Cindy Atlee Q and A
I had come across Cindy Atlee and her company, The Storybranding Group, in my curation travels, but her work especially caught my eye when I noticed her Professional Values & Story Index (PVSI), which I wrote about here. A significant mentor for Dr. Atlee has been Carol Pearson, who works with archetypes. I heard Dr. Pearson speak some years back. The Q&A will run over the next several days.
Bio: Cindy Atlee has been fascinated with stories and how they shape identity since writing her first (and last!) novel at the age of 13. Instead of becoming a novelist, she channeled a passion for helping others understand and express who they are in the world into a 20+-year career as a strategist, facilitator, and coach. Along the way, she’s been able to combine her extensive executive experience in branding, communications, and planning with innovative training in organizational culture and identity, leadership development, and personality type.
Cindy is currently principal of The Storybranding Group, a brand and culture consulting firm that helps clients define and give voice to what’s best and most distinctive about them — and use the power of story-based communications to create compelling brands, develop inspired leaders, and deeply engage their workforces. Previously, she was senior vice president, branding and organizational culture, at the global public-relations firm Porter Novelli and has held a variety of senior-executive positions at mid-Atlantic advertising agencies and marketing firms.
Cindy’s innovative storybranding process and story-based communications tools have won multiple awards and been used by such organizations as Kashi, NASA, Volunteers of America, and Procter & Gamble. In addition to her consulting and planning work, she is a frequent speaker and workshop leader. She’s currently writing her first book, Discover Your StoryBrand: 12 Story-based Styles to Unleash Your Voice and Let the World Know Who You Really Are.
When she isn’t deeply engaged in her work, you might find Cindy art journaling, playing with her four cats, dreaming up her next creative adventure, or driving her husband crazy with yet another home design project.
Q&A with Cindy Atlee, Question 1:
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/ narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: Well, I did write my first novel when I was 13 (sadly, it remains unpublished ☺), so story has always been an important part of my life. But it wasn’t until the first of my (several!) mid-life crises that I really integrated story and narrative into my work. After many years in the advertising and communications business, I was pretty conflicted about my path in life — wondering if what I did mattered very much and whether I was really using my gifts in the most meaningful way. Just at that turning point 10 years ago I met Dr. Carol Pearson (www.herowithin.com) , the renowned archetype scholar and best-selling author of books like The Hero and The Outlaw, The Hero and the Outlaw Building Extraordinary Brands Through the Power of Archetypes, and Awakening the Heroes Within.
Dr. Pearson was giving a lecture about spirituality in marketing (a concept I’d given zero thought to before that evening), and it captured my imagination like nothing had in years. During her talk, she shared her system for defining the spirit or essence of a brand — or an organization, or a person — through the lens of 12 universal or archetypal storylines that each captured a different aspect of human meaning and motivation. Dr. Pearson said that by exploring these storylines, you could come to understand the deep and often unconscious essence that lived inside — and shape that insight into an authentic brand identity that offered real meaning to others as well.
That talk led me into a discovery process of my own. I studied for a year with Dr. Pearson at Georgetown University, learning everything I could about how archetypal stories could be used to define personal purpose and organizational culture. I developed “storybranding,” my process for helping individuals and organizations establish identities based on the storylines and characters that captured what was best, most authentic and most distinctive about them.
I also found out very early on that the character of Creator drives the story framework of my own life. When I’m true to that storyline — when I’m helping clients understand and express who they really are in the world — I’m doing my best, most fulfilling work. The Creator story is where my real purpose and power comes from, and really owning that changed my life.
So, what I love most about my work now is seeing those aha moments when a person or a team or an entire organization sees themselves for the first time through the lens of a story; when they get it and own it at a really deep and intuitive place inside themselves that knows they’ve found the truth. It’s interesting to me that we sometimes equate lying with telling a “story.” I’m not sure where that really came from, but to me, nothing has a deeper truth in it than an authentic story expressed by someone who believes deeply in it.Q: You completed Dr. Carol S. Pearson’s postgraduate program in Transformational Leadership, and I know archetypes are the centerpiece of her work. To what extent have you integrated archetypes into your branding work?
A: Yes, you could certainly say that archetypes are the centerpiece of my work as well. After I finished my studies at Georgetown with Dr. Pearson back in 2003, I converted all my core processes to an archetypal framework. I also significantly changed how I thought about branding itself. Before discovering archetypes, I pretty much bought into conventional wisdom about branding (that it was most inherently about figuring out what a target audience wanted and shaping an image in response to that). Now, I use a totally different inside-out approach — I start with an organization’s internal culture, conduct a discovery process to find out what kinds of storylines shape group purpose and passion, and then see how that could align with target audience motivation.
Whenever possible, I use the Kenexa Cultural Insight Survey as a foundational tool in my work. It’s a typological tool Dr. Pearson developed that provides a quantitative snapshot of the storylines that live inside an organization, and shape its beliefs and its behaviors. People are sometimes surprised when I tell them that the presence of storylines can be measured, but they can. The survey includes questions about strengths and values (the same type of strengths and values that the characters in great stories use to accomplish their goals or fulfill their promises). It’s a unique and interesting way to measure group character, capacity and style.
It’s fair to say that my work is actually more about story typing than story telling. I help individuals and organizations discover which character in one of the great mythic stories they relate to most, and how their lives and businesses are shaped by that characters’ inherent story arc — the main quest, the central conflict, and the happy ending. This gives my clients a context for defining a brand identity, and also for understanding what kind of stories they should be telling to live out their brands.
I’m always kind of amazed by how helpful this framework is for my clients, and how well it works in defining what’s really going inside their organizations. It works especially well for people in organizations who are a little intimidated by the idea of actual storytelling. When I first started doing this work, I was surprised to find that a lot of people are pretty uncomfortable about telling stories themselves. Even though most of what they talk about to friends and colleagues turns out to be stories, they can feel really put on the spot when asked to share a story about their organizations. Often, they’re not even sure where to begin. Knowing what their story type is offers a context that can really stimulate their thinking and engagement around story itself.[Image is from this part of Cindy’s The Storybranding group site.]
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: The spiritual side of me says that it’s the dearth of soufulness in western civilization, the emptiness that many people feel on a daily basis, the superficiality that often shapes our experience and connection with others that is drawing so many people to the meaning-making framework of story.
Then, the pragmatic side of me kicks in to observe that we’ve finally figured out that it’s just so much more interesting to tell a story than to share a data point. The cynic in me says that we’re all just kidding ourselves, that story has never gone away and so isn’t even really making a comeback. After all, humans have been sharing stories since the dawn of time; certainly nothing new there.
All of that’s true, I think, and more. Certainly, there’s nothing new about story at all, but its application is always evolving. There’s just so much information coming at us these days, little of it filtered in an especially useful way. That means our own ability to use story as a framework for our experience has never been more relevant.
We also don’t typically receive carefully tended stories any more — handed down through the generations to provide the cultural context and meaning for our lives. That leaves us pretty much on our own these days to construct a narrative that works for us. It also puts a much greater premium on our “narrative intelligence” itself, the ability to see and recognize the story patterns all around us and filter them for ourselves. That could be an actual evolutionary advance in humanity at this time (I have no scientific evidence for this, but it does make for a good story).Q: Watch this TED Talk and react to what the speaker, Tyler Cowen [pictured], says are the problems with stories.
A: Well, like it or not, we’re all ironically paying attention to Mr. Cowen because he’s cast himself in the role of provocateur (uh oh, another pesky story for him to deal with!). Despite his best intentions, he’s using story to discount story — narrative itself being so deeply ingrained in the human psyche that it’s really just about impossible to escape.
I think most of us who work with story or character in some way all agree that at its most fundamental, story is the frame through which humans make meaning of their lives. So, where I do agree with Mr. Cowen is that we always have to pay attention to other’s attempts to do that for us (whether it’s benign or manipulative, via advertising or our teenage daughter’s version of last night’s events).
Cowen also suggests that stories have an inherent bias, a way of framing circumstance and experience that contains only a portion of what is or might be real. The truth, of course, is that however we get our information, it always comes with a bias — our own, the one others have imposed on it, the spoken and unspoken cultural agreements about what we’ll see and acknowledge and what we won’t.
That means we always need to practice story vigilance; we always need to check in with ourselves for our intuitive reaction to the truth and relevance and authenticity of any story we’re being told. What it doesn’t mean, for me, is that we give up on story (or that we could, even if we decided to try).
Cowen says that life is messier than any story we can tell, more ordinary, smaller in scale and promise than the stories we love to hear and share. I see life as larger and grander than that, our imaginations as wilder and less willing to be so contained. Our daily lives may lack the scale of a heroic myth but not the motivation. For those of us who need purpose to be fulfilled, story contains the metaphor, the symbolism, the poetry we need to feel engaged with the world around us and to understand our part in it.
And while I agree that no one story can hold all of who we are — or all of what’s present in our lives at any given moment — it’s story that best reveals what’s most essential about us, who we could become and what lies within us. The stories we relate to most matter a great deal. They frame our journeys each and every day. So to the 51 percent of Mr. Cowen’s research respondents who say life is a journey, I’m with you. And I’ll bet you have some great stories to tell!Q: Personal branding is probably the hottest area of career development and job search right now — but every practitioner recommends a different way of developing one’s personal brand. Can you make a case for why an individual should consider your firm’s approach?
A: Well, for one thing, I’d recommend my approach because it’s story-based! And that’s important because there’s no better way to define your personal brand than by exploring the story you’re most moved to tell in the world (you can find out more about yours by taking the free story typing tool on my website. Since story is an access to the unconscious material that shapes who we really are, it’s through story that we can discover the essence of what defines us.
In my world, personal branding is about discovering what I call your “animating essence” — the deep meaning at your core that literally brings you most alive in the world; that helps you express your real purpose and power in the world. For me, personal branding isn’t at all about packaging up an identity, or trying to lure other people into an association with you. It’s about defining who you get out of bed in the morning to be, and living your life accordingly. It’s about unleashing your enthusiasm, your zeal — even your ardor — all of which is a lot easier to do if you’ve nailed a “happy ending” that matters most to you, and found a way to live it and share it with the world. In the workplace or in an entrepreneurial venture, this means you learn a way of being and communicating about yourself that can be recognized, appreciated and valued.
Not long ago, [A Storied Career] featured a post about personal branding that quoted Olivier Blanchard (in a pretty scathing indictment of the whole concept). Among other things, he posed the following question: “Can you realistically remain “authentic” and real once you have surrendered yourself to a process whose ultimate aim is to drive a business agenda? … You know what we used to call people with ‘personal brands’ before the term was coined? Fakes.”
Well, I think Blanchard has been paying way too much attention to Kim Kardashian! There’s nothing inherently fake about a personal brand unless you set out to be calculating, manipulative and/or insincere (and I could be wrong about Kim; maybe that is the real her we hear so much about!).
Of course you can remain authentic in a process that’s ultimately driving a business agenda. Is every organization or brand marketer with a goal also inauthentic? Authenticity is based on making a true and deep connection with those around you, and it’s totally okay if that helps you contribute to and prosper in the world while you’re doing it. You don’t even have to call the process personal branding (I like defining identity much better myself). If your real goal is to express what’s best, most powerful and most passionate about you, then you’re automatically in authentic terrain when you’re exploring the essential story you were born to live.
If you want to articulate a leadership mission and vision that aligns your personal motivation with organizational goals, then you’re in authentic terrain. If you want to engage and inspire others with a distinctive leadership voice, then you’re in authentic terrain. If you want a platform for sharing what really matters to you, and maybe even use it to make the world a better place, then you’re in authentic terrain.
Now, if you’re out marry an NBA player for a few weeks…well, that’s another story ☺.