Get to know us a little better
Get to know us a little better
The Path to ImprovThis!
Steve and Anora tell their story about ImprovThis and how they came to create the workshops.
Steve’s view about ImprovThis…
For the past few decades I’ve held many roles my MBA successfully prepared me for. I was having fun working in corporate America and was privileged to have jobs at companies on the Fortune 50 and the Ad Age 50 lists over the years. Perhaps it’s because I wanted to be a jack-of-all-trades in my career, but as a lifelong learner the positions I went after tended to follow my professional curiosity of that moment. Those roles brought me through diverse array of departments over the years including finance, information technology, product development, project management, and I finally ended up in marketing strategy.
Even as I loved what I was doing in those roles, when I met new people and they asked me, “What do you do?” I’d always reply, “I do improv! It’s a career where you can literally make hundreds of dollars a year!” Of course, the follow-up question was almost always, “What do you do for a living, you know, to pay the bills?” And it dawned on me all those jobs were just paying the bills. My free time was spent pursuing my passions, playing at improvisational theaters, and teaching communication seminars.
Late one cold and damp November I was running a research project for one of my strategy clients at a trade show in Chicago. I had a great consultant working with me on this particular project. Lucky for me, everything was running smoothly so she and I had some time to talk over lunch. She asked me how things were going, and I started talking about my improv shows and the communications teaching I was doing. As usual, I led with my passions rather than with “what I do to pay the bills.”
She looked me in the eye and said, “Why the [heck] aren’t you looking for a way to combine your love of teaching at those communication seminars with your improv skills?” We talked about it a bit more and that conversation got my wheels turning…
I was talking with Anora after a communications seminar she was teaching and when she asked me how things were going I brought up that lunch conversation. I said I was thinking of starting up a company to do corporate training. I wanted to teach people how to build a more positive, team-oriented environment using the skills improvisers use to make their shows successful.
Anora looked at me and her face lit up with a huge smile. Almost bouncing up and out of her seat she said, “I’ve always wanted to do that!” And with that, ImprovThis! became a reality. I left my strategy job a few months later and now I’m out making the world a better place by teaching people to have fun and create awesome teams.
Anora’s view about ImprovThis…
From a very young age, I have been recognized as a leader. Even starting as a child organizing singing performances on recess on up to my professional life, where I lead and motivate teams to create success in their jobs and even in their personal lives.
I have created collaborative teams by building environments where people enjoy coming to work because they have fun. They are confident in their jobs because are recognized and feel appreciated. They have trust in their coworkers because there is open and honest communication. My teams support each other in continued individual growth and business success.
I studied business at Northern Michigan University and continued my education in Management and Organizational Development at Spring Arbor University. I have received Situational Leadership Training from the Center for Leadership Studies and I have completed the Pathways to Successful Living Seminars program – where I continue to participate as a leader and coordinator.
This is where I met Steve and where unknown to us at the time, ImprovThis! truly started to take form. Steve and I worked on several seminars together where we started to form a deep friendship, a great respect for each other and we realized our purposes were also similar.
When Steve shared his vision with me, I was all in with two feet. This was the perfect opportunity for me to blend my passion, purpose and Leadership experience!
Nearly a decade ago, I heard the quote from Confucius “We all have two lives. The second one begins when we realize we only have one.” From that moment on, I began to live my life…authentically therefore beginning my second life. I realized through my vulnerability and openness, I was inspiring others to change their lives. This was true in my personal life, but also my professional life. This is where personal leadership and emotional intelligence really started showing up for me. So, while on a mission to continuously improve through personal growth seminars, books and professional development programs [because I’m a huge geek], I found my purpose: empowering others to discover their potential and live a passionate and joyful life.
Questions and answers with Steve and Anora about ImprovThis, training and other tidbits:
What did you want to accomplish when you started ImprovThis!?
STEVE DUBERCHIN: When Anora and I did our research and looked at the state of corporate training we saw a bunch options available to companies. The deeper we looked, the more we thought we had a unique background and approach to corporate training, one that no-one else really had.
ANORA O’CONNOR: We wanted to create a fun, energizing, and creative set of workshops where people could learn to communicate in a passionate way and build closer, more collaborative teams everywhere in their lives.
What types of training did your company provide at your last job?
AO: I was lucky that the people I worked for had a genuine desire to watch their employees grow and become the best they could be. They sent me to numerous seminars, lectures and other invaluable learning opportunities. One thing I took away was how important experiential learning is in helping me to retain information. It has also provided a foundation for what we are creating at ImprovThis!
SD: The type of training I was most familiar with throughout my corporate life was digital training. Who of us hasn’t clicked through 45 screens of bad dialogue and corny case studies just to end up at a 10 question “Test your knowledge”? In my previous job, I had to do about three of these a quarter. Yes, they have their place. When the corporations need to be able to say they have trained thousands of employees not to do things like embezzle, defraud, or harass I guess this the way to go. But personally, I found myself skimming them for the test answers. Overall they felt like a poor use of my time. I’m never going to bribe a foreign official, and I didn’t need a computer program to tell me it’s wrong to do.
Of course, I’ve been to many instructor led classes. Most of these were offered in a classroom setting, employing a didactic lecture style. There was very little personal interaction, and there was even less of an emotional connection between the presentation and the students. When I needed to have some technical training back in my IT days, I sat through many programing language and software package presentations. I found the most important part of those classes was the ability to ask questions and get support where I got stuck. At the end of the day, most of the classes weren’t much better than a web page with a good discussion group. Yet, this remains the dominant type of training class available in corporate America and at trade shows. I want ImprovThis! to be part of the change where we move away from this style of teaching.
What are your experiences with team building trainings?
SD: When we were starting up ImprovThis! I came across companies whose focus was “Team Building” on the internet from time to time. They’re conducting retreat styles courses in everything from rock climbing to a “Build a boat challenge”. All of these courses say they build leadership, communication, teamwork, and planning skills. I’ve done my fair share of these courses in the past and while some of them were very fun, they always seemed to be missing something. When I got back to the office, I never looked back and said, “Remember when we were doing that ropes challenge? Well, working with this client’s problem is just like that…” The skills taught in these courses were abstract or they were specific to that challenge rather than being something I could apply in my day to day life.
Another thing I often noticed was I didn’t like the way these challenges were designed. People who either had a positional authority or a louder personality seemed to be able to take charge of the “activity” and run with it while others sat back and didn’t get as much experiential learning. For example, if my boss was participating he would just come up with the solution and give it to us as a directive so our team could “win”. And yes, everyone wants to win. But my point is the way the challenges were set up wasn’t the best learning environment.
AO: I attended a nine month long Leadership program where the first weekend was focused on several team building exercises. I was the only employee from my company in attendance. Although the content was good, since the team I work with every day wasn’t present they didn’t learn the material or have the opportunity to participate. When I came back to the office, even though I was pumped up, nothing had changed on their part. Because of what I learned that weekend, I wanted to do things differently with ImprovThis! We’ve created workshops that teams complete together so everyone is experiencing the same exercises, they can discuss issues from a common point of view and they go back to the office excited to implement their learnings.
Sounds like you have done a lot of these types of trainings. How is an ImprovThis! workshop designed to provide a different experience?
SD: Anora and I wanted to build a series of workshops that are different from what we’ve seen in other corporate trainings in the following ways:
- We use an active learning methodology. We teach in a way skills are most likely to be retained.
- Only about 20% of the workshop is in a lecture format.
- We have fun! Fun is not a byproduct, it is a main goal of the workshops.
- The activities are not abstract skills, they are presented using real life situations.
- Discussions after each activity talk about how skills can be used in everyday situations.
- No one person, regardless of positional authority or personality, can monopolize the experience.
- Each participant gets individualized instruction and attention, everyone participates fully.
- The value of working effectively with your teammates is stressed.
We build a win-win, supportive environment and teach how to create it outside the workshop.
- We create a structured ‘next steps and follow up plan’ for each participant to keep the skills fresh after the workshop.
- There are no “Test your knowledge” screens anywhere, in any of our workshops!
How else did you want ImprovThis! to be different that what you’ve experienced?
AO: From what I experienced at my Leadership program, I wanted our workshops to have teams participate in an exercise and then have discussion around how the “take-away” points can be implemented in the workplace. We encourage the workshop participants to look at how they are currently acting in their workplace and how they can use what they learned to improve the corporate culture.
How can your improv exercises help me build better teams?
AO: Our workshops are customized to fit our client’s needs. The first step in designing a workshop is to talk with you about what you most want to achieve partnering with ImprovThis! We have hundreds of exercises we can pull from to create a customized agenda so it meets your needs.
SD: Plus, if we don’t have an exercise for a situation you have in mind, we’ll make one up! It’s improv after all.
Wait a minute. You’re just making this up as you go?
SD: Sure. Every conversation I’ve ever had that wasn’t scripted ahead of time is an improvisation. That’s not to say that we’re not polished in our presentation. Anora and I work very hard at our craft, and we’ve rehearsed, practiced, and refined our presentations so we can provide a product that we are very proud of. We spend hours planning our workshops and I personally present each and every workshop multiple times to my cat Peanut before we show up at your location. Peanut doesn’t offer much feedback, but sometimes a silent audience is a great way to see how a workshop can be improved.
Do you and Anora ask for a suggestion and then make up jokes about… say… a banana?
SD: No, our workshops are not designed to teach how to perform a comedy improv show. You and your team will not be asked to make up jokes in most workshops. We do offer workshops where increasing creativity is one of the goals so we might use joke telling as a way to be creative and spontaneous. For example, if you asked me to make up a joke on why my first dates never seem to work out I might say… “First dates with me are like a banana in an ice cream shop. They usually split!”
Is ImprovThis! going to put on an improvised comedy show for us?
AO: No, our workshops are not designed to be an improv show where professional improvisers get on stage and have all the fun using your suggestions. If you want to do that experience, and I highly suggest you support your local live theater, I’m sure there are many Improv troupes which would be happy to have you attend one of their shows. If you’re looking to have an improv ensemble perform at your corporate office or event, please contact us. We have contacts we can suggest for shows like that.