USC Price School of Public Policy

Price’s Geffner teaches ‘leadership as improvisation’ at USC Women’s Conference

May 17, 2018

Painter book
USC Price Executive Master of Leadership Director Carol Geffner (Photo courtesy of the USC Alumni Association)

By Cristy Lytal

What do actors and business leaders have in common? They both need to improvise, according to Carol J. Geffner, director of the Executive Master of Leadership (EML) program at the USC Price School of Public Policy. To teach this essential skill, Geffner led a “Leadership as Improvisation” workshop at the 2018 USC Women’s Conference, which allowed participants to learn in an energized and engaged context.

Hosted by the USC Alumni Association, the USC Women’s Conference brings together women of all ages and backgrounds, inspiring and empowering them to create positive change in their personal lives, their communities and the world.

“Leaders today are operating in organizations that face tremendous uncertainty, an accelerated pace of change and disruption. The days of stable and predictable organizations are, for the most part, behind us,” said Geffner, who is professor of the practice of governance, management and policy, and the president of the consulting firm Newpoint Healthcare Advisors. “The willingness to experience discomfort and learn continuously are essential in rapidly changing environments. Improvisation, which comes from the discipline of drama and theater, is designed to put people in situations in which they must be present, feel vulnerable, and learn in the moment.”

Learning while extemporizing

USC Women’s Conference attendees take part in an activity led by Professor Geffner (Photo courtesy of the USC Alumni Association)


During the 45-minute workshop, Trojan alumnae, parents, students and friends learned to think on their feet.

In the first activity, the participants formed circles and threw a ball from person to person. Upon catching the ball, each participant said her name and one word to describe the culture of her workplace. She then passed the ball to someone else.

“It was fun, energizing, fast,” Geffner said. “It was just intended to help people loosen up and primed for the experiences.”

Next, Geffner asked the participants to form two lines facing each other. Each person had 30 seconds to observe who was standing across from her. The pair then turned their backs on each other, changed three things about themselves, faced each other once more, and attempted to guess what had changed. They repeated the same exercise with seven different partners in quick succession.

“One of the lessons is learning what it feels like to be highly observant,” said Geffner. “Another lesson has to do with an internal narrative that often reflects the brain’s negativity bias. It can sound like: ‘I couldn’t possibly do this. It’s too much. I’m not going to be able to succeed.’ When forced to stretch, we can override this narrative and learn about our intrinsic capabilities and strengths.”

Cultivating confidence

By recognizing their ability to succeed during this improvisational exercise, the women were also tapping into a sense of inner confidence that is needed to excel in formal leadership roles.

In the EML program, which Geffner directs, students often credit the degree program with teaching both the skills and confidence that are required to assume senior leadership roles in any organization.

“As you move up a hierarchical organization, you have to find your voice and learn how to use it effectively to inspire and lead others,” Geffner said. “For women in senior and executive management positions, this is particularly important. Women, often have not learned how to communicate and show up with a ‘voice’ that manifests strength, confidence and leadership presence.”

Through the EML program and the USC Women’s Conference workshop, Geffner is shaping leaders who are nimble, adaptable and creative — in other words, good improvisers.

“We have to help leaders imagine the future,” Geffner said. “We have to help them entertain new mental models, new ways of thinking to imagine forward and think creatively about how we’re going to solve the wicked problems in organizations and society.”