Long Before the Academy, I Heard its Call to Adventure …
Throughout my journey with RTC, I’ve been blessed to work with recognizable thought leaders, national brands, and powerhouses who would go on to win humanitarian awards, establish foundations, and change countless lives with the words we helped them to string into stories. I still see every one of them as a beautiful human, a hero, a work of art. Their stories changed me. Like everyone at RTC, I pour all of myself into the work we do on behalf of those who pull up a seat at our table.
But in 2018, when RTC was in its twelfth year, a nagging feeling was gently poking me in the ribs. I imagine that any artist who makes their living lending their voice to others eventually must contend with the question being quietly asked of me: “What do YOU have to say?”
This question manifested while I was attending Stagen Leadership Academy’s Advanced Leadership Program, known as the Dragon’s Gap. Halfway through another year of study, I was encouraged to put words to the call to adventure being summoned forth in my life, and in my journal in 2018, I tenderly put down on paper:
“Be the artist I seek.”
These words felt both confusing and intoxicating to me. When I look at the body of work that I’ve created through RTC on behalf of our clients, I’m aware that it’s all artistic in nature. But an artist myself? That felt uncomfortable. So, in 2018, at 44 years old, I refused my call to adventure. I shut my journal, clicked my pen, and 2018 rolled into 2019.
Crossing the Threshold through a Trapdoor
A year later, my call to adventure was whispering again.
“What do you have to say?”
But I had client calls and strategy meetings and a company to run.
Like an irritating flick on the ear from a sibling, I shut it down: “I don’t have time for you!”
Instead, I spouted mantras like, “If it's not a HELL YES, it’s a NO!” I wrestled. I justified. I negotiated smaller YESes only to turn them into grand YESes by accident.
One of those YESes was leading a workshop for the Dallas chapter of Conscious Capitalism in January of 2019. After this workshop had ended and we had all witnessed so much beauty in the room, one taller gentleman named Drew Clancy stepped over to mention that he was working on a new initiative at his company. He thought I might be the person they were looking for to help.
At that time, Drew was reinventing Publishing Concepts, Inc., (PCI) the 100-year-old company founded by his grandfather. For much of its life, PCI successfully collected and published directories of alumni info for organizations (universities, the Boy Scouts of America, VFW chapters, and more). But now, Drew and his team wanted to do something more—they wondered if they could collect and publish stories for their clients.
Of course, helping someone to tell a beautiful story about an institution that changed their life is not the same as confirming their mailing address. So mid-2019, I began many trips to Dallas to turn their Oral History Project (OHP) associates into professional story guides. During our time together, I taught them to actively listen, how to create psychological safety, how to set aside judgment, ask powerful questions that invite deeper connection, and gather a story that will move readers.
When the pandemic descended upon us, I could no longer train them in person; we needed a new way to support them. My heart told me that if I could help them to shift one of their fundamental beliefs, it would be the key to their full buy-in. I wanted them to know—without any doubt—that every person they spoke with had a brilliant and beautiful story that was worthy of their focused attention and best efforts. I also knew this wasn’t something I could tell them. They had to learn it experientially.
Learn more about our journey with PCI
(In August 2022, PCI was ranked 55 on the Fortune 100 list of Best Medium-Sized Companies to work for!)
I hopped on Zoom with Drew and pitched him a 10-week online course I wanted to create. My hypothesis was this:
- Help each associate to see their own heroic nature.
- Show them the heroism in every one of their classmates.
- Trust that they will make the leap to believing that every caller is a hero with just as sacred a story.
Today, we have a more than 84% graduation rate, with over 250 associates having been through the course, and more than one million stories having been collected. Then, in August of 2022, PCI was ranked 55 on the Fortune 100 list of Best Medium Sized companies to work for.
An Overwhelming Light: Discovering the Hero Within
Hearing our participants say, “It’s actually impacted my relationship with my kids,” and “I think I’ve found the missing piece to my puzzle,” and “It completely healed me inside and out;” these speak to an impact I’ve wanted to deliver en masse for two decades. These were consistent, rarely abating waves of joy that left me humbled and grateful and nervous at the possibility of my own self-sabotage.
We’ve graduated more than 250 participants and the impact has remained consistent. But my own dedication wavered in and out because I lacked the courage to focus entirely on this emerging calling. Safety through revenue took priority, meaning that I’ve always spent a fair amount of my time serving clients at a high price.
In late 2019, a well-funded company speaking my love language (creative freedom) asked me to help launch a new product. I rationalized my involvement in this project, believing in their vision that they could change the very fabric of business. I worked all hours to move their needle and eventually fell to exhaustion.
Convinced I was literally working myself to death, I begged for support from my staff to avoid my own health crisis. I mentored two of our brilliant team members who would help me carry the load as we launched a rigorous hiring process to find more rock stars to join our company. My exhaustion spread to every member of our team as they each rose to the challenge alongside me until they, too, were spread too thin.
When our client expanded their own team after their series C funding came through, a number of miscommunications left our team broken-hearted and disoriented. Together, we reached for the beauty in our brokenness and remained gracious as we searched for answers unavailable to us.
Furthermore, my team, still tired, was getting hit with big life events. Mama Bear Yola, our integrator who is immuno-compromised, had just lost her precious 15-year-old pup, moved her home from Florida to Georgia, and then caught COVID. Dear Keli, our director of operations, had three sick kiddos at home with the flu and then lost her loving grandmother she was so close to. One of our project managers needed a leave of absence to take care of her home life. Another’s entire family was suffering from the Delta variant.
Our team rallied beautifully to support each coworker’s challenges. Through all of these ordeals, our commitment to one another cultivated an undeniable magic. We were stripped down to our bolts, yet we had shown up with love at each turn. Our entire team demonstrated who we were and the heart we were made of.
The truth had finally hit me like a 2×4 across the face; it was time for me to stop hiding behind client work and to choose my own team. We had everyone in the right seat, and our shared hardship resulted in a profound trust we felt for one another. We were united and we had traction. So only one question remained: what were we meant to do together?
Then, on October 27 at 1:03 a.m., just as I refocused my attention toward the future, I received a text from my father.
“Corey 911 Call.”
As I picked up my phone to read his message, it rang. “Corey,” he said, crying. “I think Mom’s gone.”
Rescue from Without
“Art is the set of wings to carry you out of your own entanglement.”
I’d never planned a funeral before. The learning curve was steep. The day after my mother passed, I found myself at the emergency room with my father. Five-year-old scar tissue from radiation and a bladder removal became a bowel obstruction; his pain so intense that for days he couldn’t hold a conversation. Big and small, the decisions fell to me.
Run a payment to the funeral home. Check on my parents’ cockatiels. Visit Dad at the hospital. Pick up my sister from the airport. Eat. Cry. Feed the dogs.
Then the doorbell rang. Crap. I forgot that it was Halloween.
Meanwhile, in between all of this, I had committed to launching the Round Table Storytelling Academy, to prioritizing the voice of our own contribution. Yet, the responsibility on my shoulders left little room to feel and zero room to work.
I sent my team a message:
“Continue to make decisions. Lean on our values and let love guide your instincts. If you feel fear around choices or non-choices, consider that fear as representing the need for a conversation. You do not need to know the answers. What is most important is knowing which conversations are calling you to step into them together. There are no wrong steps you can take, simply variations of the path we have been carving. So keep walking. The only permission you require is your own. You have my blessing to do what you believe is best for us all and for those we serve. Thank you to each of you for gifting me this time to be lost. To celebrate the woman who first ignited this spark in me. To find who I will be on the other side of this ordeal.”
Over the past year, I had a conversation with myself that if my mother passed first, my sister would have to deliver her eulogy. But as soon as Mom was gone, I knew I had to speak about her life. That at the intersection of the love she poured into me and her severe depression, is where my gifts were born. The gift of playing. Of laughter. Of opening people’s eyes to what is most beautiful about them.
My company was built at this intersection. And now she’s gone.
I never told her that all I’ve built is an extension of her. That breaks me apart. I never gave my gift back to the woman who bestowed it upon me, because I feared she wouldn’t want it. And who would I be then?
Maybe I would be the guy stepping into the fire on behalf of his mother’s legacy. And his own.
A Phoenix Rises from the Ashes Reborn
Six weeks later, I found myself on a plane to Dallas for the next quarterly session of the Dragon’s Gap, followed by a reunion of 300 Stagen graduates. If history repeated itself, it would prove to be a week that would take me apart. I would limit all distraction and focus entirely on what’s occurring in the room from moment to moment. By the end, it would speak to me. The universe? God? My own inner voice? I don’t know what it is, but I hear it every time.
Three years ago, Rand Stagen walked us through an exercise identifying the time we have left in this world to be wildly productive. For each decade, we received a marble. Some leaders my age left with four. My best friend, Erik, took home one. I have two that I keep at my desk.
Two years ago, Rand presented us with the Long Arc of Time; a challenge to make a contribution that will better lives for at least 250 years. I wept at that event. And I committed to project after project, hoping that was the contribution I was destined to make, only to find that each endeavor was meant for a season and not for a legacy. Until now.
I wonder, is Academy my 250-year contribution?
Today, I believe that it is. Having studied my hero’s journey for years now, I can see how its misdirection toward other treasure and sleight-of-hand calls to adventure have maneuvered me exactly where it wants me to go all along. Learning what it needs me to learn. Reminding me I’m not in control. That I don’t need to be. My job is to show up and pay attention. Which is why the Academy works. Because it pulls people into the present moment of their lives, supports them in creating their own psychological safety, and then takes that work into the culture of an entire organization to pull everyone into alignment with its purpose and values.
Today, I love being exactly where I am in this moment—the artist I seek, the hero of my own story, and the person who’s longing to hear yours.