The story secrets of organizational change

In the world of Storytelling and Organizational Consulting, similar mantras are drilled into us – different words, similar meaning:

1. Make the audience the hero

2. Meet the client where they are

Both of these mantras speak to empowering people and companies, to help them feel, think, do, and see things differently so that they are called to action to enact change.

What this boils down to is – I see you (the client, the character, the company), where you are, for what you are…and I believe in you.

What this requires of us (those who lead change efforts and write the words to inspire) is patience, and a bit of scaffolding.

The best example I’ve seen of living out both of these mantras was Columbia University Professor William Duggan. I write about him often, and, nope, I probably won’t stop.

He had important words say, to teach, and to share. He drew us in carefully and artfully, by speaking the audience’s language (read, mostly MBA students), and skillfully partnering with them to help students come to important realizations themselves. Three acts. Small steps. A slowly built narrative balanced with equal parts logic and emotion at just the right times, each chapter asking for a bit more of us as we went.

In awe of his art, I asked him how he crafted his semester-long class. What was his secret?

Make the audience the hero. Meet them where they are.

He was teaching a slightly unconventional topic and wanted his students to come along for the ride. How often have we too had a great idea, something we care deeply about sharing, and want others to join in on? Hands up, everyone! I see you.

His reminder – you can’t do that by forcing an idea. That’s all head, no heart. He metaphorically held the idea and the a-ha out for his students in his out-stretched arm. And carefully crafted a sequence of steps where they’d be encouraged and motivated to keep reaching. One class after the other.

It’s not too much of stretch to equate this art to leadership.

But how often does our desire to push and prod instead of join and co-create take over our best impulses – especially under stress and threat?

How often does our desire to be seen as the hero and to not quite understand or empathize with where the client could be force us to push too far and stop the story? I’m certainly guilty.

To meet the client, the student, the reader where they are and to help them see that they are the hero is to recognize that we aren’t writing the story by ourselves. It’s not our story. It’s theirs. It’s not my change effort. It’s ours. Or, in many cases… it’s just theirs. And that’s a happy ending.

How Adults Learn

“If you’re looking for someone to give you the answer, you’re in the wrong place”.

I remember the conversation as if it were yesterday.  Fall 2012 was turning towards Winter as I walked down Broadway crunching leaves with my boots on my way to the 1 train.  My evening class of “How Adults Learn” had just finished and I called to debrief (okay, to complain) with my friend and mentor Cheryl.

In between breaths spent exclaiming how much I loved being in New York City, I was having a hard time with the way my Grad School classes were being taught (note, I didn’t frame it as having a hard time with my role as learner — although that self-knowledge came later). This was my first semester, and so not how I expected it to be (unmet expectations, cue disappointment).

I had a lot of questions I wanted answered by experts in the field, I wanted to feel I was getting my moneys worth.  I wanted content, slides, frameworks, solid answers, lots and lots of sage in front of stage moments.  I was curious and thirsty, yet impatient. I wanted to be taught with a capital “T” and to sit back and take it all in.

In a class called “How Adults Learn”, this struggle seemed quite ironic.

The ever-wise Cheryl gave me a virtual hand slap: “if you’re looking for someone to give you the answers, you came to Grad School for the wrong reason”.

I continued to reflect on what Cheryl said on the subway ride home, the next morning, in the next class session and throughout the rest of my two years in Grad School. I think about what she said most days, when I spend my days creating and delivering curriculum to curious, thirsty, impatient adult learners in corporate settings.

By the time I reached my final semester in Grad School the uncomfortable-ness of not knowing the one right answer hadn’t lessened, but my confidence and ability to figure it out had increased. I learned that experience was my best teacher, and that the best teachers were educators instead of lecturers.

As we grow up and continue through school many of us are institutionalized to believe that learning should be a certain way. At many points in our life we want to be told what to do. Anything that strays from that expectation feels uncomfortable and unnatural.

There is power in feeling uncomfortable, yet safe. Know that in some situations or subjects you might not get an answer, or the one you were expecting. Know that when it comes to teaching and learning, your educators are as curious, and sometimes more impatient than you. But … they know you have the answer, and you can count on them to help you unlock it.

Some 225 posts later, why I keep blogging…


When I hit “publish” on this series of sentences, I’ll get a spiffy notification that this will count as my 225th blog post on my site.

Some two years and two months after I said I had no plans to create a website, and then promptly built one the next day, this blog and website is a constant process of iteration, experimentation, and connection.

…which is precisely the reason why I keep blogging.

A friend once pointed out that Learning and Development professionals aren’t hired to write blog posts. Yes, and…

…My over-arching goal is to educate, help, and inspire others. It doesn’t take a conference room, a university hall, or a public forum to do that.

It is invigorating and terrifying to throw your ideas, point of view, and learnings into the wind (the wind is the internet, right??) and see what happens.

The What, the Why, and the How

Over time I’ve questioned how vulnerable my writing should be, who my target audience is, or if potential job prospects had feedback on what they read… but I never questioned why I blogged.

I’ll continue to look back on what I’ve written and be amused and proud of the learning journey I’ve been on, and have this as a tangible artifact of the experience. And, over the next few months I’ll be playing with other tools and avenues to share my work as well as I keep iterating and experimenting with the what and the how.

No matter what you are working towards or learning, I hope you can find a way to create an artifact that is yours, that is a constant work in progress, and that reminds you how far you’ve come.

Here’s to the next 225…

The Role of Educator as Storyteller

The role of storytellers and educators (who are masters at storytelling) isn’t all that different: help your audience see that they are the heroes of the story you are telling, the change initiative you are working on, or the learning program you are facilitating.

Leave space for the audience to be a big part of the narrative, so that they can see themselves in it,  believe in it, and themselves.

The best facilitators, professors, and change practitioners  I’ve seen can tell great stories, but they always find a way to point out the audience / client / learner as the hero in the story.

“It’s not me, it’s you”.

The more we can help others see and feel that, the better equipped others will be to craft more powerful stories and have the confidence to go after the challenges, opportunities, and allies that they need for each chapter of their narrative (or, lives).

Learning and teaching as art: The best, most inspiring example of this I’ve seen recently was as a student in Professor William Duggan’s class at Columbia Business School. All semester long we studied the hero’s journey of ‘famous’ businessmen and women, military leaders and cultural icons.

We were inspired by them but their stories of personal and professional triumph never felt out of reach. Their stories were not fairy tales.

We can study and learn from the quests, obstacles, and successes and failures of others and their stories – but none will be as powerful as putting ourselves and those we help in the driver’s seat of their own hero’s journey.


What’s the drill – May 30: A break from the routine

Hello dear blog readers and faithful spam trolls, it’s nice to see you again. Despite best intentions and dozens of saved blog drafts, it’s been a few weeks since my last posting.

In learning how to balance grad school, life in a big city, and work, something had to fall away – and truthfully, I don’t know how The Hungry Toolkit does it. If you are not reading this blog, written by the wonderful and inspiring Julie Huffaker — you are missing out! Meeting her in 2010 changed my life in many ways, I hope that reading her work will change yours even in some small way.

Julie wistfully combines her grad school learnings, vast vats of knowledge, and anecdotes into perfect pairings and easy reads.  Her work lies at the intersection of the arts, business, and human behavior — ya know, if you’re into that sort of thing!

I’d also like to introduce you to more bloggers and friends that have influenced me over the past year… Each has a distinct point of view that I greatly admire.

1. Phil O’Brien – founder of Climbing Fish, a social actualizer passionate about building capacity for human connection.

2. Carol Ross – coach extraordinaire, boundary crosser (and one heck of an Improviser…shhh, don’t tell her!)

3.Mark Guay – a passionate teacher changing the face of education and personalized learning

4. Charlie Todd – creating joyful, spontaneous “scenes”, founder of Improv Everywhere.

I’d love for you to check out these sites and take a break from your usual blog and web reading routine.

This summer I’m taking a cue from Ms. Huffaker and testing assumptions  with a learning experience that’s taking me far outside my comfort zone (grad school was just the beginning of that experiment). I hope to report on the experience via this blog, but if it’s less often than I’d like, I hope you’ll take these next few months as an opportunity to spend some time outside your comfort zone – whether it means on an Improv stage, in a new city or country, or “yes, anding” an experience or offer you normally wouldn’t.

Then, come back and tell me how it went!

The Secret to Getting Ahead, via the NY Times

It would be easy to read yesterday’s NY Times profile of Professor Adam Grant and his book “Give and Take” and conclude the secret to success is to give more and take less.

We could come to similar, easily digestible conclusions with other, recent management development offerings. We could “lean in” more, “be more mindful”, or say yes or say no more often. But would this stick, or just make us more resentful, anxious, paranoid, or busy?

One thing is certain, I completely agree and appreciate Grant’s work and his message:

“The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”

As I see it, the key to encouraging more giving is by focusing on the feeling it brings.  In essence, we follow the feeling. Sometimes it is indescribable, but it sticks with us. 

If giving more, leaning in, taking more time for yourself, or saying no more often makes you feel better, more whole, more on purpose, then that is reason enough to do more of it. Perhaps it will allow you to give with more gusto, to listen in a way that offers the support your friend or co-worker needs.

We can save the quantity vs. quality of giving debate for another time. I feel better when I give help, advice, support, encouragement, and that is a powerful, potent, push to do more of it.

Mixing motivation and giving isn’t easy. If we view giving as a means to an end, (“matchers”, as Grant calls them in his research) than we’re missing the point.

Improvisers give in the form of making their partner look good. We give because it is the Improvisers credo. It builds trust. And it fuels creativity by opening us up to more possibilities and points of view.

But we are also good at saying no when we need to, when it feels instinctively wrong.  We are skilled at the polite, “NOPE!”. Guilt or pushing doesn’t motivate giving, that is certain.

“The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.”

The impact of this work is profound if we give it and share it with others. It is the foundation of a learning organization, of a company of shared social capital and support. And it is sustained not because your boss told you to give more, or because you read about it in an article in the NY Times, but because you know how it feels when someone gave selflessly to you, and you want to pay it forward.

What’s the drill – March 21: StorySlam’s 5 minute storytelling challenge

In January I accepted the challenge to talk about what matters to me, in 140 seconds.

Tonight, I ventured downtown to check out another public storytelling test-kitchen… the Moth StorySLAM — an open-mic storytelling competition held weekly in NYC and across the country. Here, the rules were a bit different. Brave participants had 5 minutes to tell a true story related to the night’s theme.

What happened in the room tonight was simply inspiring and beautiful. Not only were the 10 stories remarkably polished and moving, but the support, engagement, and positivity emanating from the 200+ people in the crowd was an incredibly special feeling.

The event got me thinking about learning communities, trust, tribes, and the power of story, vulnerability, empathy, and theme to inspire positive change — not just in a 5 minute story, but in a lifetime.

StorySlam events are held in big cities across the USA. Check out the calendar, here.


photo (16) photo (17)



The value of not knowing the rules

I’m hearing the phrase “Lean In” a lot lately. You too? Ok good, it’s not just me.

Leaning in, in my world, essentially means “Yes, And”. Some call “Yes, And” an Improv rule. I call it a guideline, a mantra, a choice.

The choice is… to accept or to block. Leaning in means to accept what comes our way, to explore it, live in it, get messy with it… instead of push it away.

When faced with a new experience, task, or even a game we often want to know the rules. “Tell me what to do, and how to do it, help me feel certain”, say some of us. To hammer out the ambiguity is essentially what we are asking for.

Give me the boundaries, my role, task – let me feel comfortable by telling me the rules. The rules give me something to grab onto to keep me psychologically safe.

I see it in action all the time – in Graduate School class assignments, explaining a new Improv game, or big decisions.

When we are about to jump off the uncertainty cliff, we want to make sure our safety harness is attached.

Not knowing the rules produces a vulnerability unlike any other, especially when we don’t feel well-equipped for it. What if I don’t do this correctly? What if I fail?

The United States Army prepares its leaders for a life without certainty with a strategy called “Broadening”. Their development curriculum includes several stints of purposeful broadening – men and women are given assignments outside of their comfort zone to break the assembly line and predictability of the path. It’s more than a stretch assignment.

We won’t always know the rules. How comfortable are you when there might not be a right or wrong way to do something?

A broadening experience means truly leaning in – being able to sit with ambiguity and uncertainty. There may not always be rules in the places you need or want to go – but there is a purpose.

Forcing yourself out of your comfort zone prepares you for something else, allows you to make the rules, or teaches you that you may be comfortable with less rules than you thought.

Lean in.