As an accomplished improv performer, singer and actress, Cathy Rose Salit believes we all get too stuck in our ‘scripts,’ too comfortable with our ‘stock characters.’ We need to try new things, to expand our personal repertoire, to become more creative in our work and lives.

Interview #30 in the Creativity in Business Thought Leader Series is with Cathy Rose Salit, CEO of Performance of a Lifetime, a training  and consulting company that brings the tools and framework of theater and improvisation to corporate and organizational life.

Cathy began her career as an upstart and risk-taker at the age of 13, when she dropped out of eighth grade and, along with some friends and their more open-minded parents, started an alternative school in an abandoned storefront in New York City. This innovative endeavor led to Random House’s publication of their book, Starting Your Own High School. Since then, Cathy has spent her life as an onstage performer, educational pioneer and social entrepreneur, launching innovative businesses and organizations designed as centers for change, learning and growth.

Her clients include PricewaterhouseCoopers, Microsoft, Mars, Credit Suisse, the US Olympic Committee, Barclays and John Hopkins Hospital, where her recent work includes a ground-breaking resiliency program for oncology nurses. An accomplished singer, actress, director, and improvisational comic, Cathy can be seen performing in improvised musical comedy with The Proverbial Loons at the Castillo Theatre in New York City.

Q: How does your work relate to creativity?

Salit: In my work, I help people in organizations to be creative in response to all kinds of challenges and situations in life and work. I’m very committed to helping people engage in a creative process all the time, which means that it doesn’t matter whether the “end product” is brilliant.

Q: What do you see as the new paradigm of work?

Salit: We all need to get much better at handling uncertainty, dealing with the unknown (and perhaps unknowable), and embracing change and the unexpected. Organizations (and their leaders) who are interested in developing their people to be more open-minded and to take risks — and are willing to invest in it — are part of a new paradigm of work. They focus on creating a work environment and culture that supports shaking things up and nurtures new ideas and practices. And part of what makes that possible is helping people to grow and develop emotionally, socially and intellectually.

Q: What do you see as the role of creativity in that paradigm?

Salit: It’s essential. It takes creativity to break out of our habitual ways of working, conversing and interacting — with colleagues, customers, stakeholders, etc. We get stuck in our “scripts,” comfortable with our “stock characters.” I think that exercising the creativity needed to expand your professional and personal repertoire — to try out different “performances” — is crucial. In my work, theater and improvisation provide the creative venue.

For example: a colleague and friend of mine, the developmental psychologist Lenora Fulani, has created an amazing program in New York City called “Operation Conversation: Cops and Kids.” She recruits police officers and inner city young people (whose typical relationship is, to put it mildly, estranged), brings them into a room, and directs them in creating improvisational theater together. It’s awe-inspiring. It completely changes how they see each other, and what they can then say and hear. That’s the power of creativity!

Or Andy Lansing, the CEO from Chicago recently profiled in the New York Times “Corner Office” column, whose first question to potential hires is “Are you nice?” I love that! What a creative question! It conveys a message about what it takes to succeed at this company (which obviously places a premium on how people relate to each other), it challenges the interviewee to think and talk in a way that they don’t expect (personally), and it breaks the mold of what a CEO (or anyone for that matter) would ask a potential new hire.

Q: What mindsets and behaviors do you see as essential for effectively navigating the new work paradigm?

Salit: Improvise. Perform. Relate to every conversation, meeting, and interaction as an improvisational scene in which you are a performer, writer and director. Break rules and make up new ones — not just in coming up with ideas, but in how we organize what we do together and how we do it in the workplace. Become a creative artist whose medium is everyday life.

Q: What is one approach that people could start applying today to bring more creativity into their work or their business organization?

Salit: Learn and use the golden rule of improvisers: “Yes, And.”  Our natural tendency is to say “Yes, but,” which blocks the flow of conversation — and any chance of creativity. Saying “yes” means that you accept the person and what she or he has said. “And” lets you build on what your colleague has given you, adding your contribution.

Try this exercise: when you’re in a conversation with a colleague at work, listen extra carefully. Don’t plan what you’re going to say — just listen. When your colleague finishes, say “yes, and” and let that guide what you say next. Even if you don’t agree!

Start paying attention to all of the “Yes, buts’” that you say and hear. See if you can start to bring this “creative positivity” into the meetings and conversations that you’re part of.

Q: Finally, what is creative leadership to you?

Salit: Creative leadership is being willing to fail. That school I started at 13? I can’t honestly say that it was an unqualified success. (To this day I still can’t identify a subjunctive clause or multiply past 6). But for me, “success” or no, it changed everything. It taught me the fundamental importance of creatively questioning and creatively building new ways of living and working in our world.

Creative leadership is doing things before we know how (and encouraging others to as well). Our culture, with its insistence on knowing how things are going to turn out (an illusion in any event), inhibits our appetite for and skill at bringing new things into existence.

Creative leadership means working and playing well with others. Creativity is not a solo act. Everyday creativity is an ensemble performance, in which people build on one another’s contributions to create new possibilities and new understandings of what they are doing together. Creative leaders model all this in what they do and how they do it, and don’t swerve from their commitment to helping other people take risks — which as often as not means taking the risk with them. You can’t control it! Let things emerge and then take on the creative challenge of figuring out what to do next.

Cathy will be presenting an improv-based breakout session at the upcoming Creativity in Business Conference in Washington, DC on October 23, 2011. The Creativity in Business Thought Leader Interview Series is from business creativity catalyst, Michelle James, CEO of The Center for Creative Emergence.