Find the funny side to business

Comedy has much to teach managers, who would do well to engage their sense of humour and learn the lessons it has to offer

John Cleese, Griff Rhys Jones, David Baddiel, Sacha Baron Cohen, Stephen Fry... the list of Cambridge undergraduates who have gone on to have stellar careers as comedians is a long one. Most were members of Footlights, the theatre club that became a byword for satire.

Now business school students – not renowned for their sense of humour – are in on the act. In fact, it was Cambridge's reputation for comedy that lured Rachel Ball across the water from New York to study for an MBA at the university's Judge Business School in 2009. She is now a Google employee, working with individuals and companies who put content on YouTube.

"I'm from Virginia and I started performing comedy professionally when I was 14," she says. "Comedy is a small community and we'd certainly heard about Cambridge in the States. Footlights was a big draw for me and I produced the spring revue in 2010.

"It was an absolutely wonderful experience. It's hard to combine business school with anything else, but the Judge was very understanding of the fact I needed to be in the theatre. My passion is for entertainment and they understood that."

So how can comedy be useful in a business environment? "It makes people feel comfortable. Comedians generally are good at listening to feedback and then adapting," says Ball. "In today's fast-moving environment you have absolutely no idea where the best new ideas are coming from, so if you're not listening and reacting you're in trouble."

It was Cleese who, as a bumbling middle manager, was among the first to mix filmed humour with the world of work. His series of business training films began in 1976 with Meetings, Bloody Meetings and are still shown. Ricky Gervais as David Brent updated the concept in television's The Office.

Jed Rose, 32, from Seattle, is following a similar route to Ball at the Judge, where he is in the second term of his MBA. He specialises in improvisation, and sees it as a serious business tool, even in venture capital, where he hopes to end up.

"Improv makes you a better team player," he says. "It forces you to listen, internalise and react, and be a better story teller – useful for presentations. It enables you to pitch better and be concise, spontaneous, creative and innovative. Improv really does foster that kind of thinking."

Ten years ago, Rose took an improv course at Stanford University, California, where, in the exam, students had to improvise with each other for three hours without talking. At Microsoft, his next employer, they had a corporate class on improvisational thinking. Rose got interested, formed his own group and toured America. "I've also taught a couple of classes here at the business school with the university group Improvised Comedy Ents (ICE)."

Another former Footlights star is Neil Mullarkey, co-founder of the Comedy Store, who has been running improv workshops in business schools and companies for about 12 years. They often feature his character L Vaughan Spencer, the world's worst motivational guru. His motto: "Don't be needy, be succeedy."

"I'm not selling comedy, I'm selling the techniques of improv, which started back in the 1920s as a way of enhancing communication skills," says Mullarkey, who read economics and social and political science at Cambridge. "John Cleese did a lot of films that showed poor management behaviour. I aim to teach good management behaviour – how you work as a group and interact with others. But I do it with a light touch. And it's very experiential. You have to get up and do it."

"I don't tell jokes, in fact I only know two. But I make people laugh," says Mullarkey. "People who want to tell jokes are often show-offs and quite bad listeners. My greatest joy is seeing the quiet person doing well. I've met some wonderfully funny accountants and some wonderfully dull advertising people.

"The easiest audiences are sales people. They're quite open and noisy and they lap this up because they're looking for new methods all the time. The harder audiences are the ones from a technical world whose main interest is in getting the figures right. It's a tougher sell but a bigger win."

If a sense of humour is so important, can it be taught? "You have to lead by example," says Dr Allègre Hadida, lecturer in strategy at the Judge, well known among students for using clips from the satirical website The Onion in her lectures.

"I lecture on leadership and strategy, a dense and difficult topic, and using humour in the classroom reduces the tension. It gets people to remember the key messages more vividly and it makes for a richer discussion. After all, in theory, people learn better when they're having fun," she says.

MBA students spend years brushing up their leadership skills, but performance poet-turned comedian Tim Clare supplies all the answers in one night. He is currently touring Britain with his show How to be a Leader. "The first principle," he says, "is never let them see you bleed. The example I give is Park Chung-hee, president of South Korea. He was giving a speech in 1974 when an assassin fired at him. The bullets missed, but a stray bullet killed his wife. Park simply apologised for the interruption and continued to talk about increased steel yield.

"Another principle is that 90 per cent of power is bluff. As a performer it would only take three people to completely throw the gig and yet you seem to have a weird sort of power because you have the microphone."

Clare may not be a millionaire, but he is an entrepreneur. "I got into performance to escape the looming spectre of business. But then you end up doing everything you would have to do anyway. You do your taxes, scout for business, set up a website and sell yourself. I keep accounts. I keep crazy hours. In fact, I've ended up being a de facto businessman, but with none of the salary."