs as well for people to create a community and experiment and test it and work work out with each other, essentially, in our practice fields. And so if you get a hold of us and inquire about that, we'll tell you when the next ones of those are rolling around, through business improv Comm.

Tobin Slaven 25:53

Very interesting and are those. And I love the analogy of the practice field. So I have an athletic background. So this this plugs right into my brain. Are these practice fields, cross disciplinary cross industry? Like what what does that look like? What would an individual come in and be engaging with other teams in that environment?

Bob Kulhan 26:13

Yet, in the past, we've had it put together a couple different ways where some people will come with a team, or some allies, even like, they're not part of the same company, like I've got my buddy with me and not we're gonna go through this process together. And other times, it's a pure, very eclectic, very diverse group. The last one that we ran had people in Russia, Europe, South America, Mexico, and throughout America, it had everyone from solopreneurs, and entrepreneurs and small business owners and coaches and consultants, to big business, Big Pharma, big IT industry agency. And so what we find through these environments is that people are very open to working out with each other, because everybody understands these techniques, as well as how to actually work out. And we're all interested in getting each other's backs, because we're not competing with each other. So we're careful as well in the way that we cast these groups to make sure that we're not putting a bunch of people who are going to be guarded, because they're afraid that you know, you're gonna, you're gonna steal my ideas, when we're working out together. It's like, Nah, let's just level this. At this point, there's a lot of opportunity to level set. And let's find people who are interested in getting each other's backs. And that is expanded as well to a larger community, where we have periodic workout sessions, where people can chime in and jump in and play with strangers, new friends, they haven't met yet.

Tobin Slaven 27:36

Yeah, I love this peer collaboration. And, you know, if you're focused on on the competitive aspects, that's where your experience will be. But if you're, if you're see the, I'm going to call it endless, limitless number of opportunities around us right now in the space. I mean, we can't even envision what the opportunities are going to be because the industry is changing so fast around us, for all these for everything, multiple industries. But that could be a whole other conversation. And I'm not going to go there today. Because no Will you and I'll be on for another two hours here. What I do want to say is thank you for taking the time. I know it was a busy day for you, you came directly from this other keynote, to share a little bit of time with us and appreciate you taking the time to do that.

Bob Kulhan 28:22

Tobin, thank you so much for having me. It's been a blast talking with you. And I hope that this is beneficial to your audience.

Tobin Slaven 28:28

And just want to remind folks, you can see Bob see the in the URL in his lower third, but we also in the comments on social media, we have the link to the teachable course. And you've seen the book on screen. So the three different venues that you can follow up stay in contact with Bob learn a little bit more about how you can become more improvisational in your life and in your business. Thanks everyone. appreciate you joining us.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai

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