When you chat with Chris Cavanaugh-Simmons about her life, you learn three things very quickly:
1. She loves life. You hear it in her laugh. You hear it in the way she talks about her garden: “My dahlias are in bloom!!”
2. Her voice is amazing. It says, “Let’s be friends!” with a sweet combination of enthusiasm and kindness. As a journalist once wrote about her, “Try talking to Chris for five minutes and not wanting to be her friend. It can’t be done.”
3. She’s changing the world for the better.
She never comes right out and says, “Oh, by the way, I’m changing the world for the better, would you like to hear how?” Something in her Irish soul abhors anything that might smack of pretentiousness.
But you begin to understand her passion for positive change when she talks about power.
Chris grew up in a not-very-happy Irish Catholic household in Oakland, California, in the 1960s, and developed a sensitivity to misuse of parental power, and to power abuse in general. Somewhere in her youth, she resolved to help others transcend such abuses, and today, she’s doing it. (By the way, she’s candid about the pain of her early years. She believes we all feel a certain amount of angst about life, so let’s get over our shyness, let’s bring it out into the open, let’s help one another heal.)
Her house in Oakland felt scary to her—it was “a minefield,” she says, of verbal abuse and physical neglect. Her deeply depressed father was often far away in his own thoughts and pain, using sleep as an escape. Her mother was unstable—narcissistic, rarely saying “I love you” to her four children, moving them around like objects to create a pretty picture for the outside world. Often, in the early ’60s, her mother seemed to disappear off the face of the earth for huge blocks of time. One afternoon she failed to pick up Chris and one of her sisters at school, and the two girls waited for hours. Their mom never appeared, never explained, never apologized, and never mentioned the topic again. To this day, Chris doesn’t know where she went or what she did.
During these years, Chris found emotional support elsewhere. Most days after school, she tip-toed through the danger zone of the hallway and living room, where her mother ruled, and reached safety in the kitchen, the abode of Rose Bird, the family’s housekeeper and cook, a black woman of good cheer and welcoming hugs, who offered unconditional love to her young charges along with the best french fries in Oakland.
Chris sat down at the kitchen table and told Rose about her day. Rose listened—really listened. She carried some hot fries over to the table with a salt shaker, a bottle of ketchup, and a couple of Cokes, sat down, and smiled. The smile said: “I love you!” and it changed Chris’s whole outlook.
In Rose’s kitchen, Chris learned that one good-hearted person with the right tools (in Rose’s case, a smile, a love of connecting, and great french fries) can cut through the dross of daily pain, fear, and abuse of power, and change the world for the better. A little corner of it, anyway.
Let’s examine what Chris does today to change the world and then swing back to her life story.
Chris helps leaders connect with their souls. That’s the gist of it. She helps senior executives connect with their best selves and deepest energy. Her clients create soulful pathways, connect better with their people, and arrive at a new feeling for where their companies and organizations can go.
Chris’s favorite tool for encouraging soul connection is using personal and life stories. This is a powerful technique when properly used, an “efficient way to generate rich material that can bring alive a coaching conversation,” writes consultant Martin Vogel.
But really, the phrase “efficient way” doesn’t seem quite right for what Chris does. Much too clinical. Here’s a better description: She creates sacred spaces for personal exploration. Places of quiet, calm, and honesty. One of her favorite quotes is from writer and theologian Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Her grand vocational passion is for diversity and inclusion (D&I). Here, she’s a pioneer, one of the few corporate coaches in the world applying the techniques of narrative coaching to diversity. She connects profoundly to the challenges faced in the American workplace by members of every group that feels itself to be different from the white male power base—women, African-Americans, Latinos, the LGBT community.
Chris can offer many examples of her work: The multi-billion dollar company struggling with its African-American and Latino employees’ unhappiness.... the Silicon Valley start-up that wants to smash the frat boy culture and truly respect women.... the CEO on the East Coast who feels he doesn’t fully understand his under-30 employees and wants to connect better. All of these are worthy of telling, but they’re probably a bit too complicated to fit into this space. Let’s go with Gwen’s story.
Gwen is a black woman in her 30s, a manager at a large North American health-care company. (She agreed that we can use her story but asked that we change her name.)
Considered high potential, Gwen in 2014 was made leader of a team that markets innovative products to doctors and alternative practitioners, her first experience as head of a large group. The assignment didn’t begin smoothly. After her first six months on the job, several of her people gave her a “letter of concern” saying she didn’t seem to care about them, was perceived as distant, seemed only interested in hitting weekly and quarterly sales targets: “Your leadership style seems to be ‘Push for the numbers no matter what.’”
Gwen was stunned. She naturally wanted to find a solution. She talked to her HR department and got a referral to Chris for coaching. In a series of meetings over a couple of months, Chris asked questions about Gwen’s life, probing gently, listening carefully, helping her client fully recall, and deeply examine, pivotal life events. Gwen talked in detail about her childhood. A memory came up about her grandmother, who was dying of cancer, was under-medicated for pain, and lay in a crowded ward at a public hospital in Detroit getting poked by interns, all of whom were white guys who carried a patina of privilege and seemed to feel superior to a black family of modest means.
Gwen was eleven years old at the time and was indignant. She promised God she would find a way to help others avoid physical suffering. As a grown-up executive and new team leader, she said, “Here’s my chance!” She demanded that her people produce weekly numbers that were not just excellent but record-breaking.
And there was something else. Gwen felt insecure about telling white males to buck up and perform better. To cover up her insecurity, she became extra distant. Chris helped her see this dynamic. Using techniques of narrative coaching, including “re-authoring” and “thickening,” Chris helped Gwen feel and analyze truths in her life. Chris suggested that Gwen could grow as a leader by sharing more of herself with her team.
“But I can’t tell these things to them!” cried Gwen. “That stuff is way too personal!”
Chris replied, “Any African-American or Hispanic individual, or woman, who has risen to leadership in a largely white male-dominated corporation almost invariably leaves out stories that are very much about what shaped them—powerful stories of pain, humiliation, agency, and redemption. They don’t talk about the time they were stopped by police for no reason, or the snide comment made by a teacher, or the arrogant interns in the hospital, or the casual sexism of a CEO. They don’t feel comfortable doing that. But these stories are central to who they are.”
Chris continued, “If your team knows who you are, they’re likely to respond, connect, and feel inspired.” Gwen pondered this. Chris said, “You have a lot of heart, but people aren’t seeing that heart. They want to.”
One Friday afternoon in 2015, Gwen invited her team to a meeting. She told her story. She told it fully and she told it bravely.
When she was done, the team gave her a lovely ovation. One woman cried and shared a story about her husband’s painful last months. One of the white guys came over to Gwen and stood there for a moment. Everyone in the room watched. And they hugged.
And a little corner of the world changed.
Even though Chris’s parents weren’t terribly supportive when she was growing up in Oakland, she cared for herself by finding outside sources of inspiration. “There were angels in my life,” she says, “amazing mentors.” Rose Bird. A grandmother. A favorite aunt. Certain teachers. A couple of authors. Several nuns at her local parish, especially Sister Juana and Sister Patrice, young firebrands full of energy and hopefulness, eager to trigger social change. And Father Skillin, who made sure that Chris attended church retreats organized for teens. Chris recalls, “We got radicalized about social action at those retreats. We got mobilized. All these activist nuns and priests—they were amazing!”
Catholic priests and nuns were key figures in American political ferment in the ’60s and ’70s: Sister Antona Ebo, who was heavily involved in the civil rights movement. The Berrigan brothers. Father David Duran. Many others. The singer Paul Simon has a line about the times: “And when the radical priest/Come to get me released/We was all on the cover of Newsweek.”
Chris never found herself on a magazine cover, nor did she get arrested, but she was energized. “My mother called me ‘The Crusader,’” she recalls.
Chris’s Irishness was definitely a factor here—she grew up with the particular sensitivity of the Irish to the nuances of power, to what oppression feels like. She saw, and felt, discrimination against close friends who were African-Americans and Latinos. She felt intense rage in June, 1963, when Gov. George Wallace stood in a doorway of an Alabama schoolhouse and barred two black students from entering. In 1966 she invited a group of Black Panthers to address her school and sat in the front row during their talk.
She watched laborers mobilize in the California Grape Strike organized by Cesar Chavez, participated in their marches, and talked with them about how the authorities tried to slap them down by hiring thugs to smash ballot boxes.
The tachycardiac beat of the ’60s shaped Chris in many ways. She stood at the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco as songs about love poured out of stereo speakers: “Everybody get together/Try to love one another/Right now.” She wept at news of assassinations—the Kennedys, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and the three civil rights workers in Mississippi. She watched police swing their billy clubs back and forth in preparation for wading into demonstrations.
Graduating in 1974 from San Francisco State University’s program in Social Work, Chris got a coveted job as a psychiatric social worker at the University of California—San Francisco (UCSF), one of the world’s great teaching hospitals. But the work wasn’t right for her. She was supposed to be “neutral” with patients, preserve a clinical detachment and distance, but she found this to be unsatisfying, exhausting, impossible.
She departed UCSF and tried a new career track—a management job with a chain of retail stores in San Francisco. She gradually discovered that she loved the thrust-and-parry of business, entrepreneurship, markets, risk, innovation, getting stuff done. After several satisfying years with the stores, she landed another great business gig, doing customized training for major corporations, including top firms in Silicon Valley.
In 1990 she arrived at the pivot point in her life. She loved business. Meanwhile she loved the idea of helping to humanize business. The logical question arose: “How can I put these things together in a career?”
She didn’t know. So she started reading: “I have a little professor in me,” she says, “and the little professor loves to learn.” She got in touch with the latest excellent scholarship about leadership, teamwork, creativity, diversity—how a stodgy organization can become supple, how employees can grow and find meaning, how diversity can happen, how racial- and gender-based stereotyping can be addressed and healed. She read stacks of academic journals and shelves of books, including a beautifully written, gorgeously illustrated volume about corporate values published by Motorola under the aegis of the legendary Bob Galvin, one of her favorite business leaders ever, whose great mission in life was to create a workplace that could, in his words, “inspire faith, spread hope, build trust.”
Inspire faith, spread hope, build trust. Not bad, Chris thought. A mantra for America, perhaps. Chris soon discovered an exciting tool—narrative therapy, along with its cousin, narrative coaching, and she saw a new career opening in front of her, as a bridge between academe and the boardroom. She grasped what the best scholars said about narrative therapy and realized she could translate their concepts into coaching guidance for immediate use by busy executives: “I could go off and do my egghead thing, read studies, and synthesize material, and then bring the work into very practical applications for people trying to get stuff done in the world.”
In the early ’90s she embarked on a career as an independent consultant, and later, with a partner, built a global network of affiliates. She developed strong relationships with some of the greatest tech firms in Silicon Valley—companies marvelously open to new approaches, different ways of thinking—Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Oracle, Sun Microsystems, and others. She watched how Scott McNealy fired up the troops at Sun, and she sat in conference rooms studying Andrew Grove of Intel and Lewis E. Platt of HP. She became highly successful, one of Silicon Valley’s go-to people for leadership development and executive coaching.
Narrative coaching is one of the most interesting coaching/therapeutic modes to come along in years. Some of the deepest roots of the field can be found in the 1970s and ’80s in the research of psychologists Michael White and David Epston, who had remarkable success with difficult cases (including anorexics) and published a book about their work in 1990—“Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends.” Chris was introduced to this work by Chené Swart, a narrative practitioner from South Africa. Swart’s work, and the writing of White and Epston, “took off the top of my head,” says Chris. “I said, ‘This is amazing stuff.’” In the mid-’90s she came upon a powerful book titled “The Corporate Mystic: A Guidebook for Visionaries With Their Feet on the Ground” by Gay Hendricks and Kate Ludeman—a tremendous source of inspiration as she learned to coach leaders in using stories to clarify their values.
Meanwhile she explored her own soul, examining her life’s journey through therapy, journaling, values work, taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (she’s an “INFJ”, warm and deeply intuitive). All of these helped her self-actualize. One of her challenges was coming to grips with the lingering “I can’t” voice that her parents had instilled in her. She found, after a long labor of narrative re-authoring, an exuberant “Yes I can!”
Chris seems wired to receive information at frequencies most people don’t know exist. Perhaps, she says, this comes in part from her girlhood, where she had to be aware at all times of the situation in her home.
This sensitivity to subtle energy has contributed to her success in corporate America, helping her assess people, navigate difficult situations, defuse confrontations, and most importantly, teach executives that all information is not necessarily conveyed in words and spreadsheets. Body language matters. Tense shoulders matter. The vibe matters. The soul matters.
She cultivates her connection to energy. She makes pilgrimages to sacred sites—Stonehenge, Newgrange, Glastonbury, many other places–and lets herself be suffused with their mystery and grace. In 2014 she visited one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe.
The sun rises over the town of Chartres, France, on a warm July morning. Chris walks up a pathway in the company of her fellow pilgrims, a dozen American and Canadian friends. Statues of saints and mystics gaze down upon her.
Chartres Cathedral is probably the most famous church in France, 800 years old, with towers inspiring awe, and carved doors seeming to offer a warm greeting: “Welcome, friend.”
Chris enters. The sanctuary is hushed. Blue light streams through stained glass. My God, she thinks, how did they do that? The blue in the glass! I have never seen that blue anywhere else in the world!
She passes slowly through the nave and walks the famous maze. And a phrase pops into her head:
I am part of a great stream.
The stream flows from a sacred mountain in India and waters the world’s sacred spaces and symbols: Glastonbury, the Dome of the Rock, and Raiatea; the Tree of Odin, the Essene Tree of Life, and the Buddhist Bodhi Tree. It bathes a child in the Holy Land. It comes here to Chartres. And it flows onward, holding the past, present, and future; carrying the pilgrims who walked on these stones in 1250 AD and the visitors on this morning.
Pilgrimage. She thinks of her work, helping people make pilgrimages of identity, helping them embrace and value who they are.
A stream. It holds St. Catherine of Siena, Bernadette of Lourdes, Mother Teresa of Calcutta. It holds Cesar Chavez as he fasts, Martin Luther King as he speaks, and Rose Bird... Rose Bird as she smiles.
A great stream of faith connecting all of existence.
A great stream of love saying: Yes we can. Si se puede.