Lessons for MBA team-building from an improv comedy pro

By: Katelyn Godoy
Photo of Jim Andretta posing next to his REDtalks presentation screen that reads thank you

By Jim Andretta, Two-Year MBA ’18

“Fall, then figure out what to do on the way down.”
— Del Close, improvisational comedy legend

When I gave my REDtalk on improvisational comedy (“improv”), I honestly had no idea how the Johnson community would react to it. We’re surrounded by some of the best and brightest here at Cornell, and a speech on why comedy (of all things) matters to MBAs entering finance, management consulting, and investment banking could be seen as ridiculous.

So naturally, I was pretty excited about doing it.

Giving this REDtalk was an incredible experience for me in many ways; being able to share something I love as passionately as I do improv with my classmates was an absolute delight. In sharing my experiences, I hoped to inspire people to give it a try someday, as well as take some lessons from improv with them through their journeys here as Cornell MBAs.

As an alumnus of the Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City and Pirates of Tokyo Bay (Japan’s finest—and only—bilingual improv comedy team), the correlations between team-based comedy and business are clear. We’re at our best when we support teammates to do their best. Truth is always more interesting than fantasy. Specificity is the soul of narrative. Always “yes, and” your scene partner. But what does that mean to you, dear reader, and why should that matter as an MBA in the working world?

Flyer for Jim Andretta's REDtalk with two photos of him and its title: Don't Think: How Improv Comedy Can Make You A Better Leader, Teammate, and Mother

One of the things Risa Mish teaches us in Critical and Strategic Thinking here at Johnson is to look deeply at the root causes for issues, the overwhelming majority of which are never apparent at first glance. To make informed management decisions means addressing the right problems; and the information we need to discover those is rarely packaged in a self-contained case for us. Finding those root causes takes teamwork, active listening, and the ability to improvise with limited resources to uncover truth under ambiguous circumstances.

Photo of Jim next to a Pirates of Tokyo Bay banner
Photo of Jim speaking into a microphone

With that, here are three lessons from improv comedy that I hope will guide you toward better decisions with your teams.

1. Good chemistry is worth 100 practices

In improv, your group dynamic is everything. There’s absolutely no substitute for knowing your scene partners well, and that shared experience is the backbone of great comedy. In our core teams at Johnson, the very best work we produce comes out of groups that spend time with one another outside the hours spent on projects and cases. That respect and admiration for each other comes across not just when we present, but in the quality of our final product. It shows when you step up to help your teammate struggling through their discounted cash flow analysis, as much as it does when the final speaker in your project remembers to present that portion of your market plan that you forgot to mention. Groups that take the time to get to know each other and enjoy one another’s company always perform better under stressful scenarios—whether that’s performing a scene on the fly that they’ve never done before to an audience of 200 people or consulting for a hard-to-please client with little resources besides your collective group ability.

Photo of Jim and his classmates doing an improv exercise
Jim and his classmates during this REDtalk

2. Groupmind: Give every idea its chance

The very worst scenes I’ve seen have all been the result of partners not supporting one another’s ideas, and people letting their teammates flounder without stepping in to give mustard to each other’s ideas. “Yes, and”-ing your teammates isn’t about simply accepting what’s already been said and adding a new piece of information, it’s about heightening and exploring every single word, finding something unique in what your partner presented you with, and actively listening to everything going on around you.

“Si Haec Insolita Res Vera Est, Quid Exinde Verum Est?”
(If this is true, what else is true?)
— Upright Citizens Brigade’s motto

3. Embrace public vulnerability

This is a tough one for MBAs, especially those who’ve been trained to prepare as much as possible for events where we’re public speaking before an audience. While I’d never advocate making important decisions without prior planning and due diligence, by placing yourself in scenarios where you’re forced to react to information given to you, without a scripted response, your decision-making skills under pressure will improve dramatically.

  • Answer the toughest questions from the Q&A portion of your team’s presentation
  • MC your next club/business event or introduce a visiting speaker
  • Request immediate feedback on your presentations from the group
  • Take a one-day improv course at The Groundlings in LA, the People’s Improv Theatre in New York, or Chicago City Limits in Chi-town

Improv comedy has brought me immeasurable joy and some of the best friends I’ve ever made. I want to thank everyone for coming to listen to my REDtalk and for giving me the chance to share what I love—I hope to see many more of your REDtalks in the months to come!

Link to learn more about Johnson's Two-Year MBA program in Ithaca

About Jim Andretta, Two-Year MBA ’18

Headshot of Jim Andretta, Two-Year MBA ’18

Jim Andretta ’18 has performed improv in both English and Japanese for nine years as part of the Pirates of Tokyo Bay in Tokyo and Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York City. At Johnson he co-leads Follies, Johnson’s annual comedy show in May. After graduation, he will be moving back to Tokyo to work for Apple, where he looks forward to rejoining the vibrant arts and improv scene.