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Improv theatre class is more than just fun and games for McGill MBAs

Veteran actor Rob Nickerson leads a class of first-year MBA students at McGill University through an improv theatre class.

Desautels Faculty of Management

"Freeze!" yells Rob Nickerson, a veteran actor, improv instructor and keynote speaker.

He waves his hands, his shoulder-length hair flipping away from his face, and points at a group of 40 MBA hopefuls from McGill University's Desautels Faculty of Management who are holding pens in the air, acting like orchestra conductors.

The students, most of whom have just met each other, are playing an improv theatre game called Story Choir under Mr. Nickerson's direction. While the scene might look like it's all fun and games, the students are also learning valuable lessons in leadership and co-operation that could help them in their careers after they graduate.

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"I base a lot of my work on Darwin," says Mr. Nickerson. "[As he said], in the long history of humankind, those who learn to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed. That's the underlying structure of everything I do."

Mr. Nickerson is a regular guest at McGill, brought in annually to conduct three-hour workshops by Suzanne Gagnon, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Desautels. The workshop is part of her leadership class for first-year MBAs.

"Right from the get-go students are learning some core skills of a model we [McGill] build together around affiliative leadership," Dr. Gagnon explains.

She and Mr. Nickerson met a few years ago through one of Dr. Gagnon's colleagues and in 2012 co-authored an academic paper entitled Learning to Lead, Unscripted: Developing Affiliative Leadership Through Improvisational Theatre. In it, they argue that improv theatre training creates "a compelling experience of co-creation through interaction and, as such, can be used to build a distinctive kind of leadership skill."

While acting, 26-year improv veteran Mr. Nickerson had a parallel career as a creative director for a company that launched products in the pharmaceutical industry. In 1990, he introduced headache medicine Imitrex to Canadian sales representatives in a grandiose presentation at the Fairmont Banff Springs hotel in Banff, Alta. It was then that it struck him improv had a practical application in a business environment, and he now uses improv techniques when speaking to companies such as Manulife Financial and AOL/Microsoft.

Pennsylvania State University and Duke University in the United States are among other schools to bring improv into the business classroom.

Mr. Nickerson says improv helps to create an environment where leaders can take advantage of the creativity they may not know they have.

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"A lot of people are linear thinkers, so to have this part of people's brains open up is like discovering you own 10 acres of land instead of five," he says. "What they get in the moment is this emotion: 'Wow, this is something I've not felt in a long time.'"

Student Damien Emery, 34, was one of those people.

The first-year MBA student from Switzerland worked for a large retailer in his home country before his friends advised him to go to Canada to get his MBA. McGill, he said, has a strong reputation in Europe, which made his choice easy.

He participated in a recent workshop by Mr. Nickerson, and remembers the way they were seated. "We made a huge circle so we were all facing each other," Mr. Emery says. "This was already interesting for me, because usually we're in rows, facing the front of the class."

Mr. Emery says the first exercise they did immediately took him out of his comfort zone. The students stood in a circle, clapped their hands, pointed at someone and said their name. The problem was, all the students had just met.

"We were not ashamed of saying, 'You,' and, 'Sorry, I don't know your name,'" Mr. Emery says.

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The third time around the circle, the students had to sing or scream their fellow students' name.

"It's not something you do normally, but it was nice that it broke the ice amongst all of us. A few minutes ago, we didn't know anyone's name, and now we're singing it," Mr. Emery recalls.

The program taught Mr. Emery new leadership techniques, and has given him a new outlook on communication tactics in the workplace.

"When we work, we don't try to rethink the processes we know. We think what we've done, we've been doing for a long time and we think it's working properly," he says. "When you give this creativity to your team, it can be a real added value for the business and individuals."

This, essentially, is the objective as outlined by Dr. Gagnon.

"We want to talk about how leadership is changing and how our understanding of leadership is changing, too. Our students need new forms of leadership that organizations are craving, but aren't that good at achieving," she explains.

Perhaps in an office environment there will be less singing, but Mr. Nickerson knows his methods can be applied to any number of leadership scenarios in the ever-changing work landscape.

"The best part of my job is that I get to watch the light come on for people and see them say, 'I didn't know I could do this.'"

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