Improv and Leadership: Teaching Students the Art of Confidence in Business


UIC BUSINESS Accounting Professor Michael Popowits challenges the fears of executive presence in the UIC business student community 

Michael Popowits has spent the better part of his professional career merging together two worlds he loves: improvisational theater and teaching. Popowits is excited to be teaching students the business acumen he says he desperately needed as a shy, unconfident undergrad at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign years ago. He does this in two popular courses he created in the UIC College of Business Administration (CBA): MBA 590 - Improv and Leadership and ACTG 420 - Professional Presence.

“If there had been a course like this when I was in school, it would have been very helpful to me. But it’s hard to find a teacher because who has their feet in each of two canoes? One in the business world and one in the improv world…it’s a very unusual straddle,” Popowits says.

Popowits has, in fact, spent years with both feet in these two worlds. A trained CPA, he has been with the College of Business Administration as a lecturer since 1988. He is also a frequently recognized faculty member. Popowits won the UIC CBA Silver Circle Award in 2012; the UIC Accounting Educator of the Year in 2002, 2007 and in 2011; the UIC Teaching Recognition Program Award in 2002 and 2008; and the UIC Favorite Master of Science in Accounting (MSA) Professor Award in 2009.

What makes his background particularly unique, however, is that he completed theatre training at the famous Second City Training Center in Chicago, where he has taught improvisational theatre and directed student ensembles since 2000. He has also been an executive coach for ten years.

“Improvisation is the art of confident, spontaneous interaction,” he says. “In the theater, it is used to create comedic scenes in the moment without a script, but it can be reformulated to train business people who work on a different type of stage.”

It has taken Popowits years to rework the improvisational material he uses to train actors and adjust it to business students, but he seems to have concocted the magic formula. Tackling four of the most challenging areas of professional communication, he prepares students for networking, interviewing, impromptu speaking and creative team leadership. The results have been clear; Popowits’ classes are some of the most popular at the CBA.

 “If you want to be a better baseball player, you go to the batting cages and get to it. You want to be an accountant, take coursework. But if you want to learn more confidence, what do you do?” Popowits asks. “If you want to get better at a confrontational work situation, what do you do? If you want to have more poise in front of a client, what do you do? It’s the soft skills versus the hard skills…how do you get at that?”

Improv is the most direct way Popowits has found to answer those questions. He is driven to bridge the gap between highly trained technical students and a strong, business-oriented confidence he calls an “executive presence.” He realizes students may get hired because of their knowledge of accounting, finance or IT, but very quickly they find out that their success, even in the short term, is based upon “soft skills.” Team management, relating to the clients and inspiring confidence are critical to one’s success in the business world and typically are not taught in formal business programs.

“For some students the challenge really hits midcareer,” says Popowits. “They have been successful and gotten promoted for years, but then comes the step to director or vice president. In the employer’s mind, however, they don’t ‘seem like a director’ or don’t ‘come across like a vice president.’ They now hear words like ‘poise,’ ‘moxie,’ and ‘trust-inspiring.’ This can be upsetting because new, less tangible skills are now called for: the game has changed. I have heard this often from former students and executives I’ve worked with, so I want to provide executive coaching to our current students before they leave UIC.” 

Rehearsed in a workshop-based environment, one way Popowits integrates improv into his instructional design is by recreating professional conflicts in the classroom, what he likes to call “on-the-job training before the job.” These exercises range from coaxing an under-performing team member to confronting an ethical challenge. Most of this is done in face-to-face group work, with an element of surprise thrown into the mix in what Popowits calls a gradation of risk. This is where improvisational skills are practiced and responses to these issues are played out in small teams and, potentially, pre-solved.

“First, we just talk the problem through, second is student-to-student role-playing, third is student-to-student in front of the class, the fourth is a student to professor where I would be the boss asking them to do something, and they have to present it to me in front of the whole class. Those are already pretty high stakes,” he says. “Next is bringing in a UIC alum who plays that role. So it’s not quite the real thing, but you will get them sweating pretty quickly. Then, we discuss the right and wrong ways to approach these kinds of business conversations. And it takes a lot of practice to get there. We make our mistakes here in a safe environment where it costs us nothing and learn strategies for tough situations.”

Popowits feels there are a lot of magic moments in his classes, but the first class establishes the tone for the semester. His experience in public accounting, consulting, executive coaching and improvisational theatre sets the stage for some of the exercises and really tests students’ abilities to handle spontaneous situations.

“During the first class, I notice they’re all looking around thinking ‘well this is different!,’ especially in MBA 590, which is only eight weeks,” he says. “The advantage for the MBAs is they’re a little older and generally have more experience with public speaking and leading teams. They’re clearer on their skill set. The advantage with the undergrads is they’re younger and their professional personalities aren’t quite as fully formed, which can make them even more receptive.”

An idea Popowits tackles quickly is challenging the student’s self-concept, a phrase he coins as “premature cognitive commitment.”

“Through early life experience, we make cognitive commitments about who we think we are, what we’re good at and what we’re not good at, such as ‘I’m a lousy public speaker, but I’m ok one on one,’ for example. I think we set these beliefs about ourselves too early, based on limited evidence, and then we live by them, not reconsidering the ‘truth’ of those beliefs,” he says. “So the first part of the course is to crack those premature cognitive commitments and give people a grander vision of what they might be able to do in life.”

Popowits works with the idea that a human being’s basic personality is not going to change, but that people are much more adaptable than they think they are. One of his main teaching objectives is to create a safe container for people to experiment, observe what is going on within themselves, and then find new, yet authentic, interpersonal behaviors that are highly effective in their business lives.

“I have heard that the number one human fear is death, with public speaking a close second. But if we really drill into that, what is the fear exactly?” he asks. “My classes are an open, non-judgmental space to experiment and see what the possibilities are in our own minds.”

Popowits started practicing improv in the late 1980s after the encouragement of a close friend. After finally getting up the gumption to go to his first rehearsal, he walked in the door and met one of the finest improvisation teachers in the world who just happened to be back from New York teaching again in Chicago. His name was Martin de Maat, a teacher and artistic director at The Second City in Chicago. de Maat made improv approachable, safe and compelling for anybody, even somebody who was as shy as Popowits was. Popowits hopes that he is doing for UIC students what de Maat did for him all those years ago at his very first improv class.

 “Improv changed my life. It changed my business life, too. I discovered communication and creativity tools I never knew existed, and I quickly learned their business value,” he says. “The only way to get better at presenting is through presenting. You have to practice it and keep doing it until you relax enough to let your cleverness really come out.”


PHOTO CREDIT: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin, UIC Photo Services