Snow covered the grounds of the Cooper Aerobic Center in Dallas, TX, when Georgia Kostas arrived for her interview with Dr. Kenneth Cooper in 1977. Tip-toeing out of the cab in her winter-white suit and pink floral blouse (with a flouncy bow), Georgia’s heart was set on getting this job.
A few years earlier, Georgia had become inspired to work in preventive cardiology as an undergrad, but no such job existed. So she devised a plan: to work as a hospital dietitian then find her way into outpatient counseling or a cardiology practice. Enthused about her “perfect plan,” she sent out 30 resumes to 30 hospitals in Dallas during her last semester of graduate school—only to receive 30 “No’s.” Disappointed, discouraged, and dejected, Georgia hunkered down at Tulane University to finish her master’s degree, feeling shaky about her future. On her last day of class, she happened upon Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s book, “Aerobics,” on the counter of the campus bookstore. She picked it up and couldn’t put it down!
The book inspired her so much that she wrote Dr. Cooper a letter and proposed that he consider adding a nutrition position to the preventive medicine clinic he was setting up in Dallas. He replied with an invitation for her to come to Dallas for an interview. After the Medical Director of the Cooper Clinic engaged her in a rigorous dialogue about nutrition and public health, she finally got to meet Dr. Cooper. He asked her to share her plans and vision for a preventive nutrition program. When she came up for breath, she was stunned to hear him say, “Welcome aboard.” Finally someone believed in her and gave her a chance! This was the beginning of a 37-year career that Georgia characterizes as a series of peak experiences.
How to Lead Campfire Story Circles
Georgia and I met in 1982 through a professional association of dietitians involved in sports nutrition and wellness; we have been close friends and colleagues since then. Werecently collaborated in a visioning and ideation process that was designed around story sharing. Georgia’s story inspired another generation of dietitians to think boldly and never give up their aspirations for a career in wellness. This experience blended two of my passions: stories and wellness. We used a technique that I’ve employed for collaboration around a range of business challenges: Campfire Story Circles.
Something about a campfire ignites story sharing. Perhaps it’s primal. Someone tells a tale … then the stories ping pong around the circle. Stories connect us to our shared human condition. They impart wisdom, inspiration, and universal truths. Campfire Story Circles can be used in a wide range of collaboration opportunities such as creating a shared vision or generating ideas. I’ve designed a facilitation technique that merges a campfire’s spontaneous energy with team building, visioning, ideation, and other innovation processes. It’s pretty easy:
- Divide the group into circles of 5-10.
- Seat each group in a circle (very important for group dynamics).
- Be present—shut down technology distractions (including your own).
- Fire up an iFireplace App on an iPad or iPhone; place in the center of the circle.
- Throw kindling on the fire with a story or story prompt linked to the business challenge.
- Let the stories flow—don’t worry, stories beget stories.
- Moderate with restraint. Guide but don’t direct the dialogue. Be in the story—don’t manage it. (Might be better to tape than scribe.)
- When the embers are glowing, stoke the fire with another story prompt to go deeper or broader. Slow down. Be patient. Be present. Listen.
In the session with Georgia, we used a model where four leaders shared their wellness career stories through a pre-work exercise that included a worksheet for participants to start crafting their own wellness story. Forty participants were divided into four Campfire Circles. The Circles shared stories and formed a common bond. Then they rotated in their Circles through a series of ideation exercises to provide their collective point of view to a common problem.
Facilitators and participants got fired up to engage in change initiatives. The 90-minute session generated 30+ viable ideas, illuminated five potential opportunity areas, and engaged six new volunteers. The community-building benefit; intangible but maybe priceless.