Articles

How to Learn Soft Skills in Business Settings: Improvise

By Keith Morelli

MBA Improv Class

TAMPA (August 30, 2018) -- The group of 20, standing in a circle, started out with a clapping exercise in which they faced the person next to them and clapped together. Most started out watching their own hands and there wasn't much unison.

"Try it now making eye contact," the group leader suggested. It was a trick to coordinate hand movement, so the two claps began to happen at the same time.

Then, facing the center of the circle, each said a random word and pointed to someone in the circle who had to say the first word that came to his or her mind. It started out with awkward silences, but eventually moved more quickly as participants simply reacted instead of thinking so much about it.

These exercises weren't a part of a group therapy session for anxiety-ridden patients with self-esteem issues.

Rather, it was during a week-long, three-credit improv course in the University of South Florida's Muma College of Business Professional MBA program, designed to offset the stereotypically stodgy, numbers-laden, business-theorizing, management-heavy curriculum. The improv educators are not tenured professors, but seasoned performers who value their art enough to want to pass it on to rising stars in the world of business.

"Sure, we are looking to attract and retain the best Fulbright Scholars on our faculty," said Andrew Artis, marketing professor and academic director of MBA programs at the college, "but for something as novel as improv, we need accomplished performers." The two hired to teach the eight-hours-a-day course, Gavin Hawk and Ricky Wayne, are well known around the Tampa Bay area.

"We are honored to have them as part of this effort," Artis said.

"Our MBA program is committed to serving our graduates and their employers by providing education and training that is impactful," he said. "We are very good at teaching students the basics of being successful in business, but that is not enough for this modern world. It is also essential that an executive have the ability to be innovative."

How do you teach innovation in a way that graduates can ramp-it-up when needed?

"We do it with improvisational training," Artis said. "The most successful executives know when and how to tap into the creative side of the brain when the situation calls for it. Improv training teaches them to do just that."

After an hour or so into the first day, the 20 MBA students, with widely varying backgrounds, became more comfortable with being put on the spot, taking instruction from the improv impresarios and learning how to listen – fully listen – before they contribute to a conversation.

Hawk, associate professor of theater at Eckerd College, and Wayne, an actor and entertainer with expertise in the art of improvisation, graded students on their participation and written analyses of various exercises, their responses to coaching and how they adapted to evolving situations.

The course is designed to teach management types the soft side of success; how to listen and thoughtfully contribute to conversations, rather than ignoring what is being said and focusing on what they will say next and waiting for an opening to say it. These are the soft skills of business, Hawk said.

"Employers now are starting to realize the necessity and benefits of soft skills," he said. "Soft skills are a little hard to define, but it boils down to listening well, communicating well and working well."

He cited a study that surveyed nine years of employee hiring and firing at Google. Over that time, the company found that most of the firings were of people equipped with sufficient hard skills, such as business and technical knowledge, and that those with a good command of soft skills tended to stay and be promoted.

This course, he said, gives these MBA hopefuls a head start on their paths that lead from being mid-level professionals to being top-tier executives.

"I'm hoping they walk away with better communication skills," Hawk said, "better listening skills and having the ability to collaborate well in whatever situation they find themselves in."

Students, for the most part, are taking the class as seriously as statistics, finance and accounting.

"The lessons learned in this course have a connection to the business world," said banker and student Frank Territo. "The improv exercises force you to listen closely to your group members. Effective listening skills are crucial when communicating with clients and coworkers."

Most of the students agreed the course work is relevant.

"Their teaching is relatable to real-life work situations and they help prepare students for any of those situations," said Joseph Nestor. "They care about the development of their students as they teach what they're passionate about."

Others agreed the course is enjoyable and useful at the same time.

"They actually put art in management," said Vinay Murthy, "because it's said management is more art than science."

Aaron Wood, who is set to graduate in the spring, said the improv class is his favorite.

"I have never seen a class where, in the beginning, people were afraid to participate," he said, "and by the end, there wasn't enough time to participate because the entire class was involved. Absolutely brilliant."