Friday, March 7, 2014

The importance of the CSO (Chief Storytelling Officer)

I spent the last two days with a group of public school teachers, counselors, and administrators.  For the last
six months, I've been privileged to meet with them about once a month to be part of discussions surrounding important issues in education.  This week's retreat was focused on the notion of stewardship in schools and the need for educators to hold a commitment and investment in the entire school community, as opposed to what happens in their classroom.  For me, the highlight of the two days was hearing two key stories that are at the heart of the work we were doing together.  

The first story came from Steve Baugh, who is a former school superintendent in Utah and now the Executive Director of the BYU-Public School Partnership and Center for the Improvement of Teacher Education and Schooling (CITES).  Paul's purpose was to familiarize us all with the story of CITES, and more specifically, the Associates Program that we are all participating in.  He described what led to the formation of the partnership, the evolution of its core commitments, and the purposes behind the Associates Program.  Hearing this story from Steve, who has been involved with the partnership in one form or another for the last two decades, was infinitely more impactful than reading about it in a brochure or on a website (which I have done multiple times).  When he finished his story, I felt a renewed sense of purpose, pride at having been asked to participate, and a commitment to fully engaging in the process.

The second story was told by Paul Sweat, the former principal of Wasatch High School.  Paul was the principal at Wasatch during two key events:  the move from the "old high school" to the "new building" and the 100 year anniversary of the opening of the first high school in 1908.  From what I can tell, Paul's most significant contribution to the school and the surrounding community was taking what was a highly emotionally-charged, politicized, and potentially controversial transition into a new building and using that process as a means of uniting both the school community and the surrounding community of Heber Valley.  His story described the process of moving into the new school, incorporating elements of the "old school" and its values into the new building, and skillfully generating support from nearly everyone involved, including current students, parents, alumni, and community members.  I've never seen a school or administrator be so intentional or strategic about anything--it was inspiring and instructive.

Steve and Paul are what I call Chief Storytelling Officers or CSOs.  In addition to the duties outlined in their job descriptions as administrators in their organizations, they play an incredibly (yet underappreciated and often unrecognized) role in ensuring that the wisdom, legacy, and values of their organizations are understood and appreciated by others.  Clearly, to be a CSO requires skill in story-telling (which I'll get to), but it's also a lot more:

1.  Deep history and vast experience.  Neither Steve nor Paul have been around from the beginning, but they've been around long enough that they have a rich institutional memory.  Steve has been involved as a teacher, administrator, or faculty member in the partnership for 44 years.  During that time he's been a close observer of the development and evolution of the partnership, positioning him to tell its story well.  In Paul's case, he has become a student of the history of his district, both by doing traditional research and spending hours and hours in conversation with others who have been around a lot longer than he has.  As a result, he knows the story of Wasatch High School and it means something to him (he had to hold back tears a number of times yesterday as he shared vignettes of the sacrifice and commitment that others have made over the years as teachers, coaches, benefactors, etc.).  A CSO knows the meta-story of his or her place because he or she has lived it, researched it, and listened the hundreds of micro-stories from others across all levels of the organization.

2.  Credibility and Respect.  Because of their experience, Steve and Paul have street cred, which means that when they tell their story, others listen.  Steve has a natural advantage because he's been around a long time and that, in and of itself, brings respect and credibility.  In Paul's case, his credibility has come through the hard work he's done to learn the story and his demonstrated abilities in bringing people together for a shared purpose.  CSOs can't just be good story-tellers, they have to have been successful in their other roles, be it as the CFO, superintendent, director of HR, or whatever it is they're job description says they're supposed to be doing.  That success buys them the story-telling capital they need for people to listen to what they have to say.

3.  Story-telling Chops.  Steve and Paul both told their stories in very different ways, but in both cases it was effective.  Steve spoke from hand-written notes and had no visual supports, which some would say is a big no-no.  But, his sincerity and humility are disarming.  I felt like I was listening to the grandfather of CITES tell me a story that I'd heard before, but that I couldn't stop listening to.  Paul used visual images really well, from pictures of the first high school and how the new building incorporated some of its architectural elements, to the new school seal,, to the mural that was created by an alum (who also happens to be a respected artist) to visually represent the story of the first 100 years of WHS.  The images he shared, sprinkled with vignettes about key events and characters from the school's history, left me wanting to quit my job at BYU and go to work at the High School, and I've never even stepped foot in it.  

Although I'm not an employee of Wasatch County School District or of the McKay School of Education, hearing these stories left me feeling a sense of stewardship for what happens in Wasatch County Schools.  I care about the students there and want to be a part of the learning that goes on in their classrooms.  That means Steve and Paul both played their role as CSOs very well.  The stories they told helped me understand and feel connected to the legacy, culture, and purposes of their organizations.

Steve retires this year and Paul has moved on to a position at the district level.  There is an inherent risk that their stories will be forgotten.  If that happens, both the McKay School and the District will have lost a tremendous asset.  In fact, yesterday after Paul's presentation I asked him whether students and teachers at the high school knew much of what he had shared with us.  He mentioned that there is an orientation for new students in which some of the stories are shared, but also acknowledged that since he has left the HS, a lot of the stories have been forgotten.

Individuals have short memories.  Organizations, particularly those with high degree of turnover, have even shorter memories.  One of the dangers, any organization needs to be aware of and avoid, is letting CSOs go unnoticed, or worse, letting them move on without imparting their stories to new CSOs.   

So, whether you're a family, a business, a school, or a church congregation, you need to be asking yourself a set of questions relating to your stories:

  • What are the key stories that need to be told?
  • Who are the CSOs who can tell them?
  • Who will be the new CSOs?
  • How do we prepare them?

What concerns me is that neither the McKay School or the District seem to recognize Steve and Paul's roles as CSOs.  

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