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  • Writer's picturetony

I Tell Our Story

You might have noticed that my job title with the Center for Internet Security (CIS) is "Senior Vice president & Chief Evangelist". I get asked about that a lot, as in "What does a Chief Evangelist do, anyway?" or just as likely, "Hey, how do I get a cushy job like that? " I probably can't help you with the second question, but I can tell you a little about the first.

After I retired, I wound up doing some work for the SANS Institute and I eventually took over a project popularly known as the "SANS Top 20". The roots of this work go back to my time at NSA - a story for another day. Not long after, SANS gave me permission to spin the project out into a non-profit company, which brought me together with the extraordinary Dr. Jane Holl Lute (former Deputy Secretary, Department of Homeland Security). As we talked about what the new company would look like, she declared that my title would be "Chief Evangelist". What? She said, "You're a natural storyteller. And Vint Cerf is the Chief Internet Evangelist for Google." "Uh, Jane, Vint Cerf is an Internet God. I'm not worthy to transport his packets. And besides, he also has some real job title at Google." "OK, give yourself some ordinary title. But you're still my Chief Evangelist."

So I became the Chief Technology Officer (or something like that), and also the Chief Evangelist of the Council on CyberSecurity (a company that never numbered more than 5 people). When we merged into the Center for Internet Security a couple of years later, the title just came along for the ride. But it's something I take seriously - the title, as well as the responsibility that comes with it.

Professional storytelling is much more than entertainment. A good story can turn complex topics into memories, dry facts into inspiration, and successes (and failures) into lessons. I came by this naturally through my Dad, who had a story for everything. But it never occurred to me to think of it as an important professional skill until mid-way through my career. When I started to think of it as a professional skill, then it became something I could study, learn from the Masters, and practice. And I think that most of us have to train ourselves to look for the story in every situation. I recall starting to tell a workplace story, and my friend Don looked at me with exasperation - "Darn it ! I was in the room with you, and I didn't see that story!!"

During a recent leadership offsite, we had a session on Emotional Intelligence. The facilitator asked one of our team “What do you do for CIS?” The response started the way any one of us might have answered, by describing our job title or our position in the organization. The facilitator immediately challenged the answer, “No, what do you really do for CIS”. “Oh, I manage people” came the reply.

This made me think about my own role for the company. What does a “Chief Evangelist” do for CIS? A phrase popped into my head immediately – “I tell our story”.

I tell our story to the world so that:

  • they understand the value we can bring to their cyberdefense struggle;

  • they appreciate the unique way that we can help them (with independence, as a not-for-profit, leading a community of committed volunteers); and so that

  • we might inspire them to join us on our quest to make their enterprise, and the connected world, a safer place.

I tell our story to us (our leadership team, our workforce, our partners) so that:

  • we refine and share our sense of common purpose and how to get there;

  • we challenge ourselves to dream big and deliver on our stated values; and so that

  • we are inspired to take this journey together, as a team, despite our differences as individuals.

Sometimes my stories are true (well, they're always based on truth), and sometimes they are "aspirational" - about the company we want to be, and about the things we will accomplish.

Upon my retirement from NSA (in 2012), my dear friends John and liz sent me a beautiful figurine of a Pueblo Indian Storyteller from New Mexico, as well as a touching letter about my role as storyteller in their professional lives (the photo accompanying this article). Maybe that's the real value of professional storytelling - to make an emotional connection that inspires us all to aim high in our lives.


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