You may have heard the phrase “narrative intelligence” and wondered what it means. Perhaps you know what it means but wonder how it could possibly be important to your business career.
Whatever camp you fall into, Christine Cavanaugh-Simmons has your answers.
Cavanaugh-Simmons, management consultant and president of CCS Consulting Inc., helps executives discover their stories, re-author problematic elements of those stories, and then share them effectively within their teams. She also helps teams and companies develop their “who are we” stories through the same narrative process she uses with individuals.
Stories are made up of problems and solutions. And on a simple level, “narrative intelligence” refers to the seemingly innate ability of humans to make sense of stories—and to learn from and remember them.
Everyone has an internal story about his or her life. These stories can have an enormous impact on how people view the world. In a business context, executives draw on their lifetime of experiences—their stories—to help them make decisions. But they might not realize they’re doing this. Cavanaugh-Simmons said it’s important for business executives to know their stories.
“We literally live into our stories,” she says.
Cavanaugh-Simmons, a management consultant, said she herself is a case in point. She began her career in psychiatric social work. “I’ve always been on this path,” she said. “It’s always sitting with people and understanding what they do to create their world that either works or doesn’t work. That was, and is, my way of interacting with people.”
In 1989, she read an article that used the phrase “strategic narrative.” It ignited a fire within her.
“The journey began with that article,” she said. “That was the first time I got exposed to the neuroscience of story and how it works on the brain.”
Cavanaugh-Simmons said she got even more passionate about working with story when she discovered the work of family therapists Michael White and David Epston through a South African narrative practitioner, Chené Swart. Swart has been a pioneer in translating the work of White and Epston to be more accessible.
“That’s when I got excited about the whole idea of re-authoring as a way to guide people to greater and greater freedom of choice,” she said. “The results they were getting with terribly challenged individuals were incredible. They had remarkable success treating bulimics and anorexics. It made sense that this approach could have huge impact on people in every life situation, particularly leaders.”
As a result of these and other discoveries, Cavanaugh-Simmons developed a narrative process to help executives and high-ceiling women and minority executive candidates write and present their stories.
The ancient Greek proverb “know thyself” is as good a description as any to describe the beginning point of Cavanaugh-Simmons’ narrative process. She pulls in a variety of tools to help leaders build self-knowledge and gain needed insights. Tools include things like values inventories, use of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test, the Hogan Personality Inventory, and fundamental interpersonal relations orientation, or FIRO-B assessment.
Cavanaugh-Simmons said leaders must know the forces that shaped who they are—that shaped their identities—and that it is essential that they have an understanding of their motives, interpersonal needs, and decision-making style. In addition, she said leaders also must have a candid sense of their limitations.
Once leaders have a good sense of who they are now, Cavanaugh-Simmons said it is important for them to understand how their identities as leaders were built over time.
Cavanaugh-Simmons points to the example of Colin Powell. She said that, in watching video of Powell through the years, one can see a steady progression from a man who was stiff and formal to someone who is comfortable being himself.
Powell, a statesman and retired four-star general, made no attempt to disguise the fact that his first autobiographical work was difficult. “When he talks about writing that first autobiography, you can see how uncomfortable he was,” she said. “But he did it.”
She noted that it was initially difficult for Powell to dig into Vietnam, where he “cut his teeth. And I think he had a great sense of shame about it.”
Today, however, Powell has taken ownership of his life’s story. “If you just watch through the years the development of his insight into himself, his use of his personal story, the improvement in the quality and the structure of his stories, you see this beautiful arc,” Cavanaugh-Simmons said. “And that’s the thing about this process: It never stops, it grows deeper and deeper, and there’s no finish line.”
Cavanaugh-Simmons said that with the help of a trained professional, leaders can develop greater clarity about their own identities as leaders, and how they have grown in that role through time.
For this portion of the narrative process, Cavanaugh-Simmons conducts interviews to elicit leaders’ life stories, and then helps them mine their life experiences for key insights. Working together, they develop a definition of leadership relevant to the leaders’ situations.
In addition, Cavanaugh-Simmons helps them define their purpose and mission, and assists them in understanding their audiences—the people within their companies or business units. Finally, she helps them re-author portions of their stories that are self-limiting.
“There is a process people have to go through to search for the things in their lives that have made them who they are,” she said. “You have to uncover all of these memories like an archaeological dig and then deeply examine each one.”
Then, Cavanaugh-Simmons said, leaders should be in position to write their stories. She said she likes to provide coaching on things like effective narrative structure and the power of metaphor. She also helps leaders link their individual stories to the collective story of the organization, and provides them with communications and influence strategies to enhance the impact of the stories.
Once the leader has a good library of stories, Cavanaugh-Simmons provides leaders with training on how to share them. She coaches them in the use of voice, and on the importance of physical presence.
“You’ve gone from process to product,” she said. “Now you’ve got this product, the story. The next step is the performance; you have to deliver.”
Of course, stories aren’t static. Once leaders have told their stories, those stories become refined—they have an impact on the leader over time. Leaders develop further insights as they become more deeply connected with their stories, a phenomenon that also changes them. In addition, leaders receive audience feedback—either verbal or non-verbal—that can influence their stories’ structures.
Cavanaugh-Simmons helps leaders navigate this process through scheduled times for reflection and by providing techniques for keeping themselves centered. She also has encouraged leaders to keep personal journals.
The narrative process and the power of stories are at the essence of who Cavanaugh-Simmons is—and what she does for executives and high-potential women and minority executive candidates.
“I see myself as an interpreter, a translator, a bridge for people,” she says. “I’ve discovered that narrative shapes us—whether it’s about who I am as a leader or who we are as an organization or where we’re going as a business.”