Leaders Learning To Tell Stories by Sherry Benjamins


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                Leaders Learning To Tell Stories

by Sherry Benjamins

 

Speak to Inspire. This is the name of the workshop that I was fortunate to attend in February.  My friend Peter Meyers, founder of Stand & Deliver, a San Francisco based communications company, invited me to meet incredible managers, his coaching faculty and learn about “harnessing the power of the spoken word”.

 

During this workshop, I was impressed with Peter’s coaches and I met Jeff Raz, who is Performance Coach and Program Director for Stand & Deliver.  He has woven art and business in a way that was so unique that I asked him to share his story. What intrigued me about Jeff is his experience in the arts, theater and over the past few years, translating this into the business world so leaders artfully tell stories too.

 

Sherry Benjamins: Can you tell me about your background?

 

jeff razJeff Raz: There’s a fascinating twin thread that has existed in my cohort of professional artists. One thread was to not having any involvement in the business community. In the beginning, we were a committed group of artists that wanted to be the best. The other thread was my desire to be entrepreneurial. I started a theatre company, Vaudeville Nouvelle, which began as a street performing company without a business structure, but soon needed something more formal to start producing plays. We became a general partnership and then a not-for-profit corporation so we could apply for grants. I also started working as a solo performer, while writing and producing plays and continuing to work in the circus. Back then I was faced with revamping the business model of the circus to keep it out of bankruptcy and turn it into a profitable business. More recently, I performed with the biggest, most profitable circus in the world, Cirque du Soleil, and got an inside view of how a huge entertainment corporation works.

 

SB: So there has always been a balance between a business and performance life?

 

JR: Exactly. The business side was there to make sure that the art side could thrive. Most artists see it as an “either/or,” ie. “I’m an artist and must not know about business” or vice versa. Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball and Prince were all seminal artists who were also very good at business.

 

SB: And you kept on that path and in 2000, you started the Clown Conservatory

 

JR: It was a non-profit that grew out of the need for really good training, specifically for circus clowns. This wasn’t happening in the United States. Now we have around 130 graduates that are at the top in their field, working around the globe.

 

jeffclownSB: When did you meet Peter and how did your friendship evolve for you to become a part of Stand & Deliver?

 

JR: Peter and I were in a Marin Shakespeare Company’s 1996 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream together. Peter played Oberon and I played Bottom. It was a great production that won a Best Play of the Year award. Peter had a theater company and training center in those days, and I taught for a while. We reconnected after I had been running the Clown Conservatory for nine years when a mutual friend brought us together. I’m now heading into my fourth year at Stand & Deliver.

 

SB: When you think back on those years, what are you most excited about?

 

JR: A big surprise was that people in jobs way outside the arts, like accounting and engineering, light up in the exact same way that young artists light up.  They find moments of heightened communication.  We artists live in a small and conservative world. When we enter into this other world (of more traditional business) and find wonderful students, some of whom are working in very high level positions, and see them blossom, it is fantastic. The most fun is watching their colleagues watching them. They are practicing skills outside their comfort zone that will change their lives.

 

SB: During the workshop, it was a big surprise that business leaders were embracing these foreign methods like improvisation. By the end of the second day, we had some comedians standing up! What is it that you observe that allows people to get over themselves?

 

JR: Well this is a big answer and it goes back to why I started the Clown Conservatory. A lot of people thought I should only train those who had the potential to be the best in the world. I disagree. I wanted to take in people from all levels, all areas of the performing arts. Clowning, unlike acrobatics, is as wide as it is deep. This works far outside of the Conservatory. People come in atStand & Deliver with a deep humanity and a sense of humor and my job is to let them share it. We promote an environment in which they feel safe to open their heart a little bit, something that is quite different than what takes place in business settings. They are given the right tools so when they do open their hearts, it’s not pouring out everywhere, but it’s directed. At that point, you’re in a room full of very fascinating people.

 

SB: Tell me about the differences in global markets that you train?

 

JR: It’s less different than people assume and I’ve found this as a performer too. There are human ways that we communicate. When I first started performing in Japan in the late 80s/early 90s, many of my American colleagues told me that Japanese audiences were quiet and didn’t laugh. But when I was there, they were loud and rowdy and laughed a lot! Maybe they didn’t laugh because the person they were watching wasn’t funny or the American performers didn’t have the acuity to tune into their audiences? Maybe they went in with a preconceived notion of who the audience was.  As a performer or instructor, you have to make adjustments from culture to culture, and even city to city. From San Francisco to Dallas and Dallas to New York, just like you, you have to make adjustments from group to group. It’s about being acute and sensitive. You never perform for yesterday’s audience. You have to ask yourself: what signals am I getting from the audience? And you react accordingly. What are they giving you in the moment? And when they give you feedback, how do you keep them engaged?

 

SB: I often hear, “I need to help my leaders become agile, respond quickly and make decisions.” Do your audiences connect to these notions of agility?

 

JR: Absolutely. For those of us that come from circus and physical theater, we are used to breaking the fourth wall. By that I mean dissolving any boundary between the actors and the audience. Rather, interaction with the audience is stressed. Part of the art is the relationship that is formed with the audience, like with a volunteer in an act where I get someone out of the audience to stand on my shoulders. It’s intimate! They’ve walked through the fourth wall and are made a hero. You have to pick the right person and make them a bigger person when they sit back down. You are honoring them as a human being. Agility is one thing, but the next part is agility in the service of others. Your clients are talking about leaders that navigate away from command and control communication. It’s about agility and it’s difficult to be agile when status is involved.

 

SB: What I appreciated about S&D was that you allowed us to experiment. I could imagine that with an executive team, it is more difficult to break down command and control within the workplace?

 

JR: It’s breaking down the techniques that aren’t working. People that come to us see the problem, but they need the tools to navigate those waters. We worked with a 125 year old Germany company, so you can imagine the notions of entrenchment and legacy. They told us that they had a very low level of communication skills so we worked with some of their top leaders to produce radical change.  We even used comedia dell’arte masks and exercises. We had developed a working relationship over time so the client felt comfortable in adopting these theatrical and more personal strategies.

 

SB: How does this relationship grow? How does it all stick?

 

JR: That’s the huge question. There are two ways to sustain the relationship. The best is when a team sees a change within each other and puts into practice the idea of giving feedback. Level two is when it continues into the business culture. Within the culture there is a deeper community of trust. Then, other people in the organization see the team and learn from them.

 

SB: They are taking that model and applying it…

 

JR: When teams are global, working on virtual platforms, techniques become even more important. You need to figure out how to negotiate digital platforms to make them human.  It doesn’t just work like live communication. There are techniques that make you more human, like talking into a square on a laptop and retaining a wealth of emotion the way movie actors work with a camera.

 

SB: All my recruiters work virtually. After I participated in S&D, I started noticing how their tone, pitch and pace of their language.

 

JR: You and all the participants start seeing the world as artists, attuned to how we all perform in good and not so good ways.

 

SB: What have you learned about yourself?

 

JR: As an artist, I learned how deeply conservative I can be. I start to see the world in categories that I thought I was against, falling into judging character by how someone is dressed or what’s on their bio.  The continual joy is how these assumptions get shattered. It’s being aware of my prejudices and finding the humanity in another.

 

How are you developing your story-telling skills?  What are your strengths in what Peter Meyers calls “High Performance Communication?”  Let us know what you are learning at http://sbcompany.net/our-blog/

 

If you would like to learn more about Stand and Deliver check them out at www.standanddelivergroup.com


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One Response to Leaders Learning To Tell Stories by Sherry Benjamins

  1. Great to see these articles. Leaders need to have a sounding board and have to opportunity to be heard. Many just lead quietly (but effectively) – let’s see and hear more of them.

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