Editor’s Note: Grace Ueng is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003.  Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” is what clients value most.  Grace writes a regular column for WRAL TechWire. 


RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – In the last several days, I’ve shared the power of improv with several clients.  For I saw the positive impact in action when my International Women’s Forum sisters recently met for an evening of improv. When success was unanimously declared, I also decided to add improv icebreakers to all my Happiness Works programs.

Grace Ueng (front, center) and friends. (Photo courtesy of Grace Ueng)

You may be thinking, just Why Study Improv? In this post, I share why I decided to start studying six years ago. It took me a decade from when a mentor first told me of its benefits. I urge you not to wait as long! Since then, I have used Improv techniques when I facilitate executive team discussions for clients, especially those wanting to improve teamwork.

Skilled improvisers are marked by their keen listening skills, generosity, courtesy, and ability to watch out for the needs of their teammates. They do not hoard, rather share control and have each other’s backs. Talent at improv involves observing the actions of others, contributing, supporting, leading, following, filling in the gaps, and looking for the appropriate ending, as I described in Exercise: “Machine” in last week’s column

The world is interconnected.  Creative and Fun.

You have likely heard of the story of how “The flap of a butterfly’s wings in the Amazon might ultimately cause a tornado in Texas.”  This effect shows how little things are interconnected to have a much larger impact.  Our Happiness & Leadership Community can have that impact…

The day after our evening of improv, my Happiness teacher Tal Ben Shahar happened to mention the power of improv in his weekly lecture – what synchronicity!  He thinks schools should begin teaching improv starting in the 1st grade since it brings out the best in people. He cited research that proves improvisational theater makes one more creative.  You are more present in the here and now. Like in a dangerous situation or when meditating, your faculties are focused, so you become much smarter by using more of your brain.  We only access a small portion of our brain each day and in these broadening experiences, we use more and therefore are much more creative and innovative.  

Unlike in a dangerous situation, in our evening of improv, we created a safe space, and found ourselves having a ton of fun!  Renowned UNC professor and psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, who runs the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology (PEP) Laboratory at UNC Chapel Hill, is known for her broaden and build theory.  When we experience positive emotions, we are much more likely to think more broadly, to make interconnections. 

Dr Barbara Fredrickson and The Dalai Lama (photo credit: UNC PEP Lab)

The whole process of improv is conducive to being creative; it is a great foundation for many – from composers to entrepreneurs. Improv ice breakers bring people together, forming better relationships on leadership teams and even in marriages.  In improv, you are present, listening, and  laughing together. You are learning about one another. It is intimate because you don’t have control, things just come out. You can surprise yourself with what comes out of your mouth!

Team Building and Stanford Improvisors

Improv can be used for new groups or those that have been together 30 years.  There isn’t a better way to be present than in improv. You have to listen to know what to do next.  

Professor Patricia Ryan Madson, who served on Stanford’s drama faculty for 28 years and founded the Stanford Improvisors in 1991, synthesized her learnings into a quick and interesting read, Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up.  Her improv students praised her work, and she won the university’s highest teaching prize for outstanding contribution to undergraduate education. One of her students said, “Improv is a kind of tai chi for the soul.  It provides a workout that helps to shake loose rigid patterns of thinking and doing.”

Business School and Medical School Students also benefit

Business schools have incorporated Improv into their curriculum to help groom leaders. UNC Kenan-Flagler believes they were the first business school in the world to offer a full-term, for-credit improv course. Improv is all about taking risks, and figuring out that fear doesn’t necessarily correlate with danger, rather can lead to good things if overcome.  Improv improves the ability to think on your feet and helps you be more creative as well as a better listener.

Medical school students are also learning from Improv. A fellow coach, physician, and friend David Fessell recently wrote Improvisation in the Time of a Pandemic: Field Notes on Resilience: how Improvisation helps medical school students build resilience, presence, collaboration, set awareness, tolerance of uncertainty, and divergent thinking/confidence.

Ultimately, improv is all about getting out of your head and into the moment. Whether in the boardroom or at home, good improvisational skills help you avoid getting caught up in self judgment, rumination, perfectionism and being thrown off when things do not go as planned…which is what we as leaders face every day.  


About Grace Ueng

Grace is CEO of Savvy Growth, a leadership coaching and management consultancy founded in 2003.  Her great passion to help leaders and the companies they run achieve their fullest potential combined with her empathy and ability to help leaders figure out their “why” are what clients value most.  

Grace’s core offerings are one on one coaching for CEOs and their leadership teams, facilitating workshops on Personal Branding, Happiness and Vulnerability, and Speaking Success, and conducting strategic reviews for companies at a critical juncture. A TED speaker, she is hired to give keynotes and workshops on Happiness and Mental Wellness.

A marketing strategist, Grace held leadership roles at five high growth technology ventures that successfully exited through acquisition or IPO. She started her career at Bain & Company and then worked in brand management at Clorox and General Mills. She is a graduate of MIT and Harvard Business School and holds a positive coaching certification from the Whole Being Institute.

Grace and her partner, Rich Chleboski, a cleantech veteran, develop and implement strategies to support the growth of impact focused companies and then coach their leaders in carrying out their strategic plans. Their expertise spans all phases of the business from evaluation through growth and liquidity.