Transforming executives — AINx Talk

The Applied Improv Network — AIN — is a professional association of practitioners, such as academics, trainers, facilitators, and care workers, who apply elements of improvisational theater to their work. It is a fun community of people who come together to share experiences.

I love contributing to the AIN world conferences. This video captures my talk on how applied improv practitioners are well positioned to be trusted advisors to senior executives.

Video — Transforming executives

Transcript — Transforming executives

What I will talk about is a rewarding part of my professional portfolio, which is working with senior executives one-on-one as a trusted advisor, and to encourage you to consider adding it to your own practices. 

The client

Let me start with the client. The client is usually an exceptional human being, a senior executive at the top of the organization. 

Just like the top of a mountain, this could be a very lonely, windy, invisible place. From this very peculiar place, he or she has the task to constantly manage growth, change, risk, and uncertainty in an environment that’s being shaped by forces way beyond her control — things like changes in consumer preferences and competitive shifts and demographics. It’s basically trying to win a game whose rules are constantly being rewritten. 

Now, speaking about objectives — in reality, an executive has multiple objectives. They are interdependent, they’re conflicting, and they are poorly articulated. So, then the advisor’s job is to help advance the clarity and the conviction behind the executive’s thinking, decisions, and actions. 

Movie analogy

I like the movie Analyze This as an illustration. Okay, I know it’s a mobster movie. It talks about Robert De Niro being a mobster in a New York mafia family, but I find many parallels with today’s CEOs. (No, don’t laugh, and hear me out.) 

  • The mobster boss is dealing with the Chinese, and the Russian Mafia is coming in — now that’s globalization in business terms, right? 

  • The FBI is picking up all the mobsters and locking them up — well, that’s Sarbanes-Oxley and regulation. 

  • Another New York family is in a bloody conflict — well, that’s your cutthroat competition.

  • All that, and Robert De Niro himself is going through this soul-searching, life-reevaluating quest for meaning in life, which is an ever-present theme. 

Now, in this one scene, Billy Crystal, who is a psychiatrist and “advisor-consigliere,” is protesting seriously because he’s being kidnapped, in the middle of the night, from his honeymoon room to talk to the boss. 

The boss says, “You don’t understand. Nobody else talks to me like you do.” 

Billy Crystal says, “I take it you don’t hear ‘no’ that often.” 

“Oh, I hear it but it’s more like pleading ‘No, no, please don’t.’”

The advisor — and the AIN community

Well, joking aside, Billy Crystal epitomizes the advisor. He’s somebody who comes in as an equal, in a spirit of a complete confidentiality in a space where any question can be brought up. He brings in an independent point of view, the courage to express it, and a very orthogonal or different set of skills and experiences. 

This is why I think that you are well positioned to play that role. 

First of all, you already have access to these guys because you’re in their organizations doing great work, so these conversations will organically emerge. 

Secondly, when the conversation comes up, you have all the skills and the mindset to be fantastic in a one-on-one setting. What you consider as a commodity in this room in terms of ability to be in the moment and listen and interact, well, that’s not a commodity out there in the corporate world — that’s a very rare, rare presence.

Thirdly, you have an endless bag of tricks in games and exercises that can develop insights into the executives’ mind by just experiencing it in the moment right there and then. Traditional advisors who are coming from MBA or McKinsey backgrounds, they don’t have that skill set.

Shared language

Finally, you have language that can expand their thinking.

Let me explain. When I sit down with the CEO and I say something like, “Target customers segment value proposition,” I use 5 words. Because it’s a common shared language, I can use those 5 words and convey massive amounts of information and take the conversation to a much more sophisticated level because we share this language.

In emerging markets, that language doesn’t exist. There, I found that just bringing the vocabulary in, and explaining what that meant, allows executives to think in a new way and structure reality in a completely different way. 

Now, you as improvisers, you come in and now you can talk about your vocabulary that complements the regular business language. Well, you explain the word status, and all of a sudden you have empowered an executive to intentionally choose a different leadership style in a different situation just because they didn’t have the words to put to it before. 

In summary, being a trusted advisor to a senior executive is a very, very privileged role. And you are all very well positioned to play it. Thank you.

Written by Aneta Key. Original AINx talk presented in September 2012. This blog post last edited April 2019.