Grace Tshanakas on Improvisation, Spontaneity, and Transformation

Grace Tshanakas, ELP 2007

IT Executive

Fortune 100 Healthcare Company

When she first walked into our Executive Leadership Program for Women in 2007, Grace would have told you she was the last person in the world you’d find taking an improvisation class. Today, she relies on skills honed in improvisation as she engages colleagues from around the world, while she is leading major change. Here is her fascinating conversation with Brigid on improvisation, spontaneity, and transformation.

Grace: Improvisation training changed my whole perspective and approach to changing business situations.

Brigid: How did you come to take an improvisation class?

Grace: I’d received feedback from my boss that I needed to loosen up a bit–to be more comfortable with spontaneity. As my coach, you suggested I take an improvisation class. “I think you’ll like this,” you said.  And I thought, “That’s the last thing in the world I’m going to like.”

Brigid: You didn’t say that to me!

Grace: I must have! Because it was way outside of my comfort zone.

Brigid: You might have sighed…

Grace: The turning point came after another leadership class held inside my company. We were asked to ‘jump in’ and take action in a variety of highly dynamic role plays. There were a couple of people who just naturally fell into the play of it. I thought, “that’s what Brigid means by being spontaneous”. I admired them, but I couldn’t bring myself to be that spontaneous.

So I thought, maybe now is the time to take a risk. Believe me; I never thought I would do improvisation. I had to trust you, Brigid. So I signed up for a class at the Magnet Theater.

While the 8 week improve class was in progress, I was asked to run a global project at my organization. I had to gather input from people all over the world in a very collaborative manner. I presented the results of the project, via telecom, to the IT leaders in Europe. After the meeting concluded, I received a text –they had clapped for me at the end of the presentation.

Brigid: Unheard of. This was a difficult presentation for you. You were the only one who wasn’t present at the meeting and those leaders had their own agendas. I remember that you told me before the call, “I’m going to approach it like improvisation.”

Grace: Improv training taught me to build upon whatever questions are asked. This allowed me to relax and respond to questions–to engage easily in that back and forth dialogue. It’s helped me approach things from the perspective of, “I’m going to have fun with this,” as opposed to having to be so serious. Improv has helped me significantly when presenting in front of audiences. I’m much less inhibited about getting up on stage and speaking.

Brigid: So it taught you to stay fully present and trust yourself, rather than worrying about having to be perfect.

Grace: In fact, it helped me to make a major career transition in heading up a business area in Asia. The first month I was there, the IT team went out to dinner along with my boss, the CFO. The restaurant had a show where people in the audience participated (volunteered) Of course, the show was all in a foreign language. I’d had just recently finished that improvisation class. I said to the co-worker next to me, “Let’s do this.” We had to do all kinds of silly things–dancing on tables, singing, stuff you wouldn’t believe. I ended up being a finalist in the audience participation contest. By the end, I had the whole team up on stage dancing–even the CFO. That evening helped me develop an immediate bond with the team.

Brigid: Many of us think that when the stakes are high, we have to clamp down tightly to keep control. You went halfway across the world, to an unknown culture and language, and were able to embrace that uncertainty positively by accessing your own sense of play and spontaneity. That’s exactly what you need to be able to do in dealing with extreme change.

Grace: And it’s something I still apply. For example, our business is currently going through a transition. I was asked to be the lead on a piece of the transition. Mergers & acquisitions is a new challenge for me, yet I’m able easily to step into the role. I don’t worry so much, but rather, just let it play out.

Brigid: “Letting it play out” is the exact opposite of the approach you had when you entered the ELP. You were always so well prepared, ready with answers to any question, yet reluctant to loosen your grip on the direction you wanted to take. Leadership is always about discovering and growing new sides of yourself. That’s exactly what you did.

Grace: At first, improvisation training helped me to get my voice out there to increase my own influence. But as I’ve matured as a leader, I use what I learned to coach others and to ask questions. I mentor associates on my team to trust in themselves. There’s always a balance. Now, I speak when I have an opinion that needs to be considered, but I encourage the members of my team to share their ideas first and add to them.

Brigid: Bad improv is when one person does all the talking. A great one happens when you listen intently to one another.

Grace: Yes. Improvisation training honed my listening and took it to the next level–paying deep attention and focusing more on the other person than on myself.

Brigid: Which is freeing. When you come into a meeting instead of thinking about how you’ll do, you’re thinking about how you’ll be attentive to them.

Grace:  I’m okay now if things change. In improvisation, you never know what might be thrown at you. You have to pay attention. My old habit was to think, “Oh, I did all this work and now they’re changing it.” My new habit is to think, “Okay, here’s an opportunity to learn something new.” Improvisation training was a safe space in which to practice those skills.

I now coach people to relax a little. I recognize my old behaviors, and help them to move beyond them. I’ve learned that we’re missing out when we aren’t able to have a little bit of fun. Anytime you can laugh, it ends up taking any tension out of the situation and puts you in a place where you’re better able to collaborate and discuss things openly and honestly.

Brigid: So, when stakes are high, it’s even more useful.

Grace: Yes.

Let’s keep the conversation going…

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