Guest contributions:

04.22.13  Uncommon Leadership 

04.02.15  Switch and Shift  

05.13.15  Better Practice Team Performance

05.29.15  Better Practice Team Performance

07.08.15  Switch and Shift 

07.14.15  Better Practice Team Performance

10.05.15  Switch and Shift 

Stacey's Reading List...


"Tribe of Mentors" by Timothy Ferriss

"Shortcut" by John Pollack 

"Seeing What Others Don't" by Gary Klein

"Several Short Sentences About Writing" by Verlyn Klinkenborg

"The Birkman Method - Your Personality at Work" by Sharon Birkman Fink and Stephanie Capparell

"Creative Intelligence" by Bruce Nussbaum 

"Improv Wisdom" by Patricia Ryan Madson

"Training To Imagine" by Kat Koppett

"Quiet" by Susan Cain

"Where Good Ideas Come From" by Steven Johnson

"A Whole New Mind" by Daniel H. Pink

"Emotional Intelligence" by Daniel Goleman 

"Rework" by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson  

"The Leadership Pipeline" by Ram Charan, Stephen Drotter, James Noel  

"Life:  Selected Quotations" by Paulo Coelho 

"Deep Change" by Robert Quinn

"The Power of Full Engagement" by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz  

"The Way of the Shepherd" by Dr. Kevin Leman and William Pentak  

"Developing the Leader Within You" by John Maxwell  

"Mr. Peabody's Apples" by Madonna

"Orbiting the Giant Hairball" by Gordon MacKenzie




blog archive

Building The Right Culture 

Originally published as Guest Commentary in the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal (August 21, 2017)

I wonder how many people can say that they’ve ever had their dream job.  For me, it’s happened twice - the work that I do now and the last role that I had at Walmart Stores, Inc. before I retired.  From 2004 until 2008, I had the distinguished honor and absolute privilege of leading the Walton Institute, Walmart’s flagship culture program.  At the time I remember thinking it’s one thing to personally personify the culture of perhaps the world’s largest organization, but it’s a whole other thing to be the poster child for all things culture in Bentonville, AR, aka Walmart mecca.  Oh how I loved that role.  And as we used to say back in the day, I hope I made Sam Walton proud. 

But this is not about the glory days of Walmart, or musings from a nearly 20-year career, but rather about the very living and breathing organism of any organization:  the culture.

When people read my bio, I’m always asked the same two questions: 1) how does Applied Improvisation work in the business world (that’s a different topic for a different column), and 2) as Walmart’s culture queen – what really is company culture and how do you sustain it?    

I don’t know about the “culture queen” designation (however elegant that sounds), but I unequivocally do know a thing or two about building and sustaining organizational culture.  And sustaining culture is the easy part of the equation.  The short answer is that you focus on it.  The long answer is that you focus on it all the time.  Marketing guru Seth Godin refers to culture as “…a posture that lasts.  It’s fed by constant investment and care and corroded by shortcuts and inattention.” 

Building culture; that’s the tougher part of the equation because it feels like a paradox – contradicting pieces and parts merging to create an environment that ebbs and flows over the life of the organization.  It’s a beautiful thing to watch when it’s done well.  It’s a miserable existence when it’s done poorly.

After years of carrying the torch and fielding inquiries, this is my truest explanation of what culture is and how it’s done.  Great culture is steadfast to three or four core ideologies that are guided by a million tiny decisions every single day.  It’s highly orchestrated yet unbelievably fluid.  It’s hard and fast and rule-bound while remaining in a constant state of evolution.  It’s public and overarching and it’s private and nuanced.  It’s large and imposing but it’s also quiet and subtle.  It’s a mix of old school and new school, where tried and true meets fresh and fun - it’s your favorite Levi’s meets Fitbit.  The greatest of cultures will take your breath away…and give rise to your voice.

These types of cultures endure over time.  They always have.  The right kind of culture can make up for a great many things the organization may lack.  But if it’s not there, no matter what else there is, it’s not enough. 

Here’s a bit more texture to the overall culture conversation:  it’s not just what the culture is, it’s also the climate in which that culture operates.  Culture is how the organization gets work done; climate is what it feels like while you’re doing that work.  Both matter.

Compelling culture climates speak to your soul.  It aligns with who you are and what you believe in.  It is easy, uncomplicated, joyful, captivating.  It feels like your best definition of home – or home away from home.  These alluring climates bring out the best in you, which you in turn bring out the best in others.  You don’t work for the company; you matter to the company – and both of you feel that way.  You know all of this to be true in your heart and in your head.  It feels a little bit like love. 

How is all of this done you may ask, building and sustaining company culture and creating the right climate…?  The short answer is by focusing on it.  The long answer is by focusing on it all the time. 

If I’ve left anything out, it may be because the rest is hard to explain.  The right culture is personal.  A little bit like love.


Improve Thru Improv® | Client Testimonials 



“The Workmatters Institute is an intensive 16-week faith and leadership development course for a small cohort of young professionals. Improve Thru Improv is a crucial piece of our program. The experience does a fantastic job of building strong relationships across our cohort, and the principles of Improv relate directly to how these young leaders can better navigate the reality of their workplaces. We always leave this session with a creative spark, energized by the experience and the insightful conversations that follow. Whether it’s used primarily as team building, leadership development, or as a way to get fresh perspective on a complex problem, I’d highly recommend this platform.” 

Ben Kirksey | VP and General Manager | Workmatters


“For us, kicking off our executive leadership development program with an Improv workshop was a wonderful way to accomplish our two main goals: 1) Participants had fun and got to know each other in a different light. 2) They came away with an enhanced sense of self-awareness both as people and leaders. The relationships built and new insights into themselves laid a wonderful foundation from which to begin their journey through our leadership development program which has a heavy emphasis on emotional intelligence.”

Amy Ballard, MEd | HR Sr. Consultant, Org Dev | University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences


"Applied Improvisation took me by surprise. Hearing the word “improv” - I immediately think of a good time. That’s an understatement. Not only was it a GREAT time, I learned more about my personality as well as my colleagues and peers. It was challenging, but in the best way. It took something so simple and fun (yelling in someone’s face – yes that’s fun) and turned it into something valuable to live out everyday. It helped eliminate (okay… decrease) irrational fear. It taught me to relinquish control, speak confidently, say yes, and most importantly for me – be true to myself. Applied Improvisation sounds intimidating and fun at the same time, but it’s so much more than that. You have to experience it for yourself."

Claire (Meadors) Reed | Digital & Media Producer | Saatchi & Saatchi X


"The Next STEP leadership program is focused on creating fast, agile, and innovative decision makers that are equipped and confident to take risks and solve problems for our customers and stakeholders. So, you might wonder what does Improv have to do with that?

I met Stacey Mason in the summer of 2016 at a Birkman conference. She hosted a brief Improve Thru Improv® session that was fun and thought provoking. I learned something new about myself that day. Later that year we were developing curriculum for a front-line manager leadership program to be launched in 2017.  My exposure to Stacey and her Improv session flashed in my mind. The experiential learning was just what we needed to add to our program to stimulate a new way of thinking and behaving. 

With our goals in mind, Stacey delivered a half-day Improve Thru Improv® workshop. The Next STEP participants, who are members of the Energy Performance Contracting group at Schneider Electric, were challenged to make fast decisions and perform on the spot to enhance a scene and support their teammates. Taking this highly technical group of people out of their comfort zone and putting them on a stage was key in bringing out their creativity and exposing their self-limiting beliefs in a safe and fun environment. Using the concept of “Yes, and….” they were forced to quickly assess a situation, listen for understanding, decide how to add value, and then do something! It was amazing to see how smoothly the team aligned after several rounds of practice.  

The Improve Thru Improv® experience was fun and relevant to our mission to create fast, agile and innovative decision makers. The Improv concepts teach you to trust your instincts, be yourself, make decisions, support and align with a team, borrow the behaviors you need, and that it’s ok to make mistakes. The Next STEP participants are using their skills on the job to encourage new ideas and innovation by simply adding “Yes, and…” to their conversations."

Sidney Avlos | Manager of Strategic Initiatives | Schneider Electric


15 Skills to Build Regardless of the Future 

Originally published as Guest Commentary in the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal (May 15, 2017) Part 1 in a 2 part series. 

In 1997 a fascinating read hit the bookstore shelves titled “The Future Ain’t What It Use To Be” (Abrahamson, Meehan, Samuel).  It examined not only the cultural trends that were transforming the future of work, but how humans would identify with and contribute to the world at large. 

Here we are, 20 years later, still trying to predict and plan for the unknown.  We continue to grapple with preparing for jobs that don’t exist yet, using technology that hasn’t been invented, to solve problems that haven’t been uncovered.  That may be the very definition of a herculean effort.

I think it’s safe to say that the future will inevitably be a moving target.  Change really is the only constant.  And while preparing for the unknowable may seem like a monumental task, I believe these 15 skills have wide-ranging application regardless of what the future brings.   

Awareness.  The ability to pay attention.  Not to just see what is there, but to see what isn’t there in equal measure.  It is about noticing and connecting the dots.  Awareness is about being present, being in an observant state of mind.  Fortune favors the prepared mind.

Thinking.  Holistic and integrated thinking.  Both ends of a spectrum, both sides of the brain, both parts of an equation.  Divergent and convergent.  The MBA and the MFA.  Old school and new school.  The adage of less-is-more has no place here.  In thinking, more really is more. 

Sense-making.  The ability to extrapolate meaning by applying intellect.  Information is all around us, but knowledge is more nuanced.  It’s the ability to separate the signal from the noise. 

Margin.  White space.  Unscheduled time.  The ability to create a cushion around the fray in a hyper busy-changing-connected-loud world.  To carve out space that belongs to no one but you.  Space to breathe.

Capacity.  The desire and the ability to grow. The continual quest for greater competence.  A relentless drive to develop personal bandwidth. 

Agility.  Nimbleness.  More than just quick, clever quick.  With elegance. 

Fluidity.  The ability to shift, morph and evolve.  Seamless maneuvering.  This is beyond merely going with the flow, but being in the flow. 

Savviness.  The ability to leverage networks and resources – not for the singular advantage - but for the advantage of many.  Savvy is the thinking skill on steroids. 

Paradoxal.  The ability to hold and process self-contradicting thoughts and ideas in your head at the same time.  Embrace dichotomy.  The world has eclipsed a mere either/or mentality and landed squarely in the both/and camp. 

Orchestration.  Being in sync.  Calibration and alignment.  To be able to keep a cadence when all the moving parts are, well, moving.  

Human-ness.  There is almost a visceral sensation when you come to understand the world of someone else.  Through grace, kindness, empathy, perspective and understanding, we see the world not as it is, but how it could be.  Human-ness is the heart of humanity.  

Presence.  Finding ones voice. Clarity, confidence, character.  The ability to know who you are, and to be comfortable with that answer.  To be able to stand in the middle of your heart and know your truth.  Simply, to exude your self. 

Smarts.  The theory of multiple intelligences asserts that there are 9 intelligences:  linguistic, musical, mathematical, spatial, kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and spiritual.  Being smart is essential.  Being differently smart is a force multiplier. 

Simplification.  Less is more.  The ability to remove the complex and the complicated may never be more urgent.  Plain, simple, elegant.  That’s what really works.  “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  (Einstein)     

Hope.  The mere ability to hope.  Because there is nothing more compelling than the audacity of hope. 

We know that planning for the future is not a precise science.  But you can put yourself in the place of most potential by developing timeless skills. 

One thing is for sure:  we can’t stop the future from coming, we can only prepare.  And fortune favors the prepared. 


All Hail The Arts!

Originally published as Guest Commentary in the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal (November 21, 2016)

All hail the arts! 

And rightly so.  With thought leaders such as author Daniel Pink (A Whole New Mind) boldly stating that “the MFA is the new MBA”, the movement to recapture the value of the arts in an academic platform has emerged. 

Pink’s pivotal book (published more than a decade ago) predicted that forces in the world economy would shift society from left-brain thinking to right-brain thinking as the dominant thought pattern. In retrospect, that is precisely where we’ve landed today.  Think about the relevance of storytelling, our desire for product design, a resurgent demand for all things handcrafted, or how individuals are searching for greater meaning in their lives.  It’s all foreshadowed in his book.

Thankfully the arts (literary, culinary, media, visual, performing) are being heavily leveraged in many of today’s marketplaces. Particularly interesting is the more recent merging of art forms (right-brain) and business thinking (left-brain) to drive value propositions.  A perfect example of this blended thinking is storytelling – ones ability to share compelling stories.  There is a science to effective storytelling, yet it is also very much a nuanced art.  Currently organizations of all sizes are embracing storytelling to sustain organizational culture. 

Improvisation is another blended-thinking approach.  In full disclosure, I should probably mention the following:  I practice improvisational comedy, I perform in an improv troupe, and I teach from a platform of applied improvisation.  So perhaps I’m slightly biased.  I see the value of the performing arts play out on stage all the time.  From personal learning’s (emotional intelligence, divergent problem solving, executive presence) to business imperatives (innovation, creativity, collaboration) – it’s all there. 

But don’t just take my word for it.  Thought leaders around the world are chiming in on the discussion, and they are staunch supporters on the value proposition of applied improvisation.    

“Improvisation should be taught in every business school in the country.  It is a terrific way of learning the powerful creative competence of reframing.  Improv also teaches you how to play in a team.  It’s ‘ensemble creativity’.  Think music or sports." 

Bruce Nussbaum, professor of innovation and design at Parsons The New School for Design (New York), and author of Creative Intelligence (CQ).


“The future now belongs to a very different kind of person with a very different kind of mind.  The era of ‘left-brain’ dominance is giving way to a new world of artistic and holistic ‘right-brain’ abilities...the progression is towards a society of creators and empathizers, of pattern recognizers and meaning makers.” 

Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind


“Improvisation…involves people making very sophisticated decisions on the spur of the moment, without the benefit of any kind of script or plot.  But it isn’t random and chaotic at all.  It is an art form governed by a series of rules.  In life, most of us are highly skilled at suppressing action.  All the improvisation teacher has to do is to reverse this skill and he creates very ‘gifted’ improvisers. Bad improvisers block action, often with a high degree of skill. Good improvisers develop action.” 

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink:  The Power of Thinking Without Thinking


“Some people misunderstand improv…it seems that improv is all about being funny.  But it is not.  Improvisation is about being spontaneous…about being imaginative…about taking the unexpected and then doing something unexpected with it.  The key is to be open to crazy ideas and building on them.  And funnily enough, that is exactly what is needed if we are going to make our enterprises more creative and agile." 

Paul Sloane, author of The Leaders Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills


“Improvisation is probably one of the two or three cardinal skills for businesses to learn in the future." 

John Kao, studied philosophy at Yale, received an MBA from Harvard Business School, held faculty appointments at Harvard, Yale and MIT


If creativity is becoming the currency of the 21st century, then we would all do well to place our spend on the arts.  Literary, culinary, media, visual, performing – take your pick.  Organizations that find a way to infuse the arts (right-brain thinking) with the logic of business (left-brain thinking) stand a greater chance of creating more intuitive and holistic enterprises.  

All hail the arts!



...playing with how you think!



Merging The Birkman Method with Applied Improvisation

Understanding How You’re Wired by Playing With How You Think

[Merging The Birkman Method® with Applied Improvisation]

 by Stacey Mason | Mason On Leadership

November 2014

Republished August 2016 |  Birkman Conference, New Orleans

 All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.   - Shakespeare

Let me set the stage (pun intended) by describing myself.  I am highly structured and extremely disciplined.  I like routine, order and precision.  My life operates like a well-oiled machine.  I’m also a very private, introverted person.  I keep things to myself.  The most profound things I keep the most to myself.

Yet in early 2009, I boldly took a series of improv classes.  At first they were unbelievably uncomfortable.  And messy and chaotic.  I failed – a lot.  I figured it out a little bit at a time.  I found a voice that worked for me – sarcasm.  And discovered a bonus – apparently I display a compelling array of facial expressions when I’m performing.  I might also mention that the classes were filled with weirdos.  Of which of course, I was one.  In the end, it was as if my perfectly orchestrated black and white world had just witnessed the invention of Technicolor. 

Here’s what I learned, and keep learning, as a student of improv:  humans have an enormous capacity to exhibit a wide range of personal behaviors.  We just tend to gravitate toward our personality preferences.  So the answer to the question of whether we can adapt as needed in different environments is yes.  Yes, and…

Every behavior is the right behavior at the right time.  The challenge is that sometimes we need a behavior that we don’t own (that means a behavior that is not a preference).  Learning how to “borrow behaviors” increases our effectiveness in navigating a wide array of situations and interactions.  Essentially, it’s learning to be comfortable stepping outside of our comfort zones.  A wider range of behaviors creates options and choices.  And choices are powerful.  

Understanding how you’re wired by playing with how you think is the premise of the Improve Thru Improv® platform.  It was created to merge the conversations of behavioral understanding with Applied Improvisation through the use of insight, perspective and humor. 

  • The Birkman Method® is the most comprehensive instrument for “understanding how you’re wired”.  This personality assessment is a powerful tool that identifies ones passions, behaviors, motivations and interests.  The reality is that your perceptions – right or wrong – influence everything else you do.
  • “Playing with how you think” takes center stage through the use of Applied Improvisation (AI).  AI is the use of principles, tools, practices, skills and mindsets of improvisational theater in non-theatrical settings...that may result in personal development, team development, creativity, innovation and/or meaningful change.  

I’d like to highlight five key areas of developmental application based on the intersection of behavioral understanding and AI:


It is not my intent to advocate for one set of personal behaviors over another.  Because it’s not an either/or question…it’s a both/and.  We need everyone contributing to the greater good in a way that works for them.  And we need everyone developing an understanding of that which is different from them.  The brilliance of connecting The Birkman Method® with AI is that it starts a conversation – a conversation about how people are differentWe are all wired differently.  We have different interests, we have different needs, we prefer different environments, we enjoy different interactions, we express different emotions…  Different.  We are all humans.  We are just differently human.  


Leadership is part science and part art.  It’s never really just about “what” you do, because it’s influenced greatly by “how” you do it.  Style really does matter. The art of improvisation plays a key role in business and leadership thinking. Improv is literally, “playing with how you think”.  Bruce Nussbaum, author of Creative Intelligence, talks about the value of improv as being “the powerful creative competence of reframing.”  Reframing encourages alternative perspectives. 

Improvisation capitalizes on the creative process to help “reframe” how leaders interpret and leverage their personal style. Intentional effort applied to leadership competencies (science) will undoubtedly serve a leader well. The differentiation, though, is how the leader chooses to demonstrate his or her mastered skills (art). 


Improv transcends as it translates, which is perhaps why so many companies are merging this art form with business thinking.  An improv platform provides an avenue for academic and developmental discussions around topics such as finding your voice, creating executive presence, storytelling, increasing divergent problem solving skills, driving creativity and innovation, understanding exposure to risk, maintaining a sense of humor, and collaboration.  All of these components have very real-world business application.  Business acumen is merged with improvisational techniques to deliver personal insights and powerful strategies. 


People are starving for feedback.  Actually, people are starving for meaningful feedback.  There is a difference.  Plato is credited with saying that “you can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”  I truly believe that.  The improv environment is uniquely designed for immediate feedback from multiple advantage points:  the audience (via response and/or interaction), fellow scene partners (through chemistry and connectivity), flow of the scene (processing character and emotion), and personal introspection (unraveling insights).  Improv operates in a constant state of discovery.   


My favorite question from improv participants is “is ‘that’ normal…?”.  My unwavering response is always “no”.  There is no normal.  Normal operates on a relative continuum.  Our personalities operate on a similar continuum.  Perspective takes us far beyond the simply dichotomy of I see it this way and you see it that way; it introduces the notion that between two ends of a scale, there is a spectrum of understanding.  Perhaps ultimately, we learn to replace judgment with curiosity.  In the words of Dr. Wayne Dyer, “If we change the way that we look at things, the things that we look at change.” 

Everything about improv is counter to who I am at the core of my being.  There is no script, it’s all made up as you go, and there are no wrong answers.  It’s highly collaborative team play.  Said differently, it’s ensemble creativity.  And it begs the question:  why would a highly structured introvert take an improv class…?   

Because an increased understanding of your personal preferences, or more simply, “how you’re wired”, gives you a better understanding not only of yourself, but those around you.  These insights into human behavior are invaluable.  Understanding how we tick allows us to put ourselves in the place of most potential.  Understanding how others tick drives human connectivity.  

We can’t simply think ourselves into a new way of acting; we must act ourselves into a new way of thinking. 


 ...playing with how you think!