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West Hartford startup matches theatrical improv with workplace training

BY Norm Bell

5/28/2018
Photos | Contributed
Photos | Contributed
Ellen Feldman Ornato (left) and Jenny Drescher are the founders of The Bolder Company, offering an unusual combination of corporate training and improvisational theater techniques.
"Yes and" is the fundamental principle of improvisational theater. It requires performers to accept and build onto another's statement without challenge.

Now a West Hartford firm is showing improv skills can be an asset in the business world.

Ellen Feldman Ornato and Jenny Drescher are the principals behind The Bolder Company. They share similar backgrounds as workplace trainers, executive coaches and improvisational theater performers. They launched ConnectAnd Improv in Middletown in 2014 before moving to West Hartford and rebranding this year as The Bolder Company.

The firm's website lays out the premise clearly: "The Bolder Company is the catalyst for the lasting behavioral change that empowers businesses to thrive. We connect individuals to themselves, to each other, and to the futures of their organizations. We combine fully experiential, improvisation-based learning with grounded, outcomes-focused content to produce lasting behavioral change."

It's a model that has built a following among startups, young leaders and clients at reSET's business incubator in Hartford.

Today Ornato and Drescher are in demand as speakers at training conferences and in the workplace and are writing a chapter on "Applied Improv" for the textbook Change Handbook.

They shun conventional lecture techniques in favor of getting everyone on their feet and engaged. "People learn better through experience," Drescher said.

Participants are encouraged to engage with the understanding there is nothing at stake in the sessions. Taking a page from the improv stage, participants take turns using a "Yes and" model to build on a colleague's statement while steering the conversation toward a common goal.

Ojala Naeem, managing director at reSET, said The Bolder Company's approach has been "an incredible fit" for coaching startups in reSET's business accelerator program. The improv training helps executives develop pitching and presentation skills while learning to "roll with it" when answering questions that sometimes seem to come from left field.

"It has been fascinating to see these people have fun and loosen up," she said. While acknowledging not everyone embraces improv immediately, there is a "massive difference" in the group's presentation skills over time, she said.

Shem Lachhman, CEO of Norwalk biotech startup Pelletric, leveraged training from The Bolder Company into a strong showing at reSET's recent Venture Showcase competition.

"Their methods are to remove you out of your shell when presenting and be comfortable when you improv during presentations," he said. "During my reSET pitch, the projector shut off and I did not have any slides. So I had to improv the rest of the presentation and drive my points across without visual aid. Their classes are to teach you to be comfortable in these types of situations."

One of The Bolder Company's largest clients is AARP. Cynthia Langley, who leads the membership organization's Community Leadership Academy, turned to Ornato and Drescher for help training leaders of AARP's volunteer programs.

"They focus on helping people be more comfortable telling their own story and AARP's story," Langley explained.

The AARP training program includes six sessions — three online and three in-person meetings in Texas — plus additional one-on-one coaching.

That's the kind of extended timeline that works best, Drescher and Ornato agreed. It takes a little time to internalize the learning and see it reflected in a new confidence in communicating information.

While they do some single-session training, the women prefer a minimum of four sessions to show results.

'Emotional intelligence'

In the corporate realm, The Bolder Company's founders point to success working in "emotional intelligence." It's a broad topic that includes reading the cues that others are giving and adjusting your approach accordingly.

The program focuses on finding common ground and taking other's perspectives and experiences into account.

It dovetails with another of The Bolder Company's specialties — diversity and inclusion. The improv style allows participants to develop comfort with different personality and cultural styles. The conversational interplay of "Yes and" allows participants to improve situational awareness, including when to step up — or step back — in a situation to influence positive outcomes.

Dresher and Ornato say engineers and architects have responded well to improv techniques in moving beyond their tendencies to demand rigid attention to detail.

The firm, whose other clients include University of Hartford, Middlesex Hospital and St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center, also offers a variety of facilitation and training programs, from administering Myers-Briggs personality tests to coaching on overcoming unconscious bias and organizational dynamics.