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IAM1847 – Founder Improves Leadership Skills in a Fun Way

Podcast Interview with Mary Lemmer

Why it was selected for “CBNation Architects”:

This episode of I AM CEO Podcast features Mary Lemmer, the founder of Improve. Mary's company is dedicated to improving leadership and personal lives using improv comedy techniques, all backed by research. As per Mary's own words, they provide “M&Ms laced with vitamins” – beneficial lessons in a fun format.

Mary hails from Michigan and her family originated from Italy. Mary started her entrepreneurial journey at a very young age by selling Italian water ice at events, parties, and festivals – a summer business that's still growing after 20 years. Mary's business experiences in her early life led her to business school, venture capitals, and later, improv comedy classes which have enriched her life and her business perspective.

The services offered by Mary's company, Improve, involve enhancing leadership, innovation, problem-solving skills, growth, and team culture. The secret sauce is creating a psychological space that allows individuals to play around and try new skills through Improv techniques.

The CEO hacks that Mary shares in this episode include practicing a “screen-less” Sunday, where no emails or social media are checked, and time is spent on offline activities. The CEO nugget she shares is to take everything as a gift and release pressures in life, always moving forward.

Finally, she defines a CEO as someone who is empowering, empathetic, and visionary, with courage and compassion.

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Mary Lemmer Teaser 00:00

I practice a screen less Sunday. So on Sunday, I don't check my email. I don't check my tag. I don't go on social media and I do offline things. One of the biggest challenges of being a leader in today's society is there are way more distractions, right? Just with this alone, our phone.

Intro 00:22

Do you want to learn effective ways to build relationships, generate sales, and grow your business from successful entrepreneurs, startups, and CEOs without listening to a long, long, long interview?

If so, you've come to the right place. Gresham Harkless values your time and is ready to share with you precisely the information you're in search of.

This is the I AM CEO podcast.

Gresham Harkless 00:51

Hello. Hello. Hello. This is Gresh from the I AM CEO podcast and I appreciate you listening to this episode. If you've been listening this year, you know that we hit 1600 episodes at the beginning of this year. We're doing something a little bit different where we're repurposing our favorite episodes around certain categories, topics, or as I like to call them, business pillars that we think are going to be extremely impactful for CEOs, entrepreneurs, and business owners, or what I like to call the CB nation architects who are looking to level up their organizations.

This month, we are focused on leadership, management, and coaching. When we think of leadership, management, and coaching, we often think of doing all of the things, but often it's the person that's able to build up their team, that's able to cultivate a creative and innovative culture so that people can excel and actually be their own leaders. So that's why this month we're focusing on those three big topics because they make a huge impact on the organizations that we're a part of.

Now you'll hear some of those topics this month. And of course, some really great perspectives on how people are even defining leadership, which I think is extremely exciting. So sit back and enjoy this special episode of the I AM CEO podcast.

Hello. Hello. Hello. This is Gresh from the I AM CEO podcast. I have a very special guest on the show today. I have Mary Lemmer of Improv. Mary, it's great to have you on the show.

Mary Lemmer 02:10

Great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Gresham Harkless 02:13

Yes. Excited to have you on and talk about all the awesome things that you're doing. Before we do that, I want to read a little bit more about Mary so we can hear about some of those awesome things.

Mary is an entrepreneur, improv comedian, writer, philanthropist, startup advisor, recovering venture capitalist, food pun illustrator amongst the many other things. She's the founder of Improv a company that improves leadership and lives with improv comedy techniques backed by research. As Mary likes to say, we give people M&M's laced with vitamins. They taste good and they're good for you.

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In her TED talk how improv can improve your leadership in life, she shares more about the importance of impact of improv. Mary has worked with tens of thousands of leaders and companies to improve innovation, problem-solving, growth, and team culture. She started her first Company at the age of 14, did early-stage investing, was a director at a Silicon Valley Unicorn, wrote a book, and has performed on the same stages as Comedy Legends.

She graduated from the University of Michigan and studied improv and comedy writing at the Second City Upright Citizens Brigade, the Groundlings, among many other improv theaters.

Mary, super excited to have you on the show. Was excited since we last spoke, you know before. Are you ready to speak to the I AM CEO community?

Mary Lemmer 03:26

I am excited to be here and thank you for that warm welcome and introduction.

Gresham Harkless 03:31

Yes, absolutely. I appreciate you doing all the hard work and it makes it easier for me to just read and rattle off all the accolades and accomplishments that you have.

So before we jumped into that, I wanted to rewind the clock, hear a little bit more on how you got started what I call your CEO story.

Mary Lemmer 03:45

I grew up in Michigan and my family originated from Italy. So I grew up visiting my Italian family on the East Coast and I would enjoy all sorts of Italian things there. Culture and foods and Italian water ice and gelato, which were very popular out in the Philadelphia area, but I couldn't get them in Michigan. So we'd come back when I was a kid, we'd come back to Michigan. I asked my dad. Dad, can we get some Italian water ice? And he was like you can't get it here and if you want it here, you're going to have to bring it to Michigan.

You're not knowing any better. I'm like, okay, what do I need to do? Start a business. Okay, what do I need to do? And he said, write a business plan. And so there I was, an early teenager wrote up a little plan and my dad was very supportive. Both my parents were really supportive of starting this business and start a little like food cart that was frozen, so it can hold the Italian water ice. I would do private parties and local music festivals and art fairs. Little did I know that this summer job, or the summer business that I started would still be a growing business now over 20 years later.

It just kept growing and people liked it and it took a while because people weren't familiar, what's water ice? Is it water? Is it ice? What is this supposed to be? And then when we introduced gelato, that was a whole other kind of education, right? It's ice cream, but Italian ice cream. So it was a lot of learning at a young age, but the initial inspiration was really bringing part of my family's heritage and culture and sharing that with the community that didn't have access to it or hadn't been exposed to it.

Gresham Harkless 05:43

Yeah, I love that because I think so many times we forget about the things that we do as being, the word that was coming to my mind is being gifts. And I love, it's kind of like, you can't necessarily bring everybody inside of your world and your journey, your culture, and all those aspects, but there are certain things that kind of symbolize that, that you're able to make an impact on so many other people's our gifts or ability.

It manifests itself in so many different ways. So that's just what it reminds me of when you've been able to do that at a very, very young age.

Mary Lemmer 06:10

Yeah. Very well said. Yeah. When we have no idea where it will take us right and how it will touch the lives of other people sometimes until years or decades later.

Gresham Harkless 06:21

Absolutely. So, you started to work on obviously that business and you branched off into other different, many other different things as you journeyed on through your life?

Mary Lemmer 06:30

Yeah, that experience really got me interested in business and entrepreneurship. And so I decided to visit business school to go to college. At the time, that's what I thought as entrepreneurs, you gotta go to business school. I gotta learn business. Do a whole separate podcast about that. But, while at business school, I basically tried to learn as much as I could to build my entrepreneurial tool kit, right? To learn how to start and build businesses, because that's what I really wanted to do, and businesses that can make a positive impact on their communities and the world.

One thing led to another, I ended up working with an early-stage venture capital firm. We had a college and invested in early-stage technology companies. So I really learned what it took to be that kind of entrepreneur. Think about this, I was always so much in my head and with Improv, everything you say is a gift. That's one of the dominant principles. So I didn't have to worry about saying the right or wrong thing because we were going to see how everything unfolds. It was a very magical moment for me.

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I kept taking Improv classes and I kept living this life as an entrepreneur and investor and I live these parallel lives. I started to see that practicing Improv was helping me as an entrepreneur as a leader, and I could see all these other entrepreneurs that we're trying to raise money for business that could also benefit from this. That's when I had this light bulb moment of oh, I need to bring these things together. That's what inspired my current venture and where that kind of path of doing these different things. They all started to make sense and lead me down this unique kind of business opportunities.

Gresham Harkless 08:23

Nice. I absolutely love that. So, you touched a little bit upon, how you work with clients. I wanted to make sure and see if there was anything you wanted to discuss more than we hadn't really talked about, but also hear a little bit more about what you might call your secret sauce, the thing you feel sets you or the organization apart and makes it unique.

Mary Lemmer 08:39

Rewiring and changing how our brains are like, thinking about things, right? We have neuroplasticity and new experiences can help us change the way we see something, and that's so deliberate in what we're doing. I think that's really special about what we're doing because when we look at leadership, right? There's a lot of ways that leaders and teams can improve and there's a lot of books out there and YouTube videos and resources. With improv people are actually physically doing the thing, right? They're practicing communicating clear. They're practicing listening better to their colleagues. They're practicing being adaptable and thinking quickly.

So all of the stuff is not just theoretical. It's lived and it's learned, and that's one way to make change really sustainable and help people actually change their habits behaviors because we've all been there, right? We're like, oh, I want to be more this, I want to be myself, I want to be more confident, and I was like, but every time I get into a situation where I could be confident, I just revert back to that insecurity until I got to practice confidence and improv gives us this psychologically safe space to just play around and try these new skills.

When we do so deliberately, then there's a lot of potential that can come from that. So I think that's the biggest thing that I would like to share with people and and hope that people start to see the improv is fun and games and it's those vitamins. It's that's what sets what we're doing apart from just taking a typical improv class, we're doing it with the goal of improving something.

Gresham Harkless 10:22

Yeah, I absolutely love that. I wanted to switch gears a little bit and ask you for what I call a CEO hack. So this could be like an app, a book or a habit that you have, but what's something that makes you more effective and efficient?

Mary Lemmer 10:34

Oh, I like this question and I will say that one thing that's made me so much more effective as a leader and a person in society is, I practice a screen less Sunday. So on Sunday, I don't check my email. I don't check my tag. I don't go on social media. I do offline things. Yesterday I painted. I go for a walk and I cook and read a book, write in a paper and journal. I share it as a hack because I think one of the biggest challenges of being a leader in today's society, very different than when I first started a business when I was a teenager, is there are way more distractions, right? Just with this alone on our phone.

That's the hack I would share and recommend to any leader CEO. Whether it's a full day or a couple of hours, but having something that helps you helps rid those distractions and refocus on just being able to do the things that are like what you want to be focused on.

Gresham Harkless 11:53

Definitely love and that is the definition of what I like to call a CEO hack. Now I want to ask you for what I call a CEO nugget. This is a little bit more word of wisdom or a piece of advice. I like to say it might be something you would tell your younger business self if you hopped into a time machine or maybe your favorite client.

Mary Lemmer 12:09

Take everything as a gift nugget of wisdom. This philosophy of taking everything as a gift for this nugget. I'll call it taking everything as a gift, really helps release that pressure to say, what happens and I'm going to play the scene I'm in right? I'm going to be present with what happens and I'm going to keep moving forward in the scene and take it as a gift, right?

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Take it as maybe you hire the person that doesn't work out for the role and then you notice that and you play that scene and you recognize, okay, I didn't hire the best person for this role. Now I have to make a decision based on that. Do we let this person go? Do we retrain? Do we do training? Do we have a conversation? What happens because of that?

But these two nuggets of taking everything as a gift and playing the senior, I think provide a lot of freedom and reduce that pressure, which then allows leaders and entrepreneurs be more creative and make decisions and not have that anxiety around decision.

Gresham Harkless 13:11

Yeah, absolutely. I love both of those nuggets. I would love to ask you my absolute favorite question, which is definition what it means to be a CEO and have your quote and quote CEOs on the show.

So Mary, what does being a CEO mean to you?

Mary Lemmer 13:23

Empowering and empathetic and visionary. I think ultimately the CEO is not necessarily the most glamorous job. I think you said it earlier around, not everything's rainbows and skittles and sprinkles, right? It's like a sunny day, sunshine.

Gresham Harkless 13:44

Any of those things.

Mary Lemmer 13:44

Actually hard, and I think it takes a lot of courage to be a CEO. It takes a lot of Empowering others and sometimes yourself and it takes optimism, right? If we look at CEO, like an acronym, right? It's courage, empowerment, and optimism.

That optimism piece is around the vision and having a vision and having a belief that vision is possible and I think ultimately, that is what it boils down to for me is, acting with courage and compassion. Encouraging myself and others and being optimistic about the future and that this future vision of what and where we're headed is possible.

Gresham Harkless 14:29

I love that. I love that definition and that perspective because it really hits home with the things that it symbolizes, but also the things that we have that are right in front of us. I appreciate your journey that you took with us and of course, I appreciate your time and all the work that you do even more.

So what I want to do now is pass you the mic, so to speak, just to see if there's anything additional that you can let our readers and listeners know. And, of course, how best people can get ahold of you and find out about all the awesome things you and your team are working on.

Mary Lemmer 14:55

Awesome. Thank you. You can definitely check us out at our website, which is choose and then improve dot com and that's also us on Instagram and all of our contact info is on both of those places. You can see all sorts of things that we do and find ways to try improv for yourself if you'd like to.

Oftentimes people realize how often they're actually thinking about what they're going to say next. While someone else is still talking, so it really forces listening. And so when we practice this, we're practicing listening, right? Which is great for with teams and everything. It's sometimes has you sounding like Yoda, which is always fun. Thanks for doing that with me.

Gresham Harkless 15:41

I appreciate you for giving me that gift. That's awesome.

Mary Lemmer 15:44

Yeah, of course. So, if you want to do more, and at Choose Improve on social media.

Gresham Harkless 15:51

Absolutely. And to make it even easier, we're gonna have the links and information in the show notes. So you too can sound like Yoda, just like I was a minute ago. I appreciate you so much, Mary, for all the awesome things you're doing. Obviously, the gifts that you're giving and I hope you have a phenomenal rest of the day.

Mary Lemmer 16:05

Thank you. You too. Thanks so much for chatting with me today. Inviting me on the show.

Outro 16:09

Thank you for listening to the I AM CEO Podcast powered by CB Nation and Blue 16 Media. Tune in next time and visit us at I AM CEO is not just a phrase, it's a community.

Be sure to follow us on social media and subscribe to our podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Google podcast, and everywhere you listen to podcasts, subscribe and leave us a five-star rating.

This has been the I AM CEO Podcast with Gresham Harkless Jr. Thank you for listening.


Dave Bonachita - CBNation Writer

This is a post from a CBNation team member. CBNation is a Business to Business (B2B) Brand. We are focused on increasing the success rate. We create content and information focusing on increasing the visibility of and providing resources for CEOs, entrepreneurs and business owners. CBNation consists of blogs(, podcasts, ( and videos ( CBNation is proudly powered by Blue16 Media.

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