The Art & Science Of Transformational Experience: An Interview With Jenny Sauer-Klein

By David Mizne

When’s the last time you excitedly ran down the hall, jumping for joy to join a meeting? For most people, the answer is probably never. But there are innovators out there who are creating methods for making meetings and presentations engaging, fun, and transformational.

I recently interviewed Jenny Sauer-Klein, founder and director of The Culture Conference, a new paradigm of conference that combines personal growth and professional development for inspiring business leaders. In Jenny’s previous career as the co-founder of AcroYoga, she built a global movement based on the values of trust, connection and playfulness. She successfully scaled this culture into a thriving international brand, community and organization with millions of practitioners including Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Q: How did you transition from being a co-founder of AcroYoga to helping businesses develop healthy cultures?

A: Sometimes when you want a change, you want a big change. Because I had basically been barefoot in stretchy pants for so long, I was excited to wear shoes and nice clothes and go into an office setting. Ironically, that’s the reverse fantasy of most people who want to get out of the corporate world to attend or lead yoga retreats.

I’ve always seen myself as a world-bridger. When I started teaching yoga, I taught beginner classes which I didn’t think that I would like. I found that I loved them, because I enjoy providing people with their first aha! exposure to something they never knew existed or thought would be possible for them. When I used to teach circus arts in afterschool programs, I really enjoyed seeing the look on a child’s face when they did a cartwheel for the first time.

So I thought it would be interesting to bring the essence of AcroYoga (trust, connection, playfulness, and building community and strong teams) into the corporate world. I was excited for the challenge of introducing approaches and practices that businesses were not exposed to.

Q: It’s interesting that you bring up challenge, both for you and your students. We hold a core value at 15Five around learning and growth. How do you help others break through the discomfort there?

A: In the Experience Design work that I do now, one of the guiding principles I work with is, be comfortable taking people to uncomfortable places. For facilitators, managers, and really anyone who leads others and wants to inspire change in an employee or colleague or even someone “above them”, they have to know that there’s going to be some discomfort between points A and B. We have to let go of something we know in order to change and become something new.

Whenever you’re scared to let go of something, the only reason is because your mind can measure what you will lose. It can’t see what you’ll gain.

~ Kyle Cease

That process of letting go is scary because we can’t yet see what’s on the other side. The leader’s job is to hook into the future reality of what they know is on the other side of that person’s challenge and be the cheerleader who says, “When you get there it’s going to be awesome and worth it and I’m waiting for you there”. We need that support, especially if we haven’t made that transition before.

I see this process as a bullseye with three concentric circles. The innermost circle is the comfort zone, where everything is easy and stable, but also old and stagnant. The outermost circle is the panic zone. This is where we get overwhelmed, hysterical, or drop out altogether because we just can’t handle it. The middle circle is the stretch zone, your place of growth and learning. 

When I lead events or do workshops for clients, my goal is to meet people in their comfort zone and as quickly as possible get them into the stretch zone. This is the place where they are slightly uncomfortable, but feeling relaxed about it.

If you push people too far, too fast, then they’re in the panic zone. Once there, it’s very hard to work with them. Some people facilitate transformational work by creating a crisis, but I think that approach is messy and emotional, and it can be traumatic. My approach is that transformation can be easy and enjoyable if you take small enough steps and you help people feel safe along the way.

For every person and every group, the stretch zone is a different threshold and it’s a leader’s job to be sensitive to that. You have to use different tools to get people into the stretch zone and help them expand their capacity without pushing them over the edge. They may be in turmoil for a little while, but they will be grateful on the other side.

Q: You have an upcoming workshop that’s all about designing transformational experiences and events. What are “Dynamic Learning Experiences”? What’s the value they provide?

A: In my years of presenting and facilitating at many conferences and events, I found myself growing angry at the style of education that we have grown to accept. If you’re at an event, program, training, or summit, whether that’s internal or external, it’s usually the same set up. We are in a huge room, seated in rows, with a person on stage lecturing in front of a slide show. Most of the audience is either mildly or actively disengaged, falling asleep, or on their phones doing something completely different like checking their email.

Recent studies have shown that our attention span has fallen to only eight seconds. Our technology has adapted to that, but our in-person learning and training environments have not. We are using outdated formats that don’t keep people’s attention. If you can’t hold attention, you can’t possibly create impact or learning. Here are three steps to impacting an audience:

Step 1) Find ways to engage your audience and keep their attention

Step 2) Offer something of value

Step 3) Give people a deep and meaningful personally relevant experience

We are in the information age, and can access information at any time online, by reading a book or article or hearing a podcast. But if you want to change people – how they see themselves, how they see others, or improve who they are as leaders – you have to create an experience where people have a taste of that new reality. Once they taste it, they are more likely to repeat it again in their everyday lives.

Instead of just reacting to an interesting idea, theory, or approach, your audience has it in their physical bodies in real space and time via an interaction with someone else. Those are lived, felt experiences that they can repeat and are accessible at any time. That’s how we create change and transformation in people.

As I came to create The Culture Conference, I ran every facet through these four basic design principles:

Interactive – How do we take advantage of the people who are in the room and pull out their wisdom? How do we create meaningful relationships between people?

Engaging –  How do we shift people from being passive observers to active participants? That’s when you’re in the game and noticing what’s true for you.

Actionable – Can we shift from something being an abstract idea or concept to something practical and tangible that you can apply to your life right away?

Fun – How do we create environments that are enjoyable and help us laugh? Most things are boring because we take ourselves too seriously and rely on information to do the teaching. But when we laugh and play and have fun, we let go. The brain relaxes and we can create new neural pathways. We create new ways of doing, thinking, and being. Play is one of the most transformational tools in my tool-belt, and it’s one of the things that’s lacking the most in learning environments.

Q: To what extent does this have universal appeal? Many people cling to outdated notions like getting the most out of networking. How do you shift that outlook towards being relationship oriented and allowing things to unfold organically?

A: Ultimately, a company is a group of people with a shared focus. There was a person who had an idea and shared it with other people, enrolling them in the vision. Together they often become a group of individuals working together, but that is not a team. A team is a group of people who are actively cooperating, collaborating, and growing together. There is an intentional difference there that leaders can be aware of – how to turn a group of individuals into a high performing team.

In business today, and especially in Silicon Valley where everything is bigger, better, faster, more, so much is lost. That’s the dark side of the culture we are in, because if you move too fast, you simply cannot pay attention to the really important details like how people think and feel, what their experience is, and what they need to deeply connect with each other. Trust is something you earn and build and inevitably breaks in any meaningful relationship, and you have to learn to repair it. All that takes time.

I am doing more and more work in the Diversity and Inclusion space (D&I), and was speaking to Rachel Williams who is head of D&I at Yelp. We were talking about the speed at which things move. If you really want to attract and retain a diverse workforce, and create a safe environment where people of diverse backgrounds feel like they belong, you just have to move slower.

That goes against the grain of so much about what society tells us to do, and conflicts with the desires of VCs and investors who are looking for a high rate of return in a rapid amount of time. But moving so fast is just not a sustainable way to build a high performance team and a community that cares about each other.

When the shit hits the fan, it’s those deep, meaningful connections that allow people to thrive in stressful environments. They will either use the crisis as an opportunity to come together or it will cause them to fall apart. Without a strong foundation, the people who are driving the organization are going to fall apart instead of rising to the challenge. Are people looking for short term personal gain or long term communal gain? The same is true in an organization.

As a leader, you have to ask yourself, Is it just about the exit and being done? Or is it about really building something with integrity for the good of the larger society we want to be living in?

Companies are a little microcosm of reality, and if you have the awareness and the intention of what you want to create, there’s so much possibility. The beauty of a company is that we can live the dreams we want for our mainframe culture in these small pockets of business. Once that’s alive and well, there’s no reason why that can’t be scaled to the culture at large.

Jenny Sauer-Klein is the founder and director of The Culture Conference, a new paradigm of conference that combines personal growth and professional development for inspiring business leaders. She is also an experience designer and master facilitator who specializes in designing dynamic learning experiences that help companies engage their employees and bring their culture to life. She is a regular presenter at Wisdom 2.0 and Summit Series, and has been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, Fast Company, Inc., Newsweek, as well as Tim Ferriss’ new book Tools of Titans. To learn more about Jenny, visit

Image Credit: Cornelia Kopp

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