We talked to Jennifer Longden, lead HR in a Fintech company as well as a Drama graduate. She talked to us about how improv changed her direction in life as well as how it’s changed her perception of work.
I currently work as the lead HR in a Fintech company. These days I love my job but before I started working in HR, I did a drama degree.
After my degree, I wondered what to do with myself. I didn’t think I was good enough to be an actress as I didn’t have the confidence, so for a while I played at being a producer. I set up a company with my friends and got arts council funding.
However, in the background I was considering a job in HR. There was a recession and I needed a roof over my head. Before I knew it I was doing my CIPD.
I knew in my stomach I didn’t want to do it. I was working against myself and that’s the way it was for the best part of 10 years. Then I was made redundant.
I’ve got to live my best life and it’s got to happen now
I was really unhappy with who I was and what I was doing. I googled comedy and improv came up. I thought it looked like a bit of me, so a signed up to do a course. I’d always loved playing characters, so my teacher recommended that I train to be a longform improviser so I could really focus on playing characters onstage. I tried it and I was hooked.
The night before my first longform performance, a friend of mine passed away. He was someone like me who spent a lot of time focused on his career and not focused on what he really enjoyed. He died at 47.
I thought to myself, I can’t do the same thing. I’ve got to live my best life and it’s got to happen now.
The night of the performance, I was grieving a lot. My laughter during the warm-ups became tears. I shook myself up in the toilets before the show started and ended up having a killer performance. The emotions were so intense that I thought to myself: if improv can make you feel that good when you feel like crap, this is like magic.
I ended up saving up so I could train at one of the top improv schools in the world at iO in Chicago and continue my longform improv training.
Give them a gift
But it wasn’t just what improv brought to me onstage. I didn’t realise just how much it was changing the way I felt and thought on a day to day basis.
My improv training ended up being great for building and establishing relationships in a workplace where nobody had time for you. The place was often like a rotating door and yet I was holding people’s attention and people started to like me.
The seniors started coming in and talking to me about issues because they had started to trust me. The way I talked to them facilitated this. I would ask them questions like: “How are you and your people getting on? What can I do to make things better? What are you struggling with at the moment? I would directly build on what they were saying.
I was able to solutionise with them, not for them. They would walk out of the room feeling that I wasn’t a blocker. It’s looking for those solutions all the time and that’s the improv dialogue
Unfortunately (and incorrectly!) HR can be seen as a ‘no’ profession. This is often due to people coming from work backgrounds where the work culture is driven by risk aversion. The problem is that ‘No’ sometimes acts as a comfort blanket that stops you being future focused.
Rather than saying no, I would say the better response to people’s requests is ‘What are you trying to achieve? This is what makes you a yes person. It starts building the bridge and leads to you being able to facilitate something. That’s when people feel more comfortable working with you.
It’s a servant-leadership type model, the more you can help people, the better and the more they will listen back in return. To quote improv: “Give them a gift”. That concept of giving your partner something that will delight them, they will meet you halfway. I think it’s the same in business and improv.
A huge thank you to Jennifer Longden for her time!
For a further resource on the will to change check out: https://www.hooplabusiness.com/resources/2020/6/4/on-the-grief-we-are-feeling-now-and-the-will-to-change