Jeff Raz: “To create a fantastic work culture find moments, however small, for human connection — in person, on the phone, or in an email”

…Finding moments, however small, for human connection — in person, on the phone, in an email. I call these “micro-connections,” the opposite of micro-aggressions. As a “healthcare clown,” working in a big San Francisco hospital, I would pass many people in the hallways — patients, family members, EMTs, doctors, nurses. My job was to instantly get a sense of […]

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…Finding moments, however small, for human connection — in person, on the phone, in an email. I call these “micro-connections,” the opposite of micro-aggressions. As a “healthcare clown,” working in a big San Francisco hospital, I would pass many people in the hallways — patients, family members, EMTs, doctors, nurses. My job was to instantly get a sense of what they needed from me in our few seconds of connection — “hello,” a quick hat twizzle, a smile, a mini-performance in the hallway. Usually I had to get all my information from how they were walking and the look on their face. Then I would make an offer without expecting anything in return. Not easy to give without expecting something back. Try walking down the street and saying “hello” to someone without expecting them to reply with “hello.” You might realize that most of what passes for human connection is really an emotional transaction — I’ll trade my “hello” for your “hello.”

As a part of my series about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Raz, Cirque du Soleil star, actor, playwright, educator, author, arts leader, speaker/trainer and global communications consultant. Jeff has performed nationally and internationally for decades, starring in circuses (Cirque du Soleil, Pickle Family Circus and more) and plays, including Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” on Broadway. Raz’s first book, “The Secret Life of Clowns: A backstage tour of Cirque du Soleil and the Clown Conservatory,” was launched at the Smithsonian in 2017. His second book, “The Snow Clown: Cartwheels on Borders from Alaska to Nebraska” was published in September 2018. A graduate of Dell’Arte International, Raz has written 15 plays and directed dozens of circus, puppet and theater productions. He founded Vaudeville Nouveau in 1982, the S.F. New Vaudeville Festival in 1985, The New Pickle Family Circus in 1993, The Clown Conservatory in 2000, and The Medical Clown Project in 2010 and led these organizations through key periods of development and growth. In recent years, Jeff has taken his extensive performing and arts management experience to the corporate world, to help leaders and their teams strengthen their communications practices and build more enriching, positive corporate cultures. He has worked with many Fortune 500 companies as well as executive education and MBA programs at Stanford, Haas, IMD and INSEAD. Drawing from his real-life experiences in the arts world, as depicted in his two acclaimed books, Jeff offers unique experiential keynotes, workshops and training programs customized for a wide array of business, arts, and community groups. Jeff continues to write, perform, direct, teach, as well as work globally as a communications consultant.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Jeff! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In 2009 I was sitting in a hotel room in Tokyo, checking my email after performing two shows with Cirque du Soleil. I opened a note from a particularly witty faculty member of The Clown Conservatory, the school I ran (and founded) back in San Francisco, and read a hilariously caustic report on one particular student’s performance. Then I noticed that he had accidentally sent it to the entire student body.

The email I sent back to the whole school community, which turned this gaffe into something positive, eventually found its way to the inbox of an old friend who was building a communications consulting company. He brought me on, and I started adapting the same concepts and exercises I had been using to train and mentor professional clowns in my work with executives in Fortune 500 companies. Over the years, working closely with many top executives and their leadership teams, I continue to be inspired by the fascinating interplay between these two worlds. I am grateful that I can help shift the culture in corporate villages through lessons learned on stage and in the circus ring.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

A few years ago, I was leading a program with a global tech company for fifty of their directors and VPs. One man sitting in the front row was particularly attentive, one of those people who gives lots of good energy, even without saying anything. At the first break, he came up to ask me a question and we talked for fifteen minutes. Then, from the moment I started the next module until lunch, this man was constantly checking his phone. I thought, “We had a nice connection and now look at him. How disrespectful.” When we broke for lunch, he came right up to me and said, “I’m so sorry; I got a text that my son was in an accident but I didn’t want to be disrespectful and just leave.”

This is a painful reminder for me that my story about a situation is NOT the same as the facts of that situation. It was heartbreaking enough; if I had said anything about him being disrespectful, it would have been too horrible. Hell, he was being TOO respectful — he should have run out of the room the moment the first text came through. The fact that he was from a country I’ve never visited and therefore haven’t experienced the cultural norms makes it even more important to hear his story before acting on my own.

I often tell this story to corporate clients, and exploring these kinds of misunderstandings is one of the main themes of my book The Snow Clown.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I am immersed in writing my next book, a novel about a vibrant community of Bay Area artists dealing with a series of deaths. I’ve been reading a lot of Carl Hiaasen as inspiration, visiting his outrageously strange, funny version of Florida that always makes me think big thoughts. I am continuing with book tours for my most recent book, The Snow Clown: Cartwheels on Borders from Alaska to Nebraska, and I’m very excited to see how the subject matter in this book serves as a catalyst for conversations about tough subjects related to cultural differences in the workplace, in our communities, in our lives. I am intrigued by the opportunity to open up dialogue about the nuances of cross-cultural communication, connection and understanding through an artistic lens. It is a joy to help people reflect on their own unconscious bias and limited beliefs and gain fresh perspectives on what’s new or different to them.

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

The Forbes study has a pretty extensive list of reasons why people are unhappy at work — lack of trust, leaders without leadership skills, not enough appreciation, overwork, etc. My guess is that many of the 47% who said they were happy at work could easily envision something better. Some workplaces are pure hell but even in organizations where there is at least some trust and decent leadership, people often don’t feel human. Even the language dehumanizes — workforce, headcount, resources. No, they are human beings, full human beings who dance, sing, pray, cook, love, cry, etc., outside of work. A steady stream of badly run meetings, mind-numbing PowerPoint Presentations, corporate babble and sub-optimal communications practices contribute to an unsatisfying workplace culture. That will make most people unhappy, even if they want to love their job.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

The answers to these questions require us to think long-term, past the next quarterly report. Unfortunately, many folks who are making these decisions don’t or can’t do that. People who feel human at work, who feel connected to other humans with bonds of empathy, shared purpose and even love, working together on exciting, challenging projects, are healthier and more productive in the long run; in the short run, you can just bleed whoever you’ve got until they get sick or go somewhere else.

Public schools in the U.S. were originally created to train people raised on farms to transition to work in factories. Before they became public, schools were attached to factories and designed to get students accustomed to a factory-like building and schedule. We’re in a different world of work but with many of the same schools and many of the same corporate cultures.

Without any doubt, an unhappy workforce has a seriously negative impact on company productivity and profitability, and naturally, on the employee’s health, well-being and overall quality of life.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

Building trust, real trust, is crucial. Two other stats in the Forbes article speak to this issue — the majority of people would trust a stranger more than their own boss and that majority of bosses don’t get any management training (and from my experience, only a small percentage of the training they do get has anything to do with building real trust).

Brad Post, an old friend from Circus Center, wrote this in a recent blog post for Shield AI, “Trust is the glue that holds together a team and makes teamwork possible…An organization can either build up these foundations of trust, or tear them down.”

Here are five ideas for building a foundation of trust that I’ve gleaned from my time on stage and in boardrooms. These skills will make or break a performing career; they can do the same for an organization (although none of these will help much if the organizational culture is based on dishonesty, abuse, bullying or discrimination):

1. Sharing personal stories in both formal and informal settings (clearly you agree since many of your questions specifically request a story). As a playwright, I know that there is a craft to creating powerful stories; not all business leaders will be playwrights but they can all learn the basics of strong narrative structure. An executive I worked with, who is leading a wellness initiative, is now recovering from breast cancer. She has crafted a series of stories about her illness that give her “powerful vulnerability” — the right amount of vulnerability to gain trust, presented powerfully.

2. Being humble and curious when you are clumsy or offensive. This is especially true when dealing with touchy issues of culture, gender, race, etc. In The Snow Clown, I describe a technique I developed while creating and rehearsing a play about a cross burning on campus with the University of Nebraska’s Artist Diversity Residency program:

“If someone says something offensive, instead of arguing or interrupting, anyone can make a tick mark in the air with one finger, an ‘offensive tick.’ My promise is that we will get back to those moments before the rehearsal is over.

On Friday, I mention that I am planning to excuse the cast early, ‘since you are all students and I’m sure you’ve got parties to go to tonight.’ A dozen fingers make a dozen tick marks.

‘So every student parties on Friday nights?’

‘Maybe we want to spend our Friday night rehearsing. Did you think of that?’

‘You have a lot of personal bias about us, don’t you?’

From then on, the offensive tick was our safety valve, letting us get very real, very raw, without splintering into hostile camps.”

3. Trying to laugh together. If you ask a group of friends who have been laughing together, they might be hard pressed to tell you what was so funny. They feel connected and trust each other; that’s enough to create laughter. Most of the laughter I’ve created on stage or in the circus ring comes from moments of connection rather than funny jokes — a baby cries, I stop what I’m doing, look at them and make comforting noises; a juggling ball falls into the audience and I play catch with the person who retrieves it, etc. Laughter is often the result of connection (see #4 below).

4. Finding moments, however small, for human connection — in person, on the phone, in an email. I call these “micro-connections,” the opposite of micro-aggressions. As a “healthcare clown,” working in a big San Francisco hospital, I would pass many people in the hallways — patients, family members, EMTs, doctors, nurses. My job was to instantly get a sense of what they needed from me in our few seconds of connection — “hello,” a quick hat twizzle, a smile, a mini-performance in the hallway. Usually I had to get all my information from how they were walking and the look on their face. Then I would make an offer without expecting anything in return. Not easy to give without expecting something back. Try walking down the street and saying “hello” to someone without expecting them to reply with “hello.” You might realize that most of what passes for human connection is really an emotional transaction — I’ll trade my “hello” for your “hello.”

5. Being fully present, as opposed to multi-tasking or thinking ahead to your next smart idea or urgent task. “Be Here Now” is a deceptively simple idea that Ram Dass introduced to mainstream America in the early ’70s. You have to be aware enough to see what is going on right here and now, then you need to have the humility to say, “This is better than what I had planned” and then the skill to make magic in the moment. Improvisation skills are very helpful for building this muscle.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

There are lots of things that need to be done to change the work culture in the US and my guess is that there will be challenges, big challenges, in the next few years that will make positive change even harder. Many smart folks, from Robert Reich to Rebecca Solnit to Alexandria Ocasio- Cortez to everyone you’ve interviewed, are trying to help steer us in some good directions.

I want to make a modest suggestion, inspired by Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, a book about transcendent events that involve groups of people making music and synchronized moment together.

Every morning, every workplace in America should start the day with a game of Sticks. I played Sticks with my colleagues before every one of the 500 performances I did with Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo, right after we sang a song together.It made me happy; it also made me a better person, a better clown and a much better colleague. It was the way the cast tuned up together, the way we found the rhythm of the day, the way we brought new people into our working world.

Sticks begins with a group of any size (Corteo had a cast of sixty-five people from 20 different countries) standing in a circle and about half as many sticks as you have people (four-foot pieces of dowling work well). To start, everyone breathes together and touches the ground with one hand, to get centered. After that, the rules are simple: 1) throw your stick to anyone at any time and 2) catch the stick. There is no talking.

Every time a stick falls, the action stops, someone picks up the stick and everyone breathes and touches the ground. It hurts to get hit with a stick coming out of your blind spot so you try not to have any blind spots. On bad days, Sticks is pain and mumbled curses and the rattle of wood on the floor; on good days, which are more and more common as time goes on, it feels like a dream sequence in your favorite musical or the Golden State Warriors on an 18–0 run. It feels like every working team wants to feel and it only takes a few minutes, a circle of people and some sticks.

Sticks needs to be voluntary and inclusive, which means that some groups will just sing the song or do a line dance or breathe together. Sticks is not the answer to the issues in Ehrenreich’s other book, Nickled and Dimed, but it is a way for working groups to tap into the age old, world-wide power of moving together in rhythm.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

Based on Daniel Goleman’s leadership styles, I tend to use “affiliative” and “coaching” styles. In my work as a consultant, speaker and trainer, I’ve consciously built my “authoritative” or, as Goleman now calls it “visionary,” muscle. Goleman’s research showed that the best leaders are skilled in several styles of leadership and they “have the flexibility to switch between styles as the circumstances dictate.” Peter Meyers, the founder of Stand & Deliver, coached me on the idea that, since I am strong in one style, affiliative, I can lean on a very different style, authoritative, because I already have the skills to regain trust and empathy by going back to my strong suit.

I am the president of a non-profit board that has stalled out with a big initiative. On a recent conference call, I knew I would need to push an agenda, to be authoritative, so I started with something very affiliative, a quick round of personal check-ins (“What’s one thing that’s happening in your life right now?”) One member had eloped since we lasted talked, one was hiding from his kids in his closet — lots of interesting stuff that could have taken the whole meeting. But I shifted into authoritative mode, we moved on quickly and got done 30 minutes early. At then end, I switched back to affiliative, framing the ending around their personal check-ins (“You’ve got an extra half hour with your hubby.” “You can get out of the closet now!”) A coaching style showed up in the follow-up emails I sent to each board member.

In my work with executives and their teams, I often need to pivot to an authoritative style when I’m introducing a concept or activity that feels strange or uncomfortable to them. A number of years ago, I was working with the leadership team of a large German company on leadership presence. To start the second day of the session, I brought in a half dozen Commedia dell’Arte masks, grotesque faces of archetypical characters from a 16th century Italian theater form, to get them to physically inhabit different leadership archetypes. As you might imagine, I needed a good dose of authoritative to get them into the activity and, once they started enjoying the characters, switched back to a very supportive version of my affiliative style to make the connection back to modern day corporate leadership.

Since then, I’ve used these Commedia dell’Arte masks (I have amassed quite an interesting collection over the years) from time to time in specialized workshops that have lead to some great a-ha moments for the teams involved.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I was a young juggler and clown trying to add “actor” to my resume, I would spend three hours a day, three days a week with theater director Jael Weisman. The first ninety minutes we’d work on my audition pieces and the second ninety minutes I’d teach him how to pass juggling clubs. A few years later Jael tricked me into writing my first solo play. 
I’d just gotten home from a five-month trip to Europe and spent most of an evening telling Jael stories, particularly about visiting the Dachau museum and trying to find out if my father had taken any of the photographs on display. At the end, Jael said, “You should do a solo play with this material.” I carefully explained to him that I wasn’t a writer and I didn’t do solo plays; I think I added something about being ethically opposed to solo work. He smiled and said, “Fine. Say, I really like your stories. Would you write them up for me, just to have?” Of course, by the time I’d typed up the third story (on a typewriter), I was hooked. 
Since then, I’ve done ten plays with Jael and that first play, Father-Land, took me into a whole new world of writing, acting and teaching. The work I did for seven years with the Artist’s Diversity Residency Program at the University of Nebraska was based on Father-Land and scenes from the play are central to the Nebraska section of my book The Snow Clown.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Most of the work I do is aimed at developing, maintaining and strengthening connection between people. My work in healthcare clowning might bring the most obvious good into the world; professional clowns specifically trained to lower stress and bring deeply human connection to patients, families and medical professionals on pediatric wards, adult units and memory care centers. The Medical Clown Project, an organization I co-founded with my wife, Dr. Sherry Sherman, has pioneered medical clowning with people suffering from dementia.

Less obvious, but equally important to me, is creating deep connections with audiences from circus rings and theater stages, with students of all ages in classrooms, with readers of my books and with executives and their teams in corporate boardrooms.

I feel very lucky that the work I started when I was a teenager has become deeper as I’ve translated it into many other arenas. The more I work in the business world, the more similarities I see with the circus world I started in. Organizations around the globe have found great value in everything I learned as a clown — deep connections with people; authentic, embodied communication; and keen awareness of cultural differences.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“There is that of God in every person.” My parents were secular Jews, civil rights and anti-war activists in the fifties and sixties. They found common ground with Quakers so I spent a lot of time as a child at Quaker meetings and this saying was repeated enough that it lodged in my brain. As an adult, it reminds me to ask myself, “What is precious about this person? What is lovable? Where might they be right (and I might be wrong)?” That’s easy to do with people I understand and like; much harder when someone grates on me or is offensive or downright nasty.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The Movement to be in the Dynamic Moment. This would be a movement to help people be completely aware of the “now,” a movement of radical presence. It would be the opposite of multi-tasking, of being too busy. It is hard work staying in the moment, and often uncomfortable. It is also the most essential skill for clowns and a skill that Sticks teaches. Your body must be involved, along with your mind and your heart. You can’t be in the moment without being connected to the people and the things around you. For a clown, this means the audience, fellow performers, the lights and props, the music and the sound of a baby crying or a grandpa snoring. For everyone else, it is the people you work with, the places you work and the work you do.

As hard as it is, just being in the moment isn’t enough to make a Dynamic Moment. You need to have the inner resources and skills to make the most of the opportunities that each moment offers. The hardest and often most important moments are when something goes wrong — the tech fails, you forget your next line, you accidentally offend someone. These are the times for Golden Mistakes, opportunities to make deeper connections because things are askew.

One day, a colleague on Corteo, a huge opera singer from Argentina,got injured right before the show. After intermission, I found myself in the audience doing a scene that was supposed to end with the opera singer and me waltzing down the aisle. He wasn’t there, of course, so I turned to a woman in the audience and held out my hand. She was in her mid-sixties so I thought she might know how to waltz. She did, better than me, gracefully spinning out and back into my arms. I spun her out again and this time she gave a curtsey and held her hand for me to kiss. I kissed it and she sat down exactly as the band hit the last note of the waltz. Everyone cheered, the woman beamed and waved like a queen. A Dynamic Moment, a Golden Mistake.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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