For people of a certain generation, there’s one refrain they’re sure to remember from elementary school: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
Today, though, school officials are much more likely to step in when hurtful words are exchanged on the playground in an effort to combat bullying. And as in schoolyards, individuals and business executives are growing in their appreciation of the value of words—for both good and ill.
“Words are worlds,” said Christine Cavanaugh-Simmons, management consultant and president of CCS Consulting Inc. “Every single word that we use is a world that we live in.”
Cavanaugh-Simmons has long appreciated the value of words—and how people string them together when they’re talking about their lives. She got excited in 1989 when she read an article using the phrase “strategic narrative,” and she became hooked on the power of story when South African narrative practitioner Chené Swart introduced her to the work of Michael White and David Epston, who were pioneering the use of narrative in psychotherapy.
Exposure to and appreciation for White and Epston’s efforts ultimately led Cavanaugh-Simmons to become an interpreter, translator, and bridge for people and organizations through narrative work.
A big portion of her consulting work revolves around helping executives and high-potential women and minority executive candidates discover, write, and if necessary, re-author their stories to position them and their organizations for growth and success. Re-authoring may be necessary when part of an executive’s story is holding him or her back from achieving full potential, and Cavanaugh-Simmons works to help such executives re-write those portions in a way that is empowering.
The goal of the narrative work Cavanaugh-Simmons does with clients is not to dress up a resume in essay form. “This is not about a Wikipedia entry filled with just the facts of your life,” she said. “This is about finding the important events in your life that have shaped who you are. In this process you have to truly re-live your life, examine it, and unpack it.”
What Cavanaugh-Simmons’ clients come to recognize is that their stories are ways for them to understand—and shape—their worlds.
Although she works almost exclusively with top or potential top executives—people who often like to wall off their personal lives from their professional personas—Cavanaugh-Simmons is a firm believer in pushing clients to bring in their personal experiences.
“I always press them to bring in the personal,” she said. “It allows me, and them, to see what they’re focusing on, what they’re seeing, and what they’re attending to.”
She said she strives to meet individual clients where they are, and if they’re reluctant to dig deeply into their personal experiences, she’ll continually invite them deeper. “I try to stay a half step ahead of them, inviting them in and seeing if they’ll meet me, seeing if they’ll go there,” she said.
She recalled one client who was extremely reluctant to get personal. He worried about the appropriateness of his personal stories in a business context, even though they very much shaped who he is as a business leader.
“We first had to push through all his considerations about whether the stories were appropriate, and I had to do some convincing,” she said. “I wanted him to at least be able to say, ‘This is why I care about this.’ He was able to tell a powerful story about how he was personally moved because a product his company makes was saving lives. That disclosure changed his ability to connect in ways he had not up to that moment.”
Other clients are more readily willing to plunge into the personal, with far-reaching results.
Cavanaugh-Simmons reflected on the case of an executive who, through the narrative process, tapped into an experience from junior high school. “When she told that story it addressed a lot of things that were problematic with her leadership style because her people felt she only cared about the business targets,” Cavanaugh-Simmons said. “It transformed her team’s understanding of what her motives were. She has a lot of heart, but her team wasn’t seeing it.”
Cavanaugh-Simmons said she is especially excited to bring narrative work to the diversity space.
“It’s vitally important in this work with women and people of color to get them to talk about their lives and the key events that shaped them,” she said. “And I really have to push to make sure they don’t leave out stories—for example, stories about the time they got arrested or stories about the time they received an unwanted sexual advance in the workplace. Any woman or minority who has risen to leadership in a largely white corporation almost invariably leaves out stories that are very much about what shaped them as leaders.”
She said they’re often reluctant to share these stories, but added that through the re-authoring process, these key stories can help women and minority executive candidates draw strength, not shame, from the pivotal moments that shaped them.
“These are powerful stories of agency and redemption that are always present in the history of anybody that is on the margins of the white power structure in this country,” Cavanaugh-Simmons said. “I love seeing people get bigger.”
Cavanaugh-Simmons added that it’s equally important to work with the white executives in those companies, many of whom are uncomfortable having discussions about equity and bias in the workplace.
“It’s much easier for the executives to say, ‘Oh, well, I will be benevolent and open these doors for these people. See what a great guy I am,’” she said. “It’s easier, but we also need to have the conversations about why we are even here having this sort of program. Clearly there’s something amiss and they need to own that and learn from that, too.”
Besides, top executives need to engage with and learn from the stories of the high-potential executive candidates, and vice versa. It’s only when the two groups understand each other and have a common vocabulary that they can come together to write a common “Where are We Going?” story.
“Now we have to blend these two stories—the stories of senior management and their view of the world, and the story of these high-potential diversity candidates,” she said. “This is where we look to see how we can shift the dominant narrative so that women and people of color in the organization contribute to as well as see themselves in the story of the company.”