You might expect to see stressed-out students seek relief from the rigors of Illinois’ MBA program at the gym or a favorite campus watering hole. And then there is Lisa Linke.
“I needed a break from studying for my MBA,” recalls Linke, a 1999 graduate. “I read in the Daily Illini about an improv group – I auditioned and I just loved it.”
This perhaps comes as no great revelation to those who know her. After all, Linke’s flair for the dramatic earned her the nickname “Sarah Bernhardt” early in life. “I performed at home all the time and did all the school plays,” says Linke. “I always felt at home on stage.”
And thanks to her father Charles, emeritus professor of finance, she felt equally at home on the Illinois campus as a child. “I was always around the School of Business,” she recalls. “I loved growing up on a Big 10 campus. I have very fond memories of the U of I.”
After earning a sociology degree from Indiana University, she returned to her old stomping grounds in 1997 to pursue an advanced degree in human resources, followed by an MBA.
With all due respect to those hard-earned degrees, it may well have been that ad in the Daily Illini that led to the unique career Linke enjoys today.
MBA in hand, Linke joined Deloitte & Touche as a human resources strategy consultant. In the evenings, she began training at The Second City, Chicago’s legendary improv theatre, where the likes of John Belushi and Tina Fey got their start.
“Like a lot of people in improv, I was living a dual life,” says Linke, who soon noticed an overlap between the seemingly disparate worlds she lived in. “When I started performing improv, I became a better consultant almost overnight. I had more meaningful conversations with clients because I was being authentic and in the moment.”
After leaving Deloitte & Touche to more actively pursue performing, Linke soon found herself delivering improv-based corporate workshops through Second City Communications. “Business and improv might seem very far apart, but they’re not,” says Linke. “Excellent communication is the root of all improvisation.” And, one could argue, the root of organizational effectiveness.
Fourteen years later, her work as a corporate trainer and executive presence coach has taken Linke to five continents and countless meeting rooms. Heavy-hitters like Pepsi, General Mills, and Goldman Sachs have turned to Linke to learn how the fine art of improvisation can fine-tune corporate communications.
Her popular workshops share practical skills and philosophies from the world of improvisational comedy. But fear not: participants need not be as funny as their trainer.
“We do exercises in small groups just to loosen them up. They don’t have to give their tight five on airline food,” says Linke, referring to the traditional five-minute sets stand-up comics have at the ready.
Instead, she teaches concepts like “Yes, And,” a basic improvisational tool where you acknowledge what your partner says and then add something new to keep the conversation alive.
“In improv, you recognize an idea and share an idea. It’s an excellent tool to keep focus on the other person—and in the corporate world, to keep from saying ‘no’ too soon,” says Linke.
Another improvisational saying—“bring a brick, not a cathedral”—reminds us that the best solutions are built together.
“In improv, there are no sets, no props, no agreed-upon story—everything is discovered together in a collaborative environment,” says Linke.
At the end of the day, it’s all about listening – a lesson that improvisers often learn the hard way.
“If you are not listening on stage, it’s very uncomfortable,” says Linke. “It’s a very palpable feeling when the entire audience—and you—realize you were not listening.”
The Best Things Are Unscripted
Along with the Second City brand name, Linke has found that her Illinois degrees serve her well when working in corporate environments. “I love having my MBA – I get a lot of credibility in the room with the introduction,” she says.
That’s not to say she “feels the love” at every corporate gig. One of her more memorable “heckling” experiences took place at a prestigious university when an MBA student stood up and shouted: “This is dogma—I will not stand for this!” and stormed out of the workshop. Not missing a beat, Linke lightened the mood—and engaged the audience—by cheekily asking: “So, is this a great example of ‘yes, and’…?”
As an L.A.-based actor, Linke embraces it all. She says her experiences have honed her ability to work a room and maintain presence under the critical eye of casting agents – precious skills for any performer.
“As an actor, the best part of having my MBA and working as a facilitator is that I’ve never had a cold room—it just doesn’t bother me,” says Linke, who continues to act and perform with improv groups when she’s not training. (You may have seen her in the 2015 season premiere of ABC’s hit comedy, Black-ish.)
The stage – and life itself – have taught Linke that some of the best things in life are unscripted.
With a chuckle, she recalls the prophetic words of Professor Larry DeBrock following her final MBA presentation, where she used some of her improv skills: “You’re very good at this—you could do this for a living.”
She recalls thinking: “Who actually does that for a living?”
Content courtesy of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (College of Business).
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