ImprovEdge CEO Karen Hough: “A leader should be sure to create ways to raise awareness and connections throughout the group”

Alexandra Spirer
Nov 5, 2019 · 9 min read

Be sure to create ways to raise awareness and connections throughout the group. Consider personality profiles, time to share personal stories, and venues where they can mix in smaller groups for comfort. If your team is dispersed, as mine is, I highly recommend high-touch interactions. I use videoconference every day to bring my people together face-to-face, and try to be thoughtful of timezones, so that it’s not always just HQ that is accommodated. There’s so much research to prove that these small, social interactions actually contribute to better business outcomes. It’s critical that teams know and trust each other, no matter their size.

a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Karen Hough. Karen is the Founder & CEO of ImprovEdge, one of the Top 1% of women-owned businesses in the US. The company provides business training with an improv twist, serves the Fortune 100 and international clients, and has a presence in four cities. ImprovEdge notably provides 9-month Global Women’s Leadership Development Programs for enterprises striving to elevate and retain female talent. She is an Amazon bestselling author of three books, contributor to the Huffington Post, Mashable and Thrive Global, has been quoted in the Harvard Business Review. She is the recipient of the Athena Award for Outstanding Woman-Owned Business, and the Stevie International Award for Most Innovative Business of the Year. Her board work and philanthropy focuses on systemic change and advancement for women and girls, she is a Yale grad, and she lives with her husband and three children in Ohio.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It was entirely improvisational! After graduating from Yale, I became a professional actor and improviser in Chicago, training and performing with Second City and other improv troupes, doing theater, film and radio. After I got married, I was enjoying success as an actor in New York when I had the ridiculous opportunity to go into a tech startup. Improv demands that you jump into situations and say, “Yes!” so I applied that to my life. I crammed and took classes every night and improvised during the day. Although I didn’t have the experience of many of the engineers, I could think on my feet in front of clients, come up with creative solutions, and roll with the unexpected. I kept getting promoted and ended up working in three different start-ups — one went public and one was acquired. It was crazy and tough and I loved it. The Wharton School of Business agreed to let us test the idea of using improv as a behavioral learning tool in 1998 — we were the first training company in the world to integrate improv, back it up with research in neuroscience and psychology, and trademark our principles. I bought out my partners and incorporated in 2005. We are now in the top 1% of women-owned businesses in the US, and serve companies such as NBCUniversal, JPMorganChase, AstraZeneca, and Coach, both in the US and internationally.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

There are so many! I’ll share one of the most difficult moments — when I almost thought we’d have to close down. The company was growing, and honestly, I probably had kept quite a few people too long, and beyond their capabilities. We suddenly hit a dry spell in sales, and I didn’t have the ensemble around me to pull through. (At ImprovEdge, we use theater terminology, such as “ensemble” rather than sports terminology, such as “team.”) I had to make some really difficult and scary decisions, cutting a lot of people and positions. At the same time, I had to bolster and support the people I needed to hold onto to keep business rolling through the tough period and lay out a plan. Luckily, the market responded and we had some of our biggest clients come in during the very next quarter. It was a key learning point for me that a great ensemble is everything.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistakes you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

It sounds silly, but when I travel, I’m prepared for anything! I once landed in Chicago on a layover to Rochester, NY to begin a 4-day tour of speaking and meetings. The first mistake was my assistant’s — she had accidentally booked me to Rochester, MN instead of NY! When I realized the issue, I turned backflips with customer service in Chicago to get to NY that night, as my first event was 7am the next morning. The second mistake was mine, in that I had checked everything except my purse. Of course, the lost luggage never made it to NY, so I washed my dress every night in the sink for 5 days! I travel almost every week and I never leave without all of the critical necessities to get me through the next day: materials, bottled water, international chargers, or a special outfit. I am the epitome of a Girl Scout on a plane.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We truly improvise! We live our mission and culture everyday,and include our clients in that energy and willingness to flex. We believe in the tenets of improvisation, which demand positivity, inclusivity, agility, and adaptability to deal with the unexpected. We were in the midst of a kickoff for a 9-month women’s leadership development initiative for a global pharmaceutical. On day two, we realized that the participants really needed something different; some special content to get them launched for the months to come. Overnight, the ensemble on the ground totally redesigned the agenda for day three. The project management ensemble in another country realigned logistics despite timezone issues,and found resources to deliver on the vision. Our agility in the service of a better experience shocked and delighted our client. They have since used it as an example of the type of flexibility they hope to grow in their own teams.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We’re rolling out programs on human interactions around unconscious bias, and it’s really exciting! So many groups define and raise awareness about bias. It’s great to walk out of a training aware, but then what do you do? We’re taking our training up a notch by helping people to implement simple behaviors and teaching them how to enter into uncomfortable conversations, and lean into scary moments with empathy, kindness and honesty. We want them to feel OK improvising in moments that feel like uncharted territory, and have techniques so that they can feel confident starting relationships and building teams that are diverse.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be the example of the behavior you expect to see in your team. If you want them to be positive and proactive, check your attitude and response times. If you want them to face issues head on, be sure you’re not delegating tough conversations to HR. If you want them to have an open-door policy, examine your schedule — do you spend your days locked in meetings behind doors?

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Be sure to create ways to raise awareness and connections throughout the group. Consider personality profiles, time to share personal stories, and venues where they can mix in smaller groups for comfort. If your team is dispersed, as mine is, I highly recommend high-touch interactions. I use videoconference every day to bring my people together face-to-face, and try to be thoughtful of timezones, so that it’s not always just HQ that is accommodated. There’s so much research to prove that these small, social interactions actually contribute to better business outcomes. It’s critical that teams know and trust each other, no matter their size.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I was turned down for a business loan by multiple banks. One person even told me it was because I was a woman. (Yes, this has happened in our lifetimes and not that long ago!) My wonderful husband leveraged our home equity to help me get off the ground. The next person to bring me to the next step was a female banker. She listened to my story, saw that I was doing good work, and believed in me. She got me my first loan and line of credit for the business, introduced me to potential clients and partners, and invited me to important events around town for exposure. I’m so grateful to both those people who put their money behind their words.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I certainly have tried to pay it forward! Working with female executives to become their best selves is so fulfilling, and I also have to realize that I have also become an example. I mentor young women, my company donates services to not-for-profits that need support in developing their missions, and I am very involved in board participation and philanthropies that work for systemic change to bring about more inclusive communities. And more than anything, I hope to support as many people as possible to understand that they can improvise! Change, adaptation — these may feel scary at times, but we all can evolve.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

Improvise Every Day — Improv demands that you jump into risk, say yes and try new things, let other people shine and find the gold in the unexpected. Doesn’t that sound like a leader’s job?! We are constantly faced with surprises, so I just say “Oops to Eureka!” and we come up with another idea or plan. Oops to Eureka! is an improv concept that demands we embrace the unexpected and find the discovery.

Lead by Example — Whatever you do, will be what you get. The experiences we create — improvisational, high-energy, fun, meaningful — are our entire business. I have shown up and delivered to thrilled clients, even when I’ve been jetlagged or had a migraine. Sometimes there’s no backup, so you either deliver, or we lose the business. I can’t expect the ensemble to show up if I don’t.

People are Everything — Once I got all of the right people in the right places onstage, our production took off! In particular, one of my project managers showed so much promise in the early days, I just kept challenging her. She is now our COO!

Work Should Be Fun — We spend so much time working, we deserve to enjoy the challenge, do things that are fun and meaningful, and laugh as often as possible. Alan W. Watts said, “This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

It’s a movement to which I already belong! Gender equity, equal pay for equal work, benefits and freedom so that all genders can take advantage of meaningful work, being a parent if they choose, and living with the people they love.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Practice like you have never won. Play like you have never lost.” — Carli Lloyd — Improvisers are the most over-rehearsed people in the performance industry. Most people assume we just show up and wing it. The reason we can step onstage without a script is because we have rehearsed, practiced and challenged ourselves endlessly. Then we get to play, and that’s the best part!

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

Having worked in the tech industry myself, I would love to meet Beth Galetti, senior vice president of human resources at Amazon. I’ve read about some of the innovative ideas she’s put in place at Amazon and I admire her leadership and creativity, especially as the only woman on the senior executive team.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/beth-galetti-60b1106/

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film…

Alexandra Spirer

Written by

I am an entrepreneur, publicist, journalist and event producer based in Sunny Florida. My passion is writing & giving back to others.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Alexandra Spirer

Written by

I am an entrepreneur, publicist, journalist and event producer based in Sunny Florida. My passion is writing & giving back to others.

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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