Sunday, 27 March 2016

Stand-up! Leadership lessons from comedy

By Gloria Lombardi 

It is not quite the traditional business industry. But it seems that comedy has much to teach us about leadership, engagement and diversity. Maria Kempinska, CEO and founder of Jongleurs Comedy Clubs, has plenty to say.

Kempinska (pictured right) is a qualified psychotherapist. Yet, she originally fell in love with theatre and the arts. In the early 80s she decided to follow her passion and set up her own creative business. Indeed, still today she likes running the company, with both its challenges and rewards.

Stand up, literally!

During the time she was practising to be a stand-up comedian, Kempinska gained a new perspective on how to think about humour and how to apply it to the business.

"You have to prepare yourself constantly. You have to find new material. You have to know your audience."

Perhaps, there is not another style of entertainment where someone is constantly reviewed as a comedian. "When you are on stage you have to be funny - that is your goal. You are under a lot of stress. You have just to deliver all the time. There is nobody to rescue you."

To some extent it is very much like being an entrepreneur. "As you come off you have to look at what worked and what did not. Where I was successful? Where I wasn't?"

Once of the hardest parts of any business is getting critical feedback. The same applies to comedy. "Especially for comedians. If the public doesn't appreciate their performance they have to hear that face-to-face in front of many people."

Yet, there is the upside. "You are in charge of your own destiny. You have to find your own way to succeed. I don't think that there is any business school that can teach you that."

Managing finances

Another good analogy that Kempinska makes to the world of start-up is around managing finances. "Being a stand-up comedian can be very tense - just as being an entrepreneur. If you haven't sorted out your finances, if you haven't enough cash flow, then your career will become immensely stressful, no matter how many people you borrow from."

Alas, always have some saved money as a contingency plan because things can go wrong.
"It is your own responsibility. People often don't realise how much cashflow they actually need. An entrepreneur has to take everything into account - taxes, paying employee, making new investment and so on."

Which goes back to the stand-up comedian. "Everything is down to you. You have to prepare and put yourself out there."

Dealing with stress

Being herself an entrepreneur, Kempinska offers some valuable tips on managing stress. "The pressure is there. But if you enjoy it, you can handle the stress."

She suggests talking with people. "Not necessarily people who have your same type of business. Someone who understands how to deal with anxiety-inducing situations; someone who can point you to the right areas to focus on."

What people in business also need, Kempinska tells me, are lists. "I live by lists! Do the most urgent things first - get them out of the way. Then focus on the less burning issues."

Also, ensure they have a business plan that takes into consideration possible changes. "Find your safety net. Acknowledge that things can go wrong; think about all the problems that could potentially emerge, and plan for their solutions." 

Ultimately, it is about maintaining a 'What happens if?' attitude. For Kempinska, that means creating a weekly plan that considers possible dropouts from comedians. "For example, at the beginning of every week I ensure to pay for an extra comedian to stand by."

Yet, sometimes even with the best plans and intentions things don't go the right way. In those situations be honest, proactive and forthcoming. "If you promised something that you cannot deliver for a series of reasons, then contact immediately the public and explain to them what happened. Don't wait for them to know and come to you, because that is when disappointment and anger rise. In contrast, when people know the truth, they are generally supportive."

Hiring for attitude

There is no question that finding and hiring the right talent is one of the most difficult parts in running a company. Kempinska has found her own secret weapon. "During the interview I ask people as many questions as I can. I trust them assuming that they are telling me the truth. Then, I get them working as quickly as possible. It is on the job that you can really understand if they are the perfect match."

If there is something that she most look for in her employees it's attitude. "Showing that you would do anything to work for the company; not being too rigid or negative; being willing to learn and taking some pieces of work that may be beyond your official role."

Over the years Kempinska has mastered the skill of recruiting. She has learned that being decisive is part of the process. "If you see that the new hires are not suitable within the first weeks, remove them. It will not get better."

Of course, if people cannot be kept on, "do that in a good way. Your actions matter."

Women in leadership 

While gender (in)balance has been rightly highlighted as a weakness in the corporate world, generally speaking Kempinska feels that: "more doors are opening. Today, there is more need for women in leadership positions. Female leaders assess risks in a different way than men, bringing balance to the table."

I find myself nodding in agreement while listening to Kempinska, perhaps driven more by hope than anything else. Of course, we know that the gap is still stark, and there is much more to be done to change it. But, once again, comedy comes to hand. This time it teaches us assertiveness and sense of humour. "Men are so used to socialising and chatting with each other. It is called 'banter' - the playful and friendly exchange of teasing remarks."

In fact, Kempinska believes that organising social events for women can be helpful. "You don't need to join them always but ensure you find the time to meet and maintain your networks. Engage with people genuinely. Men do that all the time."

She adds other tips on manner and behaviours. "Don't be too serious. Learn to laugh about yourself. Don't be too critical of other people's humour. If you don't know something, just say that. If you don't understand something, just open up and say that you have not understood it. Don't be afraid to ask. Don't be over-sensitive. Be a leader."

Perhaps to raise the bar of gender equality, we should all consider 'standing up' a bit more.

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This article originally appeared on simply-communicate