Hospital and health system CEOs spend a lot of time communicating, and some will do whatever it takes to improve — even if that means taking classes in improvisation.improv-CEO-hospital-kaplan

I’m thinking specifically of Alan Kaplan, M.D., recently appointed president and CEO of University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics in Madison. I’ve been following Kaplan’s career since 2009, when he was chief medical officer at Edward Hospital and I was an editor at a different health care magazine. We both were students of improv at a theater called the Comedy Shrine in suburban Chicago. (Pictured: Kaplan, far left, with his improv troupe)

Kaplan was and is a big fan of improv as means to get better at communicating, something he says he wasn’t great at roughly seven years ago.

“When I was at Edward, I was pretty much thought of as not a good public speaker,” in part because of his anxiety, Kaplan says. “I knew I wasn’t going to progress in my career until I learned to comfortably speak publicly.”

While some might have gone the Toastmasters route, Kaplan aggressively tackled his speaking anxiety through the uncertainty of improv. “Nothing can be as uncomfortable as doing some of the exercises we’d do on stage,” he says. I could describe some of them, but it’s kind of a “you had to be there” situation.

At first, “I was just a stiff,” he says. But with the encouragement of his classmates and instructors, Kaplan got good at improv and, I would presume, became even better at public speaking. We graduated with our own show, which characteristically was called something that relies on a bad pun and is unfit for publication here.

Kaplan’s approach to getting more comfortable in the spotlight is not as unusual as you might think. An instructor and the owner of the Comedy Shrine, Second City alumnus Dave Sinker, said it’s common for individuals or even whole departments to take classes or workshops together in improv for career-building reasons.

“Improv gets people more comfortable with performing, and when you’re speaking in public you’re basically performing,” Sinker says. Improv works great as a team-building exercise as well, given the reliance performers have to place on one another, he says.

Kaplan said the improv tenet of “Yes, anding” a fellow actor has helped him with his listening skills, and hence his management skills.

“In improv, you learn that everything someone says is a gift to you to continue the conversation and give something back,” he says. Kaplan’s adoption of that approach has made him more receptive and easier to deal with at work and at home, because his first response to statements is rarely negative.

“ ‘Yes, and’ has made life so much better for me and it’s made me a better person,” Kaplan says.

Yes! And I believe that, and if anyone else out there has tried something unusual to prepare for health care management, email me.