I was fortunate, recently, to chat with the inimitable Cathy Salit, consultant, CEO, former actor and singer, high-school dropout, and author of the just-published book Performance Breakthrough, A Radical Approach to Success at Work. Cathy’s approach combines acting, improv, and positive psychology – a mix of ideas that readers familiar with this blog will recognize as a powerful one for me. Cathy believes that every interaction at work (and in life) is a performance, in the best sense of the word, and so she’s all about giving those performances your best shot.
Since we’re both Shakespeare fans, I started with a quote from the Bard that seemed to sum up what Cathy is all about.
Nick: Is all the world a stage?
Cathy: Indeed. Shakespeare’s quote goes on to say that all the men and women in the world are performers on that stage, and to me, that’s what’s important. We humans are all performers. We’re born with the innate ability to imagine, improvise, and pretend. When we’re very young it’s much of what we do, and it’s a key component of the rapid growth and learning we experience as babies and young children, when we learn to walk, talk, ride a bike and about a million other things. Then, as renowned speaker and author on education, Sir Ken Robinson puts it, this natural creativity (and the growth that comes with it) gets “drummed out” of children, largely by educational systems that value the acquisition of facts and test results over anything else.
But the performer in us never goes away entirely, and in our work at the consulting firm Performance of a Lifetime, where I’m the CEO, we’ve found that by reinitiating people’s creative, performative abilities and putting them to use in the scenes of their work and lives, the possibilities for accelerated growth and transformation are pretty amazing.
Nick: You’re a performance coach. How do you intervene with clients to get them to improve?
Cathy: I think of being a “performance coach” as having a lot in common with being a theater director, and that’s how I see my job with clients. Clients come to us for help with many different things: helping leaders or a team execute on a business strategy, build a leadership pipeline, become more innovative, increase sales, help high-potential leaders grow into bigger jobs, and so on. We begin a discovery process with the client, using the language and concepts of theater and performance, in which both of us get to know the “play” of the organization: the roles that need support, the scenes that take place and the characters who populate them. In that “learning the play” period and in the delivery of our programs we create environments — workshops, coaching groups, rehearsals — to help them start creating new kinds of scenes, characters, and dialogue. They build their performance skills, their ensemble, and the new performances they need for their new play.
Nick: What’s the connection, in your mind, between the stage, neuroscience, and improved executive performance?
Cathy: Seeing ourselves is a very hard thing to do. Because we are ourselves! So putting work and life onstage as a performance has a profound impact on our ability to see, grow and transform. For executives and leaders at all levels, whose eyes have to be on the big picture, this is especially helpful. There’s a paradox in making this leap into performing: while it taps into a person’s creative, emotional, expressive and subjective side, it also provides a degree of distance — you can both be in a scene and see it unfold; you can write, perform, and direct it simultaneously. Leaders can be fully engaged in a conversation with a colleague, a team, or the entire organization, and have a point of view about how the conversation is going, and make creative choices that impact the scene, the characters, and the relationships — all at the same time.
I’m not a neuroscientist (and I’ve never played one on TV). But I’m a longtime believer in the mind/body connection, and of course our bodies (including our brains) are impacted on, and impact on everything that we do — including our new performances.
Nick: Isn’t there something insincere about thinking of work as a performance? How do I perform at a certain level and still maintain my authenticity? Wouldn’t it be better just to be myself?
Cathy: Most of us have things in our lives and work we’d like to change. Ways we want to grow. We have dreams, hopes, aspirations, ideas, curiosity, wishes, desires, etc. And as a performer-in-life, we have a creative opportunity. We shouldn’t stop being ourselves (actually, we can’t). But we can add to who we are. And to do that, we also have to be who we are not. Actors can be both themselves and the character they’re playing. The amazing thing is that when you take what actors do, pull it off the stage and make it available to the rest of us to use in everyday life and work, we now have the space, the license and the freedom (and challenge) to do what we don’t know how to do, to perform in ways we may never have even thought of. We are able to give expression to our multiplicity, and our human ability to change ourselves and our circumstances (or, as I like to say, to change the play.)
Nick: Tell us about your book — what was the experience of writing it like? What about the publishing process? How are you getting the word out now that it is published? What should other consultant-authors do or not do based on your experience?
Cathy: Writing Performance Breakthrough was a real exercise in practicing what I preach. I’ve never written a book before, and if the idea ever came up over the years, I was always too busy and, to be frank, not sure that the very experiential nature of what we do at Performance of a Lifetime could be translated into book form. But after Daniel Pink wrote about our work in his To Sell is Human, it got real. I was approached by a literary agent who convinced me that the ideas underlying our business would make a great read. And when we shopped a proposal around, there was a lot of interest. Actually several publishers bid on the book, and ultimately I went with the (then brand new) Hachette Books imprint.
And so then I had to write the book — which was when I needed my own performance breakthrough, because I had no idea how to be an author! While “the buck stopped with me,” I assembled an awesome team to work with and then we created and discovered how to work together. I asked for help constantly. I devoured Anne LaMott’s book on writing, “Bird by Bird.” I went to a business book writers “boot camp.” I had terrific ghost writers on the writing team. My agent was very involved. I stayed in constant touch with the Performance of a Lifetime team, who provided wonderful stories and lessons from the awesome work they do with our clients. I read sections aloud to people close to the work and totally new to it. While I didn’t know how to be an author, I do have experience building teams (ensembles). Together, making use of the diversity of input, talent, experience, wisdom and perseverance, and the occasional late night single malt scotch, the book was created.
As for getting the word out, it’s a similar story — we’ve hired a very cool digital marketing agency that has dragged me flailing and moaning into the world of social media, and an aggressive PR firm that’s keeping me extremely busy continuing to write articles and other content to be placed in the publications that attract the eyeballs of my potential readers.
Nick: Finally, tell us about Cathy — what makes you tick? Where did you come from? How did you find your niche as a coach?
Cathy: I quit middle school because I hated it. I was miserable. And so at the age of 12, with the support of my mom and dad, about 25 other kids and me started our own high school. This was the early 1970s, another century, and I was very impacted on by the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and a smaller but vibrant offshoot, the “free school” movement. It was an intensely creative, frustrating, fascinating, and risky endeavor. I never went back to traditional school after this experience…but non-traditional education, creativity, learning, challenging the status quo and building community became a passion for me.
Later I got involved in music and theater — I became a singer and songwriter and had a brief and mildly successful career performing in NYC clubs and music festivals around the country — and became a community activist — among other things I was part of other alternative school and education efforts.
So performing, alternative education, and activism were always important to me, but I spent years looking for a way to bring together these different strands in my life that I was juggling as best I could. Finally I met a group of people — non-traditional psychologists, philosophers, psychotherapists — who were doing some groundbreaking work in the human development sciences, and exploring how play, theater, creativity and performance could be part of helping people change their lives and change the world. The field — now called Performative Psychology — was very new; it posited that just as play and imagination and performing are key for childhood development, they’re also key for ongoing adult learning and development.
Around this time I got involved with a wonderful non-profit organization called the All Stars Project. They were creating talent shows with kids in inner-city communities as a way to help young people express themselves, build self esteem, and have things to do, and this, among an array of other performance-based development programs, continues to this day.
I was seeing first hand the power of the relationship between performance and growth… how performance gets people to do things they are not good at, and grow, and have that freedom to experiment.
It’s a funny thing that helping people to perform who they’re not, turns out to be incredibly useful in helping people to be more of who they are. Helps them to do things that they didn’t think were possible. And this is as much true for business people as it is for inner city kids. We all have our personas, our characters, our costumes that shout “this is who I really am.” Hmm. Maybe not. Maybe it’s who we are in the play that we’re in right now. But we can rewrite the play and perform our way into a new future. For ourselves, our families, and even our world.
Nick: Thanks, Cathy, for your time and insights!