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Second City and RLI Team Up to Teach Innovation in Leadership

9/3/2008 -- Second City and RLI Team Up to Teach Innovation in Leadership

Comedy troupe encourages MBAs to think on their feet -- and outside the box.

ANN ARBOR, Mich.— It's all gloom and doom at the Ross School of Business. Incoming MBAs have been taken hostage by zombies straight out of Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video. And just in time, the King of Pop himself moonwalks in to save the day, leaving the Class of 2010 to dance off into the sunset.

If this scene sounds too bizarre to be true, that's because it actually was an improvised skit performed by first-year Robyn Katzman, MBA '10, and her classmates, with the help of representatives from Second City Communications (SCC). The acting workshop, designed to teach future management professionals to think on their feet, kicked off the first week of school as part of the Ross Leadership Initiative (RLI).

RLI is an integrated series of programs to supplement MBA classroom learning and analytic coursework throughout a student's 20-month experience at Ross. It begins with the week-long RLI Foundation Session, designed for incoming MBAs to identify, develop, and exercise their leadership capabilities in real time. Intensive team-building activities tap students' innovation, creativity, cooperation, and communication skills.

"A favorite question people like to debate is whether leadership can be taught," says Sue Ashford, associate dean for leadership programming and the Executive MBA Program. "Here at Ross, we believe most certainly it can be. By putting students in experiences that demand leadership of them, they will develop as leaders. We also believe that leadership is an art, and if you want to learn the art, you better expand the ways you learn."

Enter SCC, a branch of the Chicago-based comedy troupe Second City, which facilitates improvisation workshops to help business leaders improve communication, collaboration, and innovation. The troupe operates on the notion that improvisation and business are alike: both create something out of nothing.

Acting on the SCC premise that "bottom lines and punch lines are more related than you think," the students used the acting workshop to reveal and build on one another's strengths. Shared humor helps create a transparent, open culture where people are truly engaged in their work, according to SCC facilitators.

"With this training, we learned that any idea is a good idea," says Tyler Hooper, MBA '10. "Once you get all the ideas on the table, you can come up with a lot more than if you're just constantly shooting them down."

One of the biggest lessons many students took away from the SCC session was the concept of "Yes, and." Rather than saying no to an idea, students were encouraged to say, "yes, and..." in order to develop a concept before rejecting it outright.

"I thought it was really effective learning to say yes to ideas even if they seem bad initially," says Russell Baruffi, MBA '10. "We learned how to turn something that might seem unformed into something positive by not criticizing upfront. I think that's useful for business and for all kinds of situations."

"Second City taught us to really have better listening skills," adds Katzman. "The actors imparted this notion that people might have some sort of nugget of wisdom that you might not catch if you jump in because you're always planning your own response."

Throughout the week-long Foundation Session, incoming first-year MBAs had plenty of opportunities to practice listening. After their session with SCC, the students took part in "Grill for Glory," a timed cooking competition inspired by the television show Iron Chef. Each of the sections divided into groups and conceptualized, cooked, and served a meal for 70. They also designed a marketing pitch and provided entertainment to complement their dish.

Later in the week, the MBAs volunteered in underprivileged communities for the RLI Global Citizenship Day. "Students did hard labor and talked to leaders tackling tough problems out there," says Ashford. The RLI experience highlighted the fact that corporations and communities are interconnected, she says.

As Ross students progress through the MBA Program, they also experience RLI's annual Crisis Challenge, a timed competition in which students formulate a response to a simulated corporate crisis; a retreat on self-reflection that kicks off the second year; and a leadership transition workshop that focuses on short- and long-term professional development before students leave campus.

—Leah Sipher-Mann

For more information, contact:
Bernie DeGroat, (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847, bernied@umich.edu