Yes, and ... you must take improv classes if you want to work for Chicago consulting company Mavens

At Mavens Consulting, employees are expected to be fluent in improv. No improv background? No worries. You’ll be flown in to train at Second City from wherever you are on the planet.

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Prasad Kanumury

Mavens is helmed by CEO Prasad (“PK”) Kanumury and this year the Chicago company celebrates its tenth anniversary. Mavens’ mission is “to connect people to cures using cloud technology and strategic partnerships.” For the less technically inclined (like me), Prasad explains that Mavens is building “a platform for individualized healthcare like Uber did for transportation.”

At Mavens, groundbreaking ideas are all in the course of the day. There is no formal management structure. Mavens’ employees, referred to as “citizens,” live in five different countries and speak ten languages. They have the autonomy to work from anywhere in the world.  The emphasis is on flexible and agile thinking, listening, openness, creativity and collegiality, all core principles of improv. Prasad discovered that this atmosphere allows productivity and success to flow naturally.

Also flowing is workplace satisfaction. In 2015, the National Association for Business Resources named Mavens one of the “best and brightest companies to work for in Chicago.” In 2016, Mavens was #12 in Fortune Magazine’s survey of the 50 best small workplaces in the country.

Employee satisfaction ratings will also make you pause in your commute. On glassdoor.com, Prasad has a 100% approval rating as CEO and 100% of respondents would recommend the company to friends. Comments include “highlight of my career,” “love what you do and make it matter,” “revolutionary culture, amazing team,” “love my job,” and “a welcome break from the norm.”

Prasad kindly took time out for a phone call about optimizing workplace success through improv. And if you’re wondering at this point whether Mavens is hiring? The answer is yes and … keep reading.

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Teme: What makes you laugh?

PK: The late night talk shows are pretty funny. I like comedians who are smart and insightful like Stephen Colbert. I'm not a dark guy, so the dark stuff doesn't usually work for me.

Teme: What was your introduction to improv?

PK: I've lived in Chicago for 20 years.  So going to shows at Second City was my introduction to improv.

Teme: Since your people are all over the globe, how do you arrange their study at Second City?

PK: We fly them to Chicago to study at Second City with a cohort of [Mavens] folks. They meet with a trainer at Second City for five sessions.  There are four group sessions and one private session. After that, the classes are through web conference with their cohort.

Teme: How did you decide to make improv classes a requirement?

PK: The definition of a maven is an expert in their field of study who seeks to share the knowledge. In the classic world, we would be considered a consulting business. But often when you meet a consultant, they want to be the smartest guy in the room and they want to shut everyone else down. That's the antithesis of a maven.

As we grew the company and as our diversity, languages and cultures increased, I saw that presentation skills were becoming an increasingly important skill for everyone to have. I started researching, “how can we better our presentation skills?”

As a consultant, it’s not about being “on message.” People are going to have feedback on your presentations and it will probably take you in different directions. I realized improv is a really good technique to learn how to present and manage a conversation as it changes.

Teme: Do you see people from different countries and cultures approaching improv differently?

PK: Everyone's excited about it. Not everyone has heard of Second City and some people are like, "Oh, okay, I didn't realize this was such a big deal." But those that have heard about it are really excited about being involved. The feedback we get is that it is a very positive experience.

Improv establishes a foundation to build on. It’s a common language. When I say "yes, and", everyone gets that I’m saying “be open-minded.”

It is our common vernacular internally and sets expectations. When we do a presentation, I don't want to see 500 bullet points on a slide. When you're actually talking, I don't want you reading. I want you to frame the story and tell me the “why.” I want you to remember that this is your opportunity to present information, but also to understand how to apply "yes, and" when questions are asked or things go in a different direction.

Teme: What is the impact of improv on your style as CEO?

PK: As CEO, I’m expected to know the answers. It's easy to forget to listen. So it's a good reminder. I did the improv sessions with a cohort of employees like everyone else did. To be able to sit there and experience it in the same environment with the same curriculum as everyone else was powerful. It's all about connecting.

Teme: It seems people can be afraid of what's not conventional and to feel only a lock-step process can lead to the right answer. But improv, as you said, makes you more open minded and able to connect.  It seems to increase the chances of getting to the right answer.

PK: Absolutely. It ensures you're not making assumptions. In our job, assumptions are what you call the landmines, or the things you can't see that could blow up. "Yes, and" makes sure that you're not making assumptions and that you are identifying all of the risks and expectations.

Teme: It sounds like it’s also the foundation for a great client relationship.

PK: Yes. Absolutely.

Teme: How does improv impact employees?

PK: The most obvious change is confidence. Improv gives them a methodology and the techniques to get better at presentations. Knowing the "how" brings confidence.

Teme: Do people respond differently to improv depending on their personal style, for example, if they're an introvert or an extrovert?

PK: It's hard for me to comment on how they internalize the process. But what I'll say is, it's nice to see people who are more introverted take on the same process as folks who are extroverted and vice versa, for the extroverted people to be coached to calm down and listen.

An extrovert may say, "Oh, it makes sense to ask 'yes, and.’ I get to a better place versus just talk, talk, talk.”

An introvert can learn how to frame their thoughts so that they can communicate in a constructive, productive, effective way.

Teme: What feedback do you get?

PK: Always really positive. Because a cohort of four to six people takes improv together, there's a lot of camaraderie and support. It was even kind of a scary thing for me.  No one wants to be judged, especially when you're in front of your peers. So you have to let that go. It's a really supportive process, even when it's done remotely. People are coming out of their shell. There are a lot of people and language and cultural differences, so improv builds camaraderie on the team. It strengthens that whole idea of citizenship. We're here as citizens to support each other.

Teme: Mavens sounds like a real community with a lot of connection, even with people working in different places.

PK: Oh, absolutely. It's remarkable. We're a special place and we're pretty excited about it. Especially in the world we live in today that's becoming more polarized and nationalistic. To be able to create an ecosystem that is diverse in thought, in culture, in religion, in geography, in age ... We have men and women working here from 25 to 50-plus years-old. It's a really cool environment. It's unique and special. I’m very proud of it.

Teme: I can definitely see why. One wonders if every place were like this, how much better the world would be.

PK: I think so. Another value of improv, right? Given our differences, it's so important to ask that "yes, and" question.

Teme: Has anyone surprised you with how they've implemented improv principles?

PK: Yes. I was working on a project with a guy who was actually in my improv cohort and at the end I said, "Hey, let's create a video summary of what we've done so we can share it with the team.” So he created a video and quickly fell back into his classic way of thinking.

I reviewed the video and went back and gave him some feedback. It was awesome because I didn't have to tell him what to do. I just had to remind him of the Second City principles. He came back with a new version that was completely different, and it was spot on.

Teme: Wow. How was it different?

PK: The biggest difference was an understanding that he had to frame the details versus just spew them at me. Then knowing what level of details were important to present at what time, or if they are important at all.

But it was the framing that really made the difference. He created a story. He framed it better than I would have because he created a story that I hadn't anticipated. He used historical information to explain why the function we created is so important. He went beyond what I even expected.

Teme: Does improv have an impact on you outside of the office, as well?

PK: I know that in life I'm trying to do better about listening. I don't know if I've actively applied the principles in my personal life. Not that I've not tried. It's about remembering, if that makes sense.

Teme: It totally makes sense.

PK: It's a good question. At work, since we went through this improv process it’s in context to use these principles. But when I get out of the context, I'm like, "Alright, just listen to me,” probably more so with my four year-old.

Teme: You’ve built Mavens in many ways that are beautifully unconventional. Who or what experiences inspired you to look beyond the conventions?

PK: I don't want to speak poorly of past employers because they've obviously given me great opportunities and set the foundation to be where I am. There are things you see from a past job and think, this was great, but that is something I could do without. I've had the good fortune of being able to say, "Hey, look. The things that I love, let's try to replicate, and the things that haven't worked so great, I don't have to bring with me."

When you're building a company and you're hiring from different organizations, other people have those same jewels of wisdom. We've been able to use all of those jewels to create a beautiful necklace and it continues to grow.

Teme: What else would you like people to know about Mavens?

PK: One of the things we're trying to accomplish is to hire more great people and to grow our company. We have a really special place. Most people hate what they do for eight hours a day, whereas the people that work here love it. So why not have more of us?

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Learn more about Mavens at https://mavens.com/.

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