I Just Want Them To Care As Much As I Do!

Throwing Ninja Stars to Build Trust

Recently, I walked into a Vistage meeting in downtown Los Angeles that had just gotten underway.  I was there to present my interactive workshop on using improv as a tool to become a more courageous and effective leader.  As usual, I knew that my participants, though all accomplished executives, would be feeling anxious about being taught to “be witty and say funny things off the top of their heads.”  At least, that is the typical understanding of improv that I encounter and a myth I quickly have to dispel.

Leaders become great not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.John Maxwell
I sat down at one of the open seats at the large conference room table and noticed that an agenda and a piece of paper with a single quote on it were placed at each person’s seat.  The quote, by John Maxwell, a highly respected author on leadership said, “Leaders become great not because of their power, but because of their ability to empower others.”

Kismet! Empowering others was exactly what I was there to do!  I was there to show these leader how they could empower everyone else on their teams using the simple tools and philosophies of a practice that creates joy and laughter. Specifically, to empower them to build a culture of support, trust, and collaboration towards common goals.

How is that possible by playing games where we throw invisible ninja stars at each other and pretend we are going on magnificent vacations created on the spot as a team?  Because, we don’t do improv with the goal of being the wittiest, funniest, or most powerful person on stage or in the room.  We do (and constantly return to) improv because we discover the joy of being a part of a group that trusts each other, can celebrate successes AND mistakes together, and find strength in the diversity of talents and skills.

We discover the joy of being a part of a group that trusts each other, can celebrate successes AND mistakes together, and find strength in the diversity of talents and skills.

As I listened to the group share their issues that morning, one of the members said in reference to his management team, “I just want them to care as much as I do!”  That really struck a chord with everyone in the room, including myself.  As leaders, we have a vision that is incredibly exciting and important to us.  We spend a lot of time defining and communicating that vision and putting strategies into place to ensure we can achieve our goals.  And, then we rely on our team to execute.  If we have done our job well up to that point we have also hired a team of “A Players” and we provided them with the key resources (skills, capital, etc.) to be successful. So then, why do we often find ourselves in these meetings with our peers asking questions like:

  • Why are there people on my team that just don’t “get it”? 
  • Why aren’t they speaking up when things are going wrong along the way?
  • Why don’t they bring their ideas to us when they notice an opportunity for improvement?
  • Why do they gripe to each other (or even our customers!) about things that bother them about their jobs or the company?
Peter Drucker on CultureThere are certainly many possible answers to all of these questions and every situation has many factors to consider.  However, if there is one thing that I have learned from presenting to and discussing with over two hundred CEOs and key executives at companies as diverse as construction, engineering, marketing, lending, and even t-shirt printing, it’s that culture is something that should be taken much more seriously.

Just this week, in my own Vistage group, one of our members described how they were growing exponentially, hiring over 20 new people in just the past 4 weeks.  He is concerned about maintaining the culture as his company matures into its next phase.  It sounds like he did a fantastic job of hiring a lot of incredible “A Players” to move his business forward.  Unfortunately, he does not have someone that can clearly focus a majority of their time on cultivating the learning, development, and culture of his team of “A Players.” Whatever culture you want to nurture to support your vision, you need to spend ample time on nurturing a culture to support your strategy.

What does improv have to do with any of this?

With improv, we always start by building a foundation of support and trust with any team.  We have lots of tools in our toolbox that enable us to create something from nothing on a empty stage for an expectant (and often demanding) audience, but this foundation of “I’ve got your back” and “I trust that you will have my back” are first and foremost.

On a “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” type pyramid of improvisation, support and trust are the base of the pyramid.  (On the actual pyramid by Maslow, the skills we are building are directly related to the 2nd and 3rd levels – “safety” and “social”) For any team of people, whether on stage, on a baseball field, or at work, high-performing teams must have this basic foundation.  Building a strong foundation of support and trust is the first step towards building a team that “cares as much as you do” and exhibits the behaviors that go along with that:  bringing red flags to light, offering ideas, taking initiative, protecting the company’s information and reputation, etc.  What are you doing in your company or in your team to build support and trust?

Building a strong foundation of support and trust is the first step towards building a team that “cares as much as you do.”

In the Vistage workshop I led in Los Angeles, I showed them many ways in which they could use the tools and philosophies of improvisation to empower their teams.  We started with building support and trust. One simple and fun game I led the group in is “Ninja Stars”, which demonstrates the level of trust that is required in high-performing teams.

Let’s Play!  Ninja Stars

Level of difficulty:  Low.

Best For:  Groups of 5-20 people

Objective(s):  Identify importance of support and trust within a team.  Practice working together towards a common goal when trust is highly needed.

How to Play:  

Round 1:  Have your team stand in circle.  Show them that you have an imaginary ninja star.  Show them how to properly hold this dangerous weapon and then ask them to throw it around the circle with the shared goal that “no one gets injured (or killed if you want to be more dramatic).”

Notice how quickly someone forgets that the goal is no one gets hurt. Did someone do something funny like throw it at someone when they aren’t looking?  That’s in our nature, and it is pretty funny.  Have a good laugh about that.  Now, remind them that the goal really is ONLY TO MAKE SURE THAT THEY ALL GET OUT OF THIS ALIVE! That is one, single, shared goal.

Round 2:  Mentor them by showing them how to safely catch the ninja star, which is with two hands in front of your face clapping together to catch it without getting cut.  Then, asks the group to offer more suggestions as to how they can ensure the goal is met.  They will offer suggestions about communication such as ensuring eye contact, using names before throwing, being ready at all times to catch a star, and many other fantastic ideas.  Start throwing the star again and really celebrate once you are able to do this for at least two minutes without anyone getting “hurt” (or “killed”).  If someone does get hurt, debrief at that moment without juedgment.  Have them identify what they can do more of to be better as a team.

Wrap-up:  Ask them to identify the skills this is strengthening and how these skills can relate beyond this game.  This is one of my favorite introductory games for beginning to talk about and build support and trust with teams.

Give this game a try with your team and begin to empower them to be a team that truly cares about each other and the success of the entire team.  Building this foundation of support and trust on a regular basis will lead to more caring within your company both for each other and for your vision.

Rather have me facilitate this game and many others to begin building a culture built on a foundation of trust and support?  If you are a Vistage Chair, see program ID #8044.  Company leaders, contact me at Info@finestcityimprov.com or (619)306-6047.

Improve Your Business With Improv

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