Bob Kulhan is Founder and CEO of Business Improv®. Based in NYC, Chicago and LA, Business Improv is a world-class leader in training programs for corporations and serves an incredible roster of blue-chip firms.
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Getting to “Yes And”: The Art of Business Improv – Bob’s book
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3 Value Bombs
1) Get back from being knocked down, and do better the next time.
2) Don’t let anyone disrupt what you do – you simply cannot please everybody.
3) Always be learning.
(click the time stamp to jump directly to that point in the episode.)
[00:58] – Bob has been a training improviser for the last 23 years
[01:32] – He focuses on how and why people make decisions in real-time
[02:06] – Improv and linking it into business is Bob’s area of expertise
[03:05] – Share something we don’t know about your area of expertise that as Entrepreneurs, we probably should: Improvisation takes place in ALL fields
[04:02] – Worst Entrepreneurial Moment: Bob was fired at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business. He was supposed to teach 3 hours per day for 4 days, but was fired after the first day
[05:27] – The Dean gave him full payment but had him restructure the program for the remaining 3 days
[06:06] – Bob and his co-teacher walked the Dean through their newly restructured program and gave the class an independent 3-day experiential learning program on linking improvisation to business
[08:53] – “Don’t let the entitled arrogant few disrupt what you’re trying to do”
[09:23] – Entrepreneurial AH-HA Moment: The first few times Bob heard about framing the mind he thought it was exactly what they do in improvisation. His ah-ha moment was taking framing of behavioral psychology and using it to underscore or support the experiential learning that improvisation provides
[11:16] – Be open to learning
[11:45] – What is the one thing you are most FIRED up about today? “I’m excited about a number of different things”
[12:45] – The Lightning Round
- What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur? – “I was going to be an actor”
- What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? – “Moderation in all things”
- What’s a personal habit that contributes to your success? – “I cling to the cornerstone of improvisation passionately”
- Share an internet resource, like Evernote, with Fire Nation – NPR
- If you could recommend one book to our listeners, what would it be and why? – Predictably Irrational – “it really makes behavioral economics very accessible”
[16:14] – TRY and take risks!
Bob Kulhan: Yes, I am, let's do this.
John: Yes, Bob is founder and CEO of Business Improve. Based in New York City, Chicago, and LA, Business Improve is a world class leader in training programs for corporations and serves an incredible roster of blue chip firms. Bob, take a minute, fill in some gaps from that intro, and give us a little glimpse of your personal life.
Bob Kulhan: Absolutely, so I am originally a Chicago trained improviser. I've been doing improv on stage, making people laugh the last 23 years, and I continue to perform improvisation, though I moved from Chicago to New York in 2009, and for the last 18 of the 23 years, I've been extracting the tenets of improvisation that would be used to create comedy, and reapplied them to business, and I've done that through a path of behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology, social psychology, organizational theory, and behavioral economics. So, I've been focusing on studying the how and why we make decisions in real time as it relates to, of course, improvisation, which takes place in real time to achieve all sorts of hard to reach business return on investment scenario outcomes.
John: And on a personal note, I found out in the pre-interview chat, that Bob's first date with his wife was in Puerto Rico. Muy, muy romantico, Bob.
Bob Kulhan: That lovely island.
John: Isle de encanta. So, Bob, let's talk about your area of expertise, how would you define that?
Bob Kulhan: Improv, improv, improv, improve, improve. So, my area of expertise on one side of that improv coin is performing improvisation. I was very fortunate to be taught improvisation by the people who literally created the art form of improvisation before they passed away. I was taught by improv legends, Del Close, my mentor; Martin de Matt who created the Second City Training Center. I was coached by elite people, I perform with elite people. So, performing the art of improvisation is part of my life. The other part of me is linking improvisation to business.
I'm an adjunct professor at the Duke Fuqua School of Business; I'm an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School. I've worked with the who's who of elite behavioral psychologists and cognitive psychologists, and that's allowed me to work with elite organizations and people to solve hard problems. So, it's improv.
John: What's something that we don't know about improv, and by we, I mean myself, Fire Nation, your typical entrepreneur, that we probably should?
Bob Kulhan: Improvisation takes place in all fields. The most common association is linked directly to comedy, and that turns a lot of people off, and improvisation though, when you think about it in these three core concepts of reacting, adapting, and communicating, reacting, adapting, and communicating, reacting, adapting, and communicating, this can be applied to so many facets of life. That's the first thing, and the second thing, which is a subset of that, is it's accessible. The tenets of improvisation as used in any capacity, whether it's on stage, in the military, in chefs' kitchens, in business, are accessible to all of us because we're really talking about strengthening a skill set.
John: Bob, you've had the ups, you've had the downs on your personal entrepreneurial journey, let's talk about what you consider your worst entrepreneurial moment to date, so take us to that moment, tell us that story.
Bob Kulhan: John, as an entrepreneur, there are many worst entrepreneurial moments –
John: Well, there's many bad moments, but there's only one worst?
Bob Kulhan: I think one of the most pivotal moments for me was being fired at the Duke University Fuqua School of Business in my first exec ed program. We got brought in, it was a four day program. We were teaching three hours a day, each one of these four days. So, 12 total hours, and the first day – and this was the first year of creating my company, so very raw, very new in all of this linking it to business, and at this specific time in the year 2000, 2001, there really are not any other companies focusing on purely linking improv to business with no stage arm or bar or training center that's focused on the acting side.
So, we're creating new territory here, and in this first exec ed program, VP level status people, four day program, 12 total hours. The first three hours is all about suspending judgment, postponement of judgment. There's a mutiny that takes place after the program is done. The class revolts and the senior leadership at Fuqua essentially fire me and my co-teacher. They say, you're not allowed to come back the next three days, which is ripping the gut from my body, 1). Because I love improve, 2). Because I was already good at business, and 3). I'd never been fired, and similar scenario for my co-teacher.
Now, what the dean at the Duke Fuqua School of Business Executive Education Department said to us is, though you're fired from this program, we are still going to pay you in full. We want you to stay on campus, and take the time that you would normally be using in the classroom, and redirect it to gutting the program and putting it back together again, and so my co-facilitator and I took the remaining three days and redesigned the program. Talked about structure, talked about framing, talked about architecture for it, and put the program together again.
The dean came back on the fourth day, and said, okay, how have you spent the time, how have you spent our money, and we walked him through the session from top to bottom, and he said, this is incredible, and he created an independent three-day experiential learning program based solely on linking improvisation to business, and nothing in the entire world had ever been done like that before. So, I look at this really as a leadership model, meaning that this dean could have fired us outright, and said you don't get your money, go away. He could have said, you get your money, you signed the contract, you're still fired, go away.
Instead, what this dean said is, I see what you're doing, I see the vision, you failed here. Learn from it and show me how you're going to get better, and in doing so, not only did we show him a clear path from how to get from Point A to Point Z, we inspired him to create a very popular session that ran for about 12 years after that.
John: Why'd they fire you, what was their major complaint?
Bob Kulhan: Well, the major complaint was – again, you have to look at the greater picture, and I have to do a lot of speculating, and, of course, with this type of so crushing event, you can't help but think about it over and over and over again, and I'm the type of person that thinks about the good, the bad, the ugly, and it's easy to place blame on other people. So, the first thing I did was put blame on myself, you know, what could I have done differently, and at this time I was 27 years old and I'm teaching a bunch of people in their 40s and 50s. So, they could have looked at me with a little ageism, you know, what does this young guy have to say, what does he know about business, etcetera, etcetera.
I wasn't using the proper vernacular, so I changed my lexicon so that it fits the business lexicon a lot more, and I'm not just using improv terminology. I changed my attire, I changed my pre-reads, I changed the setup, I changed the slides, all based on speculation of why this wasn't a good fit at that time because on paper, at three hours, they just said they're not going to get anything from it, so there's no reason to take the next nine hours, even though, again, the ironic thing is the first three hours was, at that time, solely focused on postponing judgment, pushing off judgment. They could not push it off past the three hour mark.
John: How old were these people?
Bob Kulhan: In their 40s and 50s.
Bob Kulhan: VP level status, many of whom, by the way, I came to find out after the fact, did not know that there was a mutiny going on. So, that was a vocal minority who complained and got us fired, and those people who did not know there was a mutiny, ended up taking our three day program, and liked it for its creative leadership, innovative leadership, managing dynamic teams aspect much more than what they got from the other program.
John: Fire Nation, don't let the entitled arrogance few disrupt what you're trying to do in this world, that's my big takeaway, and Bob, you've had a lot of great ideas over the years. I mean, you kind of just walked through one that you implemented during those three days that you had off. Now, let's talk about one of those ah-hah moments that you had, that light bulb that went off that you think would be a really valuable story for Fire Nation, and really kind of take us to that moment. Tell us that ah-hah moment, and then walk us through how you turned that idea into success.
Bob Kulhan: My ah-hah moment really falls hand in hand with improvisation in that we live in the moment and we're inspired by the moment and what takes place there, and it's very interactive as well. So, it's not one person driving, it's more of a collaboration, and this learning moment for me took place the first few times I really heard behavioral psychologists talk about framing of mind and how we make decisions in real time, and the more I thought about it, this intuitive decision making or instinctual decision making or gut decision making, that is exactly what we do on stage in improvisation.
Gut decision making, intuitive decision making, instinctual decision making, improv, improv, improv, and so the ah-hah moment really was taking the framing of behavioral psychology and use it to underscore, buttress, and otherwise support the experiential learning that improvisation inherently provides, and in doing so it opened up a whole world of possibilities on how to communicate this affectively to entrepreneurs and business leaders, people like me because my undergrad degree is in business. I don't have a formal degree outside an undergrad degree in business. I don't have any other letters follow my last name other than perhaps insults that people will throw at me behind my back or to my face for that matter.
My degrees are in the school of hard knocks, and so, this understanding that learning can take place anywhere and inspiration takes place from everything, really led to that ah-hah moment of working with the world's top behavioral psychologists to understand and underscore the framing of experiential learning that improvisation provides.
John: So, within that ah-hah moment, like what would you say the lesson is that you think our listeners, Fire Nation, should really be absorbing and walking away with?
Bob Kulhan: Be open to learning. Even if you've done it before, you've seen it before, you've had a million conversations, look at everything as that opportunity to pull some nugget of gold, and put yourself in a better position to succeed moving forward.
John: Bob, what are you most excited about right now?
Bob Kulhan: I'm excited in business about a number of different things; 1.) I'll go first person with the world of improvisation. It's more popular now than it ever has been before, so there are more people who are engaging with me in intelligent conversations that are in a completely different place than they were 5, 10, 15, 20 years ago. There's an enlightenment taking place and I love it. Also, I'm really feasting on technology and how we communicate with each other via Skype for example, and what kind of connection can you make with somebody else on the opposite end when you cannot see their face, and can only hear their voice, and what can we do in real time to influence them.
John: Fire Nation, if you've been getting value bombs thus far, I know I have, I'm taking notes, I mean, improv is just something that I am fascinated with, you better wait around for the lightening round because when we get back from thanking our sponsors, Bob is going to be dropping those bombs.
So Bob, we're back, and my question for is: Are you ready to rock the lightening rounds?
Bob Kulhan: Let's do this thing, come one.
John: What was holding you back from becoming an entrepreneur?
Bob Kulhan: I was going to be an actor. In my mind, once upon a time, I should have been on Saturday Night Live, the Daily Show, on television shows, in movies. Many of my friends are on billboards all across the world; they are a who's who of comedy right now. We went through the trenches together, we all know each other and care about each other and have great war stories together in comedy. I should have gone down that path, and I fought being an entrepreneur for a long time, and it split a chunk of me until I decided to mend it all together and grasp the fact that this is who I am.
John: What's the best advice you've ever received?
Bob Kulhan: The best advice that I ever received is moderation in all things. That it's easy to be so passionate about one thing that you miss opportunities and possibility and potential from so many other things. So, it's good to be driven, it's good to be focused, it's good to be passionate. At the same time, be open.
John: Everything in moderation, even moderation. What's a personal habit, Bob, that contributes to your success?
Bob Kulhan: I cling to the cornerstone of improvisation passionately, that two word phrase, "yes and," and I have made that a habit in postponing judgment in my family, with the relationships that I have in my community, with my business. It's the guiding principal of everything I do, and that has created a purposefulness of mindfulness in the morning, that every morning I get up and I have a cup of coffee and a moment of quiet and this has become my new habit, whereas three years ago, Brazilian jujitsu was my habit. My new one now is just really being center focused and clinging to "yes and" in this chaotic world.
John: Recommend one internet resource that you use and love?
Bob Kulhan: The internet resource that I use and love is going to be probably very two dimensional for a lot of people and it's NPR. I go through NPR frequently to get all sorts of different perspectives and views, and that links me over to wonderful things like Freakonomics and –
John: So good –
Bob Kulhan: – those views, so yeah, basic, basic. I could have used the radio for that, I guess.
John: Yeah, well, I love the most recent episode of Freakonomics. They get into Stephon Marbury's shoes, and it's just a fascinating episode, and if you could recommend one book, Bob, what would it be and why?
Bob Kulhan: I think the one business book that I would recommend right now is Predictably Irrational. It's by Dan Ariely, a Fuqua professor, world leader in, once again, behavioral economics, and it really makes behavioral economics very accessible and easy to not only understand, by when I say accessible, I mean easy to implement in decision making strategies, and for entrepreneurs, I think that can be incredibly valuable.
John: Bob, I want to end today on Fire, brother, with you giving us, Fire Nation, a parting piece of guidance, the best way that we can connect with you, and then we'll say goodbye.
Bob Kulhan: Piece of guidance, first, would be to try. Be bold, be fearless, be calculated. Give yourself that place, that time, that area in which you give yourself permission to fail, give yourself permission to take chances, takes risks, and they're strategic risk taking, strategic failure, strategic chances, so that it's not going to jeopardize your brand or your integrity or your relationships, and at the same time, you give yourself permission to expand your safety zone, expand your base. Just try. If you're interested in the marriage of up on your feet experiential learning, i.e. improvisation to business, you could check out my business, BusinessImprov.com, you can buy my book, Getting to "Yes And": The Art of Business Improv. You can follow me on Twitter at Kulhan or at biz, B-I-Z, improv, bizimprov, and, of course, Facebook and LinkedIn and all those other great ones.
John: Fire Nation, you're the average of the five people you spend the most time with. You've been hanging out with BK and JLD today, so keep up the heat, and head over to eofire.com. Type Bob in the search bar, his show notes page will pop up with everything we've been talking about today. These are the best show notes in the biz. Timestamps, links galore, and, of course, check out his book, Getting to "Yes And", as well as everything else that he has going on in the world. Bob, thank you for sharing your journey with Fire Nation today. For that, we salute you, and we'll catch you on the flip side.
Bob Kulhan: Keep on burning, Fire Nation.
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