Powell-based ImprovEdge brings unusual training presentations to New York City, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Columbus.

Powell-based ImprovEdge brings unusual training presentations to New York City, Cleveland, Los Angeles and Columbus.

In Act I of Karen Hough's professional development, she led the good life as a successful actress. Starting to act at age five, Hough was a paid performer by age 14.

During Act II, she attended Yale University. There she was introduced to the world of improvisation-the ability to create something unscripted. Improv taught her how to collaborate, how to think on her feet and why trust among colleagues is vital.

Act III finds her in the boardrooms of corporate America. Using her second act as a springboard, Hough runs her own business helping companies build leadership and establish stronger bonds through training based on the improvisational skills actors use.

"Improvisers have to manage to think on their feet, they have to take risks, they have to collaborate and they have to manage risk," says Hough, founder and CEO of Powell-based ImprovEdge. "You come out on stage and don't know what to expect."

Hough and her team have been imparting those lessons to companies since 1998 with success. ImprovEdge's first client was Bankers Trust; other clients include Fortune 500 companies such as Cardinal Health and Coca-Cola, and professional firms in Columbus like Bricker & Eckler.

ImprovEdge has expanded since Hough founded it in 1998. Today, the company has offices in New York City, Cleveland and Los Angeles.

The notion of a buttoned-up executive doing improvisation seems unthinkable, but companies that have hired ImprovEdge praise the approach and unusualness of its corporate training presentations.

"I do what Karen does," says Terence Morley, director of talent development for NBC Universal, "and had never used improv in a learning process. As a team, we had no expectations of it because it was a leap of faith on our part. We just didn't want to use the same old boring training."

Hough says discovering improvisation at Yale changed how she thought about theater and life. Following college, she trained with Chicago's famed Second City theater troupe. She met her husband of 20 years there; his banking career eventually took the couple to New York.

She reached a point in New York, driven by the couple's varied schedules, where career change was necessary. "I was going to quit [acting] and go into something completely unexpected like an improviser would."

She found safe harbor working in technology sales and training. The breakthrough to what would become ImprovEdge came when a Yale improvisation peer asked her to help write a paper for a Wharton Business School class about how improvisation might be used in the corporate world. She and her cowriter tested their theories on Wharton MBA students.

Hough and her partner had students participate in exercises that highlighted certain traits and asked if they thought the exercises would improve how they worked or behaved in the office. They then looked at isolating behaviors from the improv stage and wondered if they could see them in high-performing corporate leaders and teams. "Whether we could prove it was the catch," says Hough. ImprovEdge was born of that experiment; Hough took over sole ownership of the company in 2002.

The company backs up its findings with data and studies. For instance, ImprovEdge purposely makes participants a little uncomfortable in the training exercises.

"Adults don't really learn well, and learn far more slowly than children. They also like to be more comfortable and not operate outside their expertise," says Hough.

In one training exercise called the Two-Headed Expert, Hough will have participants link arms and alternate speaking one word at a time on a random subject beyond their expertise, like neurosurgery. While awkward at first, participants eventually break through that wall and begin anticipating what the other will say.

Bricker & Eckler's Chief Operating Officer, Kit Murphy, says the Two-Headed Expert is a favorite of hers. Murphy says the firm has brought Hough in on several occasions to "stretch them beyond their lawyer brains."

One ImprovEdge session was for senior associates identified as potential partners. The idea was to groom them on the particulars of Bricker culture, "to provide them a little insight," Murphy says.

It is hard to measure the ROI of ImprovEdge's training, but Murphy says of 10 senior associates who received it, six are now partners. Likewise, NBC Universal's Morley says the training provided to pages (the staffers who lead tours and work the live shows) greatly expanded their knowledge of myriad parts of the company, allowing them to communicate more effectively with the public.

Craig Lovelace is a freelance writer.