Leadership Lessons from the Theater

James and the Giant Peach – Bart’s Bards 2019

I have been having some fun while continuing my job search and slowly but surely putting my consulting business into place. Sometime late last year I made the decision to audition for the theater. It might have been the best decision I have made in the last many months.

We have a super high-quality community theater just down the road from our home and since I am always looking for ways to scare myself, to reach outside my comfort zone, this seemed like a perfect idea. My goal was simply to do the very best I could at the audition. Honestly. I had no true expectation of being cast. I had been out of the theater for at least 15 years. I simply wanted to strap on the tap shoes and go out there and give it my all.

Imagine my surprise when I was cast! I had an amazing time doing the show, met some incredible people, and reaffirmed my personal love for the stage. After that show I did another, and am now collaborating on a youth summer production. My heart is happy when it is in a theater.

Given that I am now spending so much time there, I have had the opportunity to reflect on what it takes to put on a full musical theater production. It is amazing! And truly, it takes leadership at all levels.

I now believe it would be an incredibly powerful exercise to have leaders go through the process of producing some type of live event. There are significant leadership lessons at every step for those in corporate America.

Here are some examples from both on stage and behind the scenes:

Actors: These folks are clearly necessary for a show to go on. Whether they play the leads or are part of the ensemble, there is no show without actors. Imagine the situations they are faced with:

  1. Personal responsibility. There is very little help on stage when lines, blocking (where they move, stand, etc), song lyrics, choreography is forgotten. It is all up to you.
  2. Crisis management. Sometimes your co-star will forget their lines and you have to help cover. Sometimes your costume rips right before you are to go on stage. Sometimes the microphone battery dies right in the middle of your song, or a prop is missing, or the lights don’t come up when you expect them. You have to deal with all of these potential situations.
  3. Communication. As an actor, it is your responsibility to deliver the story. Do it well and the audience comes away inspired and entertained. Fail, and the efforts put forth by everyone involved in the production are for naught.

Crew: The crew is made up of the folks handling the lights, the sound, the props, and moving the scenery during the show, among many, many other things. These folks bring the story to life. Some situations they deal with, many of which are similar to those of the actors:

  1. Personal Responsibility: These folks, and there are rarely enough of them, have to move fast and have to know exactly what they are doing. If someone has to move a piece of furniture, it is up to them to move it. Quickly. Exactly. No one is there to help (they are busy moving other things).
  2. Team Work: Often the crew has to work together to pull off intricate changes in scenery, props or lighting. There has to be a high level of trust on the team to get the whole job done.
  3. Crisis Management: When the batteries of a mic run out, or the spotlighter suddenly calls in sick, or the stage wall that is supposed to open suddenly gets stuck, it lands on the shoulders of the crew to handle it. There is no one to call, no one to hand the problem off to.

Costumer/Hair/Make-up/Props: These folks own their own fiefdoms under the direction of the director. They are all behind the scenes, but their work has a significant impact on the outcome of the show. They deal with:

  1. Limited Resources: These folks have to make the most out of everything they have. A good friend of mine spent money for some expensive fabric for one show exclaiming that she would find a way to use that fabric in every show to follow. And she has! The Props professionals (in community theater certainly) source all of their needs from donations, thrift shop finds, and creative reuses from past shows.
  2. Conflict Management: I can’t tell you how many times, as an actor, as a costumer, as a bystander, I have dealt with conflict over costumes, hair, and make-up. One child wouldn’t go on stage because her “makeup wasn’t as pretty as everyone elses.” In another case, an actor was furious about her wig. Or an actor refused to wear the hat.
  3. Crisis Management: In the last show I worked on, an actor walked right into a tube of red lipstick right before she was to go on stage. It took quick thinking to grab a stole from the back and whip it over her head to hide the stain as she rushed on. Pants rip, suspenders snap, shoes get lost….backstage can become a near war zone during some shows!

Producer/Director/Coreographer/Designers: These are the folks that make up the official leadership of the show. Their challenges are rather clear:

  1. Setting the vision: The director is charged with providing the vision, and the producer and others for supporting that vision and helping to communicate it to the cast and crew.
  2. Creating the culture: Each show has its own vibe. Some shows are packed with more drama behind the scenes than in front of them, and some are extremely uplifting. This can be largely attributed to the culture created by the show leadership. I have been very fortunate to have been involved in the latter in nearly every case, but have heard plenty of horror stories about the former.
  3. Decision making: This oh-so-important quality comes in spades for these folks. From casting the show to determining the look and feel of the stage to the rehearsal schedule and everything in between, these folks are making and communicating hundreds (if not thousands) of decisions before the show opens its curtains.

Pulling off a live production is a monumental feat. It calls for leaders at all levels to do their very best. It challenges each participant, whether on the stage, offstage, or behind the scenes, to exercise their leadership muscles.

It seems to me, every corporation might do well to produce a live show. It would certainly throw many people outside their comfort zone, would help to grow some very necessary leadership skills, and might even expose some leadership gaps that can then be corrected!

It also goes to show that leadership lessons can be found everywhere. As they say in the theater, The Show Must Go On!

As always, keep it positive, and share a smile if you’ve got one!

Leaders and Feedback – How to Get it and How to Give It


I was chatting with a colleague the other day, and the subject of feedback came up. She mentioned to me the difficulty she was having in getting meaningful feedback from her management. She felt that she was doing a good job at work, but like most of us, she wanted to improve. Feedback would certainly help!

In another conversation, an HR leader I spoke with mentioned the same problem but from a different perspective. She was bemoaning the fact that her managers were bringing her situations where employees needed to be terminated, and yet there was no evidence (or at least not enough evidence) of feedback being given from the manager to the employee leading up to the desire for termination.

It has also been noted in studies and in my own experience that when the Millennial generation joined the workforce, feedback was desired at a level not yet seen in the workplace. Where annual reviews had been accepted as the norm, this new generation demanded almost daily input into their work. I know I looked for it, and many of my employees demanded it.

So why is it still so difficult to give and to get feedback? Three issues that come up:

  • Growth in technology inhibits casual conversation
  • The business of our calendars
  • Feedback takes time and the value is realized over time

With the growth in technology we have seen an increase in the number of employees working from home or from alternate locations. This makes communication more difficult than in the past when you could simply stop by a manager’s or employee’s desk for a quick chat. Or catch up with someone in the hallway. Communication now must be intentional.

Also we are all so busy! How many times have you asked, “How are you?” and heard the answer, “Busy!” We just don’t have time to stop and have these conversations when there are 6 fires that need our immediate attention. I once had a manager tell me, “I don’t have time to sit down and talk to him because I am too busy cleaning up all of his messes.” (See this post on why it is important to take the time now to gain the time in the future).

In addition, it can be difficult for managers to see the value in having a conversation when it does not immediately impact their current situation. I’ve heard managers say, “If they are doing their job, I don’t need to interfere or distract,” or “I’ll let them know if they screw something up,” or even “I don’t want to be a micromanager. They should know if they are doing a good job or not.”

To be honest, I often told my leaders that I liked to manage by exception. I told them I would praise them if they did something amazing and would call them out if they did something terrible, but otherwise I would keep out of their way. I said that, and yet I still gave regular feedback. We met regularly, we planned for their futures. We discussed their strengths and their weaknesses. We strategized and we dreamed. We also vented when necessary. This was all a critical part of their development as leaders.

Those of you in a position to give feedback should remember that the best way for you to be successful is for those under you to be successful. Focusing on their growth and development is a great way to help them succeed and in turn to help you succeed.

So here are some tips, first for those of us seeking feedback from others:

  • Schedule regular meetings with your manager. These can be as short as 15 minutes a week if you have a busy manager. Setting a consistent schedule for feedback and putting it on the calendar creates the formal space for this kind of communication.
  • Ask for specific feedback. Don’t ask questions like, “How do you think I am doing?” This is difficult to answer, and it will be hard for your manager to give you anything you can work with. Instead, after a meeting ask “How do you think I handled that meeting?” or after submitting a report, “How did you feel I handled that ambiguous data?” Asking about your performance on a specific task is much more likely to get you actionable feedback.
  • Understand your manager and her particular style. Manage up. Pay attention to the signals she is giving. If you stop by her office daily to ask, “How do you think I did today?” and you notice her rolling her eyes, switch tactics. Find something that works for both of you.
  • Think critically when deciding who to ask for feedback. Be sure (or as sure as you can) that the feedback you will get will be constructive and not destructive. I learned early in my career that the definition of “constructive” can vary widely amongst managers.
  • When you get feedback, remember that it has as much to do with the person giving it as it does with your specific performance. Take the feedback, but keep in mind the agenda of the person giving the feedback. There is always something to learn from every bit of feedback you receive – it just might not be exactly what you were looking for.
  • Some advice for those giving feedback:

    • Schedule regular meetings with your staff for the specific purpose of providing feedback. These can be as short as 15 minutes each week. They can be by phone or Skype, but get them on the calendar. I normally met with my managers formally for an hour every two weeks, although we had regular daily interactions as well. Don’t cloud the meetings with fire-fighting. Instead be intentional about that 15 minutes and stick to feedback and employee growth topics.
    • Have the difficult conversations. Don’t wait. Make the time. A quick conversation now can alleviate a long, drawn-out processes later.
    • Praise your employees. As often as you can. Look for ways to do this regularly. This gives you more credibility when you have to have those tough conversations.
    • BE CONSTRUCTIVE. Focus your conversation on behaviors and results, and never on personal characteristics. I was once told that I was a “monster.” Tell me what I was supposed to do with that?
    • Seek outside validation if you need to give highly critical feedback. Be sure that you are seeing the whole picture.
    • Listen. Feedback is not just the manager speaking to the employee. It should be an exchange of ideas between two people attempting to reach the same goal.
    • Be open about your expectations and your personal style. Help your employees to interact with you as efficiently and effectively as possible.

    Feedback is an important part of the success of your company. Keep at it, and see what wonderful things come!

    What other tips do you have for providing/accepting feedback? I’d love to hear from you! Drop a comment here on the blog or shoot me an email!

    As always, keep it positive!

    Four Non-Traditional Leadership Development Tools

    There are many traditional tools out there for growing your leadership skills. There are books, seminars, videos, workshops. They will teach you how to listen, to delegate, to strategize, and to make decisions, and many of them are worthwhile.

    There is another aspect that leaders need to develop and I would like to offer some non-traditional methods to develop it. I believe that an excellent leader constantly develops her deep knowledge of herself. This is critical in order to lead authentically. Knowing yourself helps you to truly understand and articulate your values, and to stand confidently and surely in front of your teams each and every day and lead.

    Over the past few years I have been introduced to many different techniques to help me understand myself better. Some of these techniques were familiar and easy to implement. Others were a little bit out there (what we lovingly refer to as ‘woo’), but still can be very useful once you accept the strangeness of the experience.

    Here are four non-traditional techniques for you to try:

    Journaling

    Why journaling? There is something about writing things out that helps us to process. It helps us to think things through and get to the bottom of our feelings. Formulating our thoughts into cohesive sentences can aid in the organization of our thoughts and plans. Sometimes, getting our thoughts out of our heads and onto paper helps us to see things differently and can help us to be more objective about ourselves and our decisions.

    This is an easy technique for anyone to pick up and try. Simply grab some paper or open a word document and start writing. The tricky part might be in figuring out what to write. For that I have a few suggestions:

    1. Write whatever is on your mind. What was the last thought you had? What is a current problem you are trying to solve? Write it out, and then write out whatever occurs to you next. Keep in mind journaling is just for you, so don’t worry about grammar or punctuation or organization or cohesion. Just write.
    2. Find some prompts online. There are several places to look for these. One online journal I happen to like is penzu.com. Sometimes just answering answering the question “How am I feeling today?” is enough to get you started.
    3. Buy a journal that comes with journal prompts. For some people, this could be constraining, but for others it can help you to get started.
    4. Ask yourself ‘why’. Then ask yourself ‘why’ again. And then again. And again until you feel you have really reached a meaningful answer.
    5. Make it fun. Go somewhere different to do your writing. Try a park or a museum or a coffee-shop. If you like colors, buy yourself some colored pens. Add some artwork. Ask yourself some crazy questions. I am happy to offer suggestions if you need them!
    6. Make it a daily habit. You’ll learn so much about yourself and your leadership challenges.

    Cost: $0 (or cost of a new journal/nice pen)

    Time: 10 minutes a day

    Meditation

    I will be the first to admit that meditation is hard. My mind is always going a thousand miles per hour, so asking it to stop completely is impossible. But I have found several ways to work with this, and when I do, some of my most brilliant thoughts appear.

    It is like those moments in the shower, or while driving, or while on the massage table (my personal favorite) when your mind is calm and clear and the answers seem to appear from out of nowhere. Meditation can give you that any time, any where.

    Meditation is also tied to mindfulness – being aware of what is happening in the present moment, both with ourselves and in our environment. This has been shown in many studies to be an important part of successful leadership. Leaders who practice mindfulness have lower levels of stress, are better able to adapt to changing environments, and create better environments for their teams.

    To get started, I highly recommend using guided meditations. These are free and easy to find. You can find a bunch of them on YouTube or simply by googling “guided meditations.” The best tool I have found out there is the popular website/app Headspace. You can access the website from your computer or download the app for free on your mobile device. I would often use these quick guided meditations right in my office during my lunch hour.
    If you prefer an in-person experience, there are also classes you can take. The easiest places to look are at local yoga studios (or again, Google). You can also check for classes at your local community centers or holistic healing centers.

    What is important is that you give this a shot, find what works for you, and then keep at it to build a daily practice.

    Cost: $0 (or cost of a class)

    Time: 10 minutes per day

    Oracle Cards

    Have you ever heard of oracle cards? Perhaps you’ve heard of their more well-known cousin, tarot cards? These are cards that can be used by anyone, anywhere, for whatever purpose you would like. In this case, I suggest you use them for personal growth through self-reflection.

    Plus you can get a deck on Amazon or eBay for less than $20. There are some pretty fun decks out there! (One suggestion: go for the Oracle decks, not the Tarot decks. Much easier to interpret and use for beginners).

    I realize this is a stretch for most people in the business world. It certainly was for me until I gave them a shot. But stick with me for a second, and I think I can show you how they might be helpful. I, myself, find them a fun, creative way to work on my development. An example might help.

    First, I shuffle my deck while pondering a particular question. I might be asking myself, “What do I need to concentrate on today?” Then I spread out my cards and pick one. Sometimes I linger over the cards, thinking hard about my question and sometimes I just pick one right away; it doesn’t really matter. But this step can help you practice mindfulness. Let’s say I pull the following card:

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    Next, consider the card. What meaning can you pull from having selected that card? You could use this as a journal prompt. Explore how you can apply what is on the card to your question. If you feel the impulse to reject the card – something like, “this has nothing to do with me today!” – explore that feeling. Why do you feel like this isn’t important?

    In this case, when I pull the “Play” card, I might think about how I plan to incorporate some fun into my day. Or I might journal about whether or not I am making time in my life currently to have fun. Or I might consider whether or not I allow my team members to include fun in their work. I could take this any number of directions. Perhaps this came up for me today because I haven’t taken a day off in a long, long time, and I really need to do so.

    The important thing here is that you expand your mind, think in new directions, and consider possibilities that you hadn’t before. Plus it is always fun to see what comes up!

    Cost: $15-$30 for a deck (or borrow one from a friend, or find free sites on line)

    Time: 10 minutes

    Leadership Coaching

    So, let’s say you are a tennis player, and you are pretty good, but you are looking to get to the next level. You could continue to practice on your own, but chances are that in order to make a significant improvement, you’ll need to hire a coach.

    The same thing is true in leadership. If you want to move to the next level, you might do well to find yourself a leadership coach. This type of coach can help you navigate tricky situations in your career/workplace, can help you build on your strengths and can help smooth out your weaknesses. She can work with you to set ambitious goals and then define tactics to achieve them. In short, she can help you get to the next level.

    As with your tennis coach, you’ll need to exercise some judgement in hiring a leadership coach. Not all coaches are created equal. You will want to be sure you are hiring someone who can actually help you. And personalities matter. You’ll want to be sure you can work well together. Keep in mind, this will not be an inexpensive endeavor, but will be worth it in the end.

    I have worked with career coaches myself and found them to be inspiring, challenging, and well worth the time, effort and money. I am now working as a leadership coach myself (part-time), and enjoy this side of the relationship even more. I’m happy to share my experiences with anyone who has interest or questions.

    If you’d like to explore working with me as a coach, reach out! I’d love to have a conversation with you.

    Cost: Variable

    Time: Variable, generally 2 conversations/month

    In general, anything that takes you outside your comfort zone is going to help you grow in new and different directions. I encourage you to try something new. Experiment with something you’ve never tried before. Grow, dream, and accomplish amazing things!

    I’d love to hear if you have other alternative ways of developing your leadership skills. Be sure to share!

    And as always, keep it positive!