How To Build Your Personal Branding With S. Renee Smith And Getting Out Of Status Quo Thinking With Christina Blacken

In this day and age, almost everyone and everything that tries to make it big is nothing without branding. However, with so many platforms available, it can be a challenge to create one and put it out there. Host, Dr. Diane Hamilton, guests S. Renee Smith, advisor, coach, and strategic partner to senior leaders, to enlighten us about personal branding, strategic planning, and development. She shares with us key points on how to be likable, credible, and marketable—noting how branding starts with being authentic in who you are and the value you bring.

The power of narratives is in how it influences people to get into a new kind of thinking. As a storyteller herself, Christina Blacken knows this to be true. Her storytelling platform, The New Quo, has been helping high growth leaders get out of the status quo thinking and into creativity and purpose. Christina discusses how leaders should go about cultural change and embody what they are preaching. She then shares doing various social causes and motivating young people to volunteer.

TTL 636 | Building Personal Branding


We have S. Renee Smith and Christina Blacken. S. Renee’s an advisor, a coach, a strategic partner to senior leaders. She has a book out. Christina Blacken is the Founder of The New Quo. She’s getting people out of status quo thinking and I’m going to be able to tie into a lot of this with the curiosity research with both of what they’re working on.

Listen to the podcast here

How To Build Your Personal Branding With S. Renee Smith

I am here with S. Renee Smith, who’s an advisor, coach and strategic partner to senior leaders with a focus on organizational change through talent development. She’s written a lot of bestselling books for the Dummies series. This is going to be so much fun to have you on the show. Welcome, S. Renee.

Thank you, Diane. It’s so good to be here and be able to share it with you.

I was looking at a lot of your different videos that you’ve done and people interviewing you for your work. I like that you talk about who you are versus who shows up and what makes you likable. Some of that stuff I thought was fascinating. I want to get to the point where you got to this, you wrote 5 Steps to Assertiveness: How to Communicate with Confidence and Get What You Want.

Believe it or not, it was formally released in July of 2019. Harness the POWER of Personal Branding and Executive Presence: Elevate Your Life and Career NOW! was written and released at SHRMs National Conference in Las Vegas. That was my sixth book that has been written and released.

I was at Vegas at SHRM speaking and we didn’t get a chance to meet. I would have loved to have listened to your talk.

I didn’t know you were there.

I was talking about curiosity and my book. I’d written a brand publishing course a long time ago, so branding is something that fascinates me. When I worked as an MBA program chair at Forbes, I had to write a brand publishing course that dealt with Forbes and some of the work that they did, but personal branding was a little bit different. They were dealing with more corporate branding. What I do, I have to do a lot of personal branding. You’re going to give me a lot of tips that probably I could use here.

I’m looking forward to it too. We’ll probably help elevate each other in the work that we’re doing.

How did you get in the Dummies series because you were the co-author of Self-Esteem for Dummies? What led to that point and then we’ll go from there?

I was called to consider co-writing that book. I was on the platform with Steve Harrison. I was a part of launching their Speaking for Money program, as well as I have been their coach for branding as well as speaking. While I was there, I noticed and my work was noticed. All my work includes action steps on how to take action. It’s informative but it’s more how do you decide for yourself what you should do based on these questions. I was approached and gave it a lot of thought and said this is a good space for me and I believe I could offer a lot of great advice. I took the book deal and the rest is history. It has led to other book deals and other opportunities.

I bet it would be fun to write a Dummies book. I’ve had a few people on my show who’ve Facebook for Dummy. A lot of those authors were on the show talking about their experience. I could see that it would be a great opportunity. You have to have a lot of expertise to get chosen for that, so that’s a huge feather in your cap. You’ve got a lot of attention and you know how to brand yourself. A lot of people struggle with that. There are so much social media that where do you want to be seen where your customers are the most, but they go everywhere. You’ve got to deal with all these platforms and it can be time-consuming a lot of people. What are the things that people complain about the most? What’s the hardest part of personal branding?

Diane, it starts with people believing and having the right mindset to brand themselves. Back when I launched my business in 2000, I had been harassed on my job. I had a story to tell. I used that story to link to an audience and to communicate a very important message to people. I think that what I have found in coaching over 500 small business owners and many more individuals in the workplace. People feel stuck and people aren’t clear on who they are and the value that they bring that has impacted their self-esteem and their ability to take the necessary steps to launch out into the deep. We have a tendency to do little here and then we’ll stop. Ultimately stopping ourselves for no other reason, but because we don’t believe that we can do it.

Branding is about how you put yourself out into the world. Click To Tweet

A lot of people measure what they think they can do based on what everybody else is supposedly doing. A lot of it is perception. You’ve got social media where everybody’s putting out the best of the best and nobody sees the worst of the worst. Is it impossible to compete because what we’re competing with isn’t real?

I love that because branding is about how you put yourself out into the world. The mistake that we make is that we look at other people and we try to compare ourselves to the biggest mistake. Because ultimately, you don’t know what you’re comparing yourself to. It’s invisible. You don’t know what’s happening to that person, with that person. Why they’re saying, what they’re saying, why they’re doing what they’re doing. The truth is why should you even care? When you look at capitalism and you look at entrepreneurship, everybody will say, “Who’s your competition?” I will tell people, “I don’t know who my competition is. I’m not looking at them. No one has what I have to give an audience.”

Also, I don’t have what Diane has to give an audience. Because of your unique experiences and because of your unique skills, talents, and abilities, I don’t care what I take from you. I can’t deliver it in the same way that you can and make the thing impact that you can make. When we become present to that and understand that we are 100% unique and the value that we bring, grant you, you were talking about, “I’ve done some branding with corporations.” Yes, that’s wonderful. I have as well. However, I would almost guarantee that our strategies are different. Our lingo is different. How we show up with the client is different. Your clients are appointed to you, you’re going to do great with them, with seven billion people in the world and hundreds of thousands of businesses in the world, there’s enough for you, Diane, and there’s enough for me.

I’ve had many people on my show and you think how much market is there? There’s so much market. That’s what people don’t realize. Everybody needs something different. What I offer might not be appealing compared to what you offer to this particular customer or this client. I think that you bring up such important differences in why there are many consultants and much mentorship. Mentorship is going to be such a huge thing because we were all looking for help. We’re all starting to realize that we can say that we need to help. Do you think we’re having less than the imposter syndrome and people are just saying, “I need help?”

Absolutely, I included. There was a time in my career where I needed help. I try to figure it out. I pick up the phone and call the CEO of a billion company and say, “I need help.” For example, I had a friend who needed some assistance in getting into the door of a hospital. I happened to have worked on a committee with a CEO of a hospital. He reached out to me, I reached out to the CEO and an appointment was scheduled. It doesn’t matter where we are. We are all striving to get to that place. We are very present in being transparent and honest about where we are and what our challenges are. Mentorship and sponsorship, which is what I was able to offer him. I’m going to sponsor him by picking up the phone and calling the CEO of the hospital and use my brand equity with him for another person. I think that’s going to be huge as well.

A lot of people are looking for influencers. They want somebody to connect with, who can connect them with other people. There’s a point though where you’re burning your book of clients, customers too much. How do you know how much to help other people without being the person that they know who your calling, you’re trying to introduce, you’re trying to connect too much?

TTL 636 | Building Personal Branding
Harness the Power of Personal Branding and Executive Presence: Elevate Your Life and Career Now!

I only do it if I know the person. When I say do it, I only connect people if I know the person. I know their work and I am very confident that they’ll manage that person properly. My theory is you have to have as much to lose as I do.

That’s important. You’ve probably had so much good background in so many different industries that you get this sense of whether they’re going to do what they say they’re going to do. Sometimes you’re not always right. I’ve misjudged people here and there, but when you have that experience like you’ve had. I know you were a television talk show host, you were a model. You did all these different things. When you do so many different types of salesy-related talk type jobs, you learned some things that are so foundational. Do you think that some of that have helped you to be able to read people better?

I do, I think that spending time with them. For example, I would not make a recommendation for people who I don’t know I only know in passing. I would make recommendations to people whom I have shared a platform with, people who I have seen them in action. People who have some level of relationship over a period of time. It’s not like I’m using my intuition only to make that type of introduction. I am 100% sure that that person has the background and credentials to do the work.

You met people and what we find when we’re connecting with others is some people are more likable than others. I know you talk about this a lot what makes people likable. That’s important when you’re building your brand to be likable. You say the bridge to your brand is likeability, marketability and credibility, those types of things. What makes us likable? How can we build that?

I heard this when I was very young, probably twelve or so. I first heard it from Zig Ziglar. People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care about them. Likeability isn’t being authentic. It’s not being hard like fighting within yourself for people to like you. It’s showing up in your power and who you are, the value that you bring. Most importantly, listening to what’s important to the other person and linking what you do to their goals. Likeability only comes when people can see that you bring value to them. I have two questions that people want to know. How much are you worth and what is it going to cost me? That’s the question that people are asking when they meet you, what are you worth to me?

If I invite you into my circle, what am I going to get? If I invite you into my circle, what is it going to cost me in terms of time, energy, and commitment? Who are you in terms of your integrity? How do you show up in the world that’s going to impact my brand if I link my brand to your brand? They may not be conscious of being unconscious, but we are all asking ourselves those questions. Because we all know that there are people who show up in our lives and their intention is good, but they’re not ready to navigate in the circles in which we travel. It doesn’t mean that it’s intentional. I truly believe that you can meet someone and they have the right desire. Their intention is in the right place, but they’re not ready yet. You as the person who is inviting them has to be able to quickly discern whether or not they have the brand and the executive presence if they know how to use it properly to navigate in your circle. If not, they become more of a client than somebody who you would sponsor. You can help build them to that level.

Likability isn’t being authentic. It's about showing up in your own power and the value that you bring. Click To Tweet

I’ve had a lot of experts on the show, either were branding experts. Some of them are great coming up with an elevator pitch. To put it into perspective, exactly what it is you bring to the table. To me, that’s a very hard thing when people ask me what I do for a living. I’ve had a lot of elevator pitch experts create what they would say. Do you do elevator pitches? What do you say when people ask you what you do for a living?

I say I help people become more likable, marketable, incredible and increasing their income and influence.

I don’t think it’s a very simple thing. What I like is when they do it that way. It makes me ask questions and since I’m a curiosity expert, I’m going to go, “How do you do that?” It brings it to mind the question. Is that what you intend when you create your elevator pitch to have somebody want to ask the next question?

I will share it with you by using that. I don’t think I’ve shared it one time when someone doesn’t say, “I need to be more likable in marketable.” I don’t hear them say, “I need more income,” and nor do I hear them say, “I need more influence.” They do say, “I need to be more likable and marketable.” That does it mean that they don’t hear that piece. What they hear is what their greatest need is. I know for the most part, that is where people dance in that space. How do I become more likable? How do I become more marketable? Because it’s difficult to put into words the real value that I bring. Everybody’s saying, “I can give you more income and influence.” Whether they can or they can’t, that’s what we say.

In terms of likeability and marketability, people are like, “How does that work?” Because they think it’s some magic. It isn’t. It’s about you finding your authentic core, showing up in that and also ensuring that you are connecting with your audience through your story. People miss that piece. They have to have a story crafted and communicated in a way in which their audience see themselves in your story. They’re able to see that you know and understand what they feel, what they’re going through, and that they can do what you’ve done. It’s almost like you’re their role model before they even meet you and engage with you. They’re like, “That’s me.” When you have been able to do that effectively, that’s when the brand is doing its work.

What do you think of those three things that are the hardest for people to build likeability, marketability or credibility?

TTL 636 | Building Personal Branding
Building Personal Branding: Our brains are wired to be as efficient as possible, to process information as quickly as possible. That’s why lots of assumptions, stereotypes, and microaggressions are made against people.


I think of credibility.


People are so inconsistent and that they failed to observe their behavior and understand how their behavior impacts other people. Everybody thinks that they’re okay with the things that they do and say. Sometimes it’s not okay, it’s inappropriate. I don’t think it’s intentional. We haven’t spent enough time understanding relationship dynamics and understanding how people interpret our behavior. Deep down, a lot of people question themselves. I think people want to be okay with themselves. Even if their behavior isn’t in alignment with what’s happening at the moment, they still want to be okay because we live in a society that whatever you do is okay, but the truth is the society will never be like that.

There have to be rules, there have to be boundaries. There has to be a way in which there’s some type of guidelines in which we show up. That doesn’t mean that you won’t have your audience over here and that if you go over there to that audience that they’ll think you’re okay. You can’t enter into this culture and this space on the right and think you’re left thinking personality is going to work. You have to understand that it has to be in alignment. That’s why branding is so critically important because you understand your audience and how to connect and relate to them.

Your audience and who you connect and relate to, you do a lot of work with people about getting an unstoppable mindset. Do you still do what you call life-changing, there’s more inside programs, is that still a big focus for you?

Yes, I’m crafting a program based on the book Harness the POWER of Personal Branding and Executive Presence: Elevate Your Life and Career NOW! I’m building a program that’s going to focus on how to brand themselves as an expert, even if they don’t even understand branding or marketing. It’s going to help them to understand how to promote and position themselves in the marketplace. It’s going to help them to understand how to package, position, promote, and how to become a more likable, marketable, and incredible based on their personality. How did I get to the point of signing several book deals and becoming known for what I do? How have I helped other clients do the same? I am working on that and hopefully I’ll be able to launch the program sometime in December 2020. If people want to know about it, they sign up at and become a part of the list. They’ll get firsthand as well as the promotional package that’s coming out for that.

Likeability only comes when people can see the you bring value to them. Click To Tweet

I get many people who are trying to write books and get noticed by publishers. It’s much harder than it was in the past. Have you found that it’s getting even harder?

It is. I have been blessed enough to create a brand that is very credible. Hence the book deal with Wiley and then Callisto Media followed up a few years later, literally found me online, sent me an email and a possible book deal. It said, “The reason why we’re reaching out to you is that your process has actionable action steps, which is what we’re looking for.” Building a brand, my brand is that I create actionable action steps for people. It’s not just, “This is information for you.” How do you do it? I’m not going to enter your space without your permission. My job is to ask you the right questions to help you build your plan so that you can move forward in this space that you’ve been assigned to move in.

You certainly have done a lot of interesting things and I could see that these programs that you’re holding would be helpful to people. I was looking at some of your backgrounds. You worked with IMAN, Susan Lucci, Joan Rivers. I could imagine that you take all that and package what you’ve learned and helped many people. Can you list how they can reach you one more time to make sure that they’re able to access all your information?

The website is The phone number is 888-588-0423. The email address is Those are the best ways to reach out to me and I’m happy to take your calls, your questions, your emails and respond.

Thank you so much, S. Renee. This was so much fun. I think that a lot of people learned many things about what they need to work on to bridge their brand. Also, to build that personal brand to become more successful in their career. I hope a lot of people take some time to check out your site and thank you so much for being on the show.

It’s my pleasure. Diane, thank you for the work that you do in the world and the impact that you’re making on so many people. I’m thankful that our paths have crossed and that our journeys continue to do the work.

Getting Out Of Status Quo Thinking With Christina Blacken

I am here with Christina Blacken, who is a speaker, storyteller, and Founder of The New Quo. It’s a storytelling platform and consultancy helping high growth leaders leverage their stories to align their people to a purpose, increased buy-in of bold ideas and create inclusive culture during times of change and transition. She has been featured on Elle, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Huffington Post, Thrive, you name it. It’s exciting to have you here, Christina.

Thanks for having me. I’m excited to dive into leadership and talk about some of these topics.

First, can we dive into jello? What’s the jello thing? I’m interested. It says you have more uses for jello than you’d like to admit and there’s lots of jello conversations going on and some of your data. Can you give me a little background and what’s the deal with jello?

I’m originally from Utah and jello was the official state food. People in Utah were consuming so much jello that it became a talking point in the news. It’s a running joke that I have. At one point, I was eating all types of jello at school, at potlucks. I would see people put savory things in jello that I feel you should never do. People were getting creative. It was a big part of my childhood. It’s funny to me and I probably do know more uses for jello than most people do.

I didn’t realize there was a state a dessert there, but it’s good to know. You have an interesting background. You mentioned Utah and how your family was part of the great migration of the ‘60s. How did they end up in Utah and why?

My family’s originally from Memphis, Tennessee and my grandmother, who had four siblings were raised there until she was about 8 or 9. She was part of what was called the great migration where six million African Americans left the South and moved to all different types of metropolitan cities across the United States. The driving motivator behind it was to get the opportunity to find new jobs, to get away from the Jim Crow South. My family for whatever reason decided on Utah. Because my cousins at that time had found out about the train and the train was providing lots of jobs. They were like, “Utah seems like a different place. There’s some opportunity, there are jobs, there’s space, there are coyotes, there are canyons, we don’t know what this thing’s about and you guys should come over and check it out.” They decided to pick-up and slowly made their way over there. The majority of my family lives in Utah. My grandfather had ten siblings, so there were a lot of them. They all had kids and the kids had kids. They’re all holding the down out there. They originally the original trailblazers in my eyes in a lot of ways because they had to make something out of nothing and go into a new environment and rebuild with a new context and community around them.

Organization values are critical for the culture that's being built by the people who are essentially at the head of it. Click To Tweet

I was looking at a lot of the things that you’ve talked about what you’ve learned through your upbringing and how you deal with cultural change, and how to inspire people from status-quo thinking. A lot of what you write and talk about and what I write and talk about because I deal with developing curiosity, which is all about getting out of status quo thinking too. What I find interesting about what you do is you deal with this flipping the status quo through story and storytelling. How’d you get to be a storyteller and why is it important to be a storyteller?

I started when I was very young. When I was probably around 5 or 6, my mom bought me one of those girl talk recorders. It is this cute little toy that had a tape player in it and you could hit the record button and walk around and record yourself before you had the phones. I would record these radio shows. I would sing the universe to make quirky little songs about Mercury and Saturn and stuff. I was always putting media and stories together because I had this fascination with how the story evolves and how it can help us to transport ourselves into a place you’ve never been or an experience you’ve never had.

Over time, as I got older, I had an interest in going into communications but thought I’d go to law school. When I got to college, I was like, “I’m going to go to law school. I’m going to change the world one legal thing at a time.” When I graduated and got my first job in New York City at a law firm, it was awful. It was not a great fit. I’ve transformed my career by digging deep and figuring out what impacts I wanted to make, what direction I wanted to take. Storytelling and media became at the forefront of it almost accidentally because I got into a position in the nonprofit world where I was building campaigns and using storytelling on text messaging, email messaging and social media to motivate hundreds of thousands of young people to volunteer.

All we were doing was sending the messages to their devices, their phones, the places where they got communication. I was hooked at that point. I’m like, “There’s something powerful here.” When people are given messages and when they’re given a story to learn about something they don’t know or to change their point of view. There is power in this. From there I started to build my frameworks based on psychology and in the field research and experience. I was teaching it on the side to entrepreneurs, business owners, leaders, and managers because I had a passion for how narrative even subconsciously drives our behavior and how the narrative is attached to groups that are like ourselves. That ironically is the feel for unconscious bias.

It is the fuel for how we build a culture, a community or an organization, whether people are aware of it or not. It came out of a passion and then it evolved from there, especially being a black woman and working in a lot of spaces in corporate America. I was the only person in a lot of meetings and a lot of these leadership decision-making conversations. I can see how powerful a narrative was for who people thought should be a leader, who should be making decisions. I was like, “We could do better than this. There are ways that we can change our beliefs and behaviors around these big topics or else we’re going to have these organizations that are failing and losing retention and not thriving.”

You brought up some interesting points because lawyers are storytellers. They’re like salespeople. Many people have to be storytellers. I was in sales for many decades, where we had to learn to paint a picture in our client’s heads. If I were a pharmaceutical rep, I would paint a picture of the patient’s not calling them in the middle of the night, not waking them up if you give them the right medication. Part of storytelling is to get people thinking a new way. How do you do storytelling to get people out of status quo thinking? How do you get them more curious with a narrative? Do you have an example?

TTL 636 | Building Personal Branding
Building Personal Branding: Leaders can create narratives all they want, but if they don’t follow through with the actions, it doesn’t matter.


It’s great that you’ve brought ‘up curiosity because one of the biggest things I teach and the organizational workshops that I do is shifting from a culture of being on autopilot to a culture of curiosity. Because typically, what happens in most groups is there’s default thinking. Our brains are wired to be as efficient as possible, to process information as quickly as possible. That’s why lots of assumptions are made about people, how stereotypes are formed, and how micro-aggressions are developed. I teach a writing framework for people to be able to disrupt their automatic thinking. That could be what assumptions you’re making about who should be a leader, what questions you could ask to allow people who are not like yourself, to be the experts of their lived experience, and to allow them to reveal parts about themselves that can help you to bond with them and to understand them better.

There are other ways to reestablish boundaries and standards in your community or organization so that you all feel bought into whatever the new narrative is about the organization. What are the universal stories that you’re telling around, the origin of the company, the adversities that you guys have been through, the innovations that you’ve had? Because those stories that are being shared informally and formally around the organization is what makes the culture outside of policy and process. Because it’s so informal typically and so undocumented in a lot of ways, people don’t think about how powerful it is. An example that I talk about a lot is I was working in the media world for a number of years before I became an entrepreneur full-time. At that organization, they were going through a ton of tumultuous change. Those media company was being sued.

They had all types of issues in terms of who’s going to own the company at some point. I remember the founder of the company did an incredible job of sharing the origin story of why the company was created in the first place. He would drop the story at all staff meetings, emails, in the kitchen and people are getting snacks out of the pantry. Even though we’re going through this tumultuous storm, we understand why this organization was created. We understand the driving mission and values of this organization and that keeps us around. There were people who had been working there for ten, thirteen years plus, which is unheard of, especially in a new media-based organization where people typically stay two years maybe and bounce to the next job. I saw how powerful it was for that. As soon as that practice stops, when the ownership changed and when there was a new person in place, the culture completely changed almost overnight. It was powerful and crazy for me to live through that experience and to see how much story in the ways that leaders use the story around what’s important, what they value, what the organization values are critical for the culture that’s being built by the people who are essentially at the head of it.

You bring up some important things that tie into my research. First of all, when you talked about assumptions. I created an assessment that determines the things that keep people from being curious. There are four things, fear is one, assumptions are the second, technology and environment. The assumptions are that voice in our head, the things that we tell ourselves. “This is going to be interesting. I’m not going to like this. This has been too hard in the past.” I love how you talk about the origin story because I’ve had some companies that were great leaders who did that. They were able to share what their true values were and make sure that everybody tied into that. If you get a new leader, you get this change almost immediately. People are always asking me this question, so I’m going to ask you. You get a leader who doesn’t recognize the need for change in the culture and they’re getting beat up with low engagement and that type of thing. You’re a cultural expert. What are the things that leaders are getting wrong when it comes to cultural change? Is it not recognizing that they need to change or something else?

What they’re getting wrong is exactly what you are saying in your research and what it points to. A lot of what I discovered from experimentation and building these frameworks, which is fear. Because typically, an autopilot culture is based on seeking safety and comfort as quickly as possible, passively and mindlessly as possible. Leaders who don’t think about their values and what’s driving their decision making. Especially when you’re a new leader, it’s a lot of fear-based thinking, “I have to do this or else. I must prove my worth or something bad will happen. I must make $50 million this quarter or the doors are going to close.” Whatever the must should and ones are that are driving those decisions essentially set emotion, a culture of fear and a culture of shortsighted decision-making.

The first step is getting leaders to dig deep into the narratives that are driving their decision making and getting them to shift those themselves. Because if you don’t have the leaders on board and don’t have them aware of their narratives that are driving things, it’s hard to go outside of them and get other groups to be online or onboard. A great example is this, I was working at a company going through an acquisition. The people who are the middle manager stages of the company had been working on some new offerings for the market where it was around a new value proposition or competitive advantage, and a longer view of how we could get people to understand the value of the company.

Self-doubt does not ever go away, but moving through it quicker and not allowing it to impede you makes the difference. Click To Tweet

At the top with this new leadership and decision making, they essentially wanted to throw all of that research, all of that work the window because they were afraid about proving almost arbitrary goal that had been set within a short period of time. Unfortunately, because they were so afraid, they’re essentially setting the agenda, the tone, and the priorities. People had to abandon the innovation and creativity that was happening and get in line as quickly as possible with these leaders who are making this short-sighted, fear-based agenda. Ironically, they were tension to the toilet. Many people quit, the entire department almost liquidated.

I’ve left that company since then, but they lost profits and they’d been having a hard time recouping them because of the short-sided thinking. Even that felt good at the moment where it was like, “This is safe. This is comfortable. Let’s throw all this out the window, focus on this fear-based thing as quickly as possible.” They ironically made their outcomes even worse than they could have been if they had allowed themselves a bit of curiosity, ambiguity, and creativity. Leaders who are self-aware, who spend time assessing themselves and assessing their values and figuring out how their actions align with those values, that’s the first key to doing cultural change well.

I’ve done it quite a bit of research in the area of emotional intelligence and self-awareness is a big part of it. It all tied to all of the emotional intelligence aspects as far as interpersonal skills, empathy, that fall into that pot of what we need to develop in leaders helps the culture as a whole. I’m wondering if you have a favorite story about what made a positive impact, maybe storytelling or something that you’ve worked with a company, anything you want to share that made a difference in a positive way.

One of the frameworks that I talk about a lot is around imposter syndrome. Because interestingly enough, imposter syndrome is this term that’s becoming a bit more familiar, but everybody understands the concept of self-doubt. There’s tons of research that you’ve probably seen that come out that more and more people, especially high achievers for these crippling waves of self-doubt on a regular basis. There are tons of information as to why this is bad for people’s well-being and their fulfillment but also organizational outcomes and results. One of the things that I teach at my organizational workshops, which is focused on any person who runs something, leads a team, even if it’s a team of two or they’re a CEO. I teach them and narrative techniques to overcome those limiting beliefs and fear-based thinking.

Every time I’ve taught that I’ve always had people who’ve come up to me and said, “This is the first time I’ve ever been able to sit down, pinpoint the issue and have an actionable way to overcome it.” Because typically when we talk about doubt, people are like, “Stop doubting yourself.” There’s nothing actionable, don’t be afraid. I was like, “Is it that simple?” I walk people step by step on pinpointing what the narratives and the stories they’re telling themselves about their capabilities, especially if they have a new idea or a thing that terrifies them that they want to do are. How do we unpack that? What are the actual false narratives that are based on assumptions and which are based on real-world barriers that you’re facing? How do we make a plan so that your real-world barriers can be addressed?

Sometimes, for instance, you might have a big bold idea but there are serious financial risks attached to that idea that you have to be real about. If you make a plan, it can assuage fears, it can reduce the self-doubt. You’re like, “I have a year plan to build up the nest egg that I need to develop this idea,” versus saying, “I can’t do this because I’ve got Sallie Mae to pay and I’ve got three kids and they all need certain types of formula.” Whatever the thinking is around why you can’t do a certain thing. It’s been great to see how powerful a couple of communication techniques, self-inquiry, self-reflection, and writing can be for rewiring people’s brains.

TTL 636 | Building Personal Branding
Building Personal Branding: There’s so much power in leadership and people’s lived experiences. Everyone has expertise in some areas that other people might not have and that they can learn from.


It’s helping even high achievers who’ve done incredible things get over the natural inclination for all of us to be fearful of change and fearful of putting ourselves out there. Once we can figure out these frameworks and we can continuously move through the issue versus being like, “You’re fixed and it’s done.” I don’t think anyone at any point never has self-doubt. I always say that Beyoncé at some point probably does. She’s performed for an entire day and there are times when she steps on stage and she’s like, “What am I doing?” I don’t think self-doubt ever goes away, but moving through it quicker and not allowing it to impede you is the difference.

I’ve had a lot of famous speakers say that they want to have a few butterflies in their stomachs. It makes them be a better performer. They care more. We try to numb ourselves to the point where maybe it’s not so good to do that. Lolly Daskal was on the show talking a little bit about the imposter syndrome and self-doubt and some of that stuff. I think that that’s what I work with a lot of people with as well. Because leaders have to demonstrate vulnerability for other people to be able to get over their fears and stop feeling that sense that some questions are stupid questions or whatever it is that they’re telling themselves. That’s a big step towards the plan.

That’s another thing that I think is important. You have to pinpoint what it is that you’re afraid of. You have to pinpoint what it is you’re telling yourself. You got to pinpoint all these things and then you develop that plan, but if leaders don’t emulate the same behaviors that they’re trying to see, you’re not going to get very far. Let’s say you get people to develop this sense of getting away from status-quo thinking and they’ve developed this curiosity. How do you prove that their results are benefits due to that? That’s the thing I find challenging.

It’s something that’s still being explored in terms of how you measure this tangibly, in terms of the narratives people are creating and then the outcomes that they’re having. One great way to do that is the content that’s being developed. At some point, when leaders or people who are in some position of influence need to communicate their ideas, they’re going to write an email. They’re going to sit on a blog post, whatever that is, and noting the engagement, noting the drive and the acquisitions or the actions that are taken from that content compared to before. It’s a good measure because the story lives within content and communication. The great thing I think we have is where we’re able to measure pretty exact thing almost a science degree of how people are interacting with the content that you create.

Even if it’s in an all-staff meeting, figuring out what questions are being asked. Do people feel engaged? Are they showing up to these conversations with a point of view that feels like they’re learning and engaging and moving along? Are they checked out on their cell phones and on their computers and not caring? Even seeing a change in people’s attitudes, the ways that they show up is a great way to measure it too. What’s strange about culture is it’s an inevitable part about groups of people getting together, culture is formed no matter what. We have a hard time measuring it because it feels so intangible because it’s the way that we communicate with each other. The traditions that we have, the rituals that we have, the social expectations that are created.

All those things are not physical objects. A lot of that is how people feel and how people assess their culture? A lot of time, that’s easily also measured by feedback. A lot of people will tell you like, “This culture sucks.” I’ve seen many surveys where they’re like, “This is an awful place to work.” Especially there’s a new platform Glassdoor who’s allowed this level of anonymous feedback where people can be honest and say, “I worked at this company, here are the pros, and here are the cons.” That’s a great way to measure culture and what’s happening before and after with the types of communication that are also being created and also how people feel about it. I think a big point of it too is leaders can create narrative all they want, but if they don’t follow through with the actions, it doesn’t matter because then there’s disingenuous. You’re being manipulative.

Story lives within content and communication. Click To Tweet

I’ve seen that too, which is almost worse. I’d prefer that you just be memory-driven than to pretend that you’re some purpose-driven esoteric person. People can see through that right away. The vulnerability also has to be authentic and it has to follow through with some action that validates the things that you’re saying and the stories that you’re sharing. Otherwise, people are like, “You’re clearly trying to manipulate us.” Story can be used for manipulation and it is all the time. It’s used in sales, marketing and all types of things to sell things to people that they don’t need and to prey on their insecurities and their fears. I’m vehemently against that and I don’t think that’s the way to use stories. It’s down to the tolerance for feedback and also the tolerance for measuring a before and after.

Actions like you said are louder than words. Doug Conant was on the show sharing how he turned around Campbell Soup culture, writing all the hand-written notes and all the things that he did. It’s been in many case studies of all the courses I teach in universities because he did what he talked about doing. Zander Lurie has been on the show, the CEO of SurveyMonkey. Their whole thing is as a culture of curiosity. They have this so many different ways that they embody what they’re preaching. What you’re saying is important. I know you deal with a lot of helping people change their culture and do all these things, but you also motivate young people to volunteer various social causes from discrimination to women’s rights. Is that something you do within your company or is that something on the side? Can you tell me a little about that?

That was part of the beginning of my career when I was working in the nonprofit space. Essentially I had been building campaigns to get people to understand and learn about different social issues and topics. That’s where I kicked off this ten-year career of using story and communication to drive change. I’m happy and grateful that I stumbled into it because there wasn’t a course or a degree in college for me to be like, “I’m going to use story.” There was a path for it. Being able to experience that. It plays out into my work as an entrepreneur, talking to women, especially people of color, and figuring out how their narratives can be shifted and changed. Especially in the ways they’re giving them space and opportunity to be experts and to be leaders. I launched my first podcast episode called Sway Them In Color.

It’s essentially a leadership podcast but it’s focused on an act of creative courage from an under-heard voice and the leadership lessons from that experience, from that person. I wanted to make space for unconventional people. I have a sexuality professional. I have a shaman. I have a corporate trainer. I have a diversity and inclusion trainer, all types of people. My work is giving space for voices that aren’t typically heard and let them also be experts. Because leadership in its traditional sense has always been seen as a sort of elitist, inaccessible thing that only a certain group of people have access to. I think that’s false. There’s so much power in leadership and people’s lived experiences. Everyone has expertise in some areas that other people might not have and that they can learn from.

My grandmother, for instance, she’s 77. She is such an expert and such a leader in specific areas of life that I looked up to. She’s an excellent communicator. She is an incredible board game champion. She beat me in Scrabble for many years straight. It’s interesting and fascinating to see all of the wisdom that she picked up over the years doing things in the field and the career that she worked in. She’s not Mark Zuckerberg, but there’s so much information and wisdom that she may have to share. Allowing people to have that space is important to me because that’s going to help to change the status quo. There are more people at the table when there are more voices that are talking about these topics and reframing our beliefs and our narratives around leadership.

A question I ask in one of my workshops around diversity and inclusion is, “Who held leadership positions around you and in your community growing up?” That’s important to unpack because if you’ve only seen men in leadership, if you’ve only seen white people in leadership, if you only saw able body people, if you’ve only seen hetero people in positions of leadership, it frames and shapes how you feel about leadership. That has a permeation into the cultures that we build. Getting people to question those things and allowing new voices and faces to talk about these topics is a huge part of the work that I love doing and I’m passionate about it. It started out with the volunteer as a nonprofit work I had done in the past.

It sounds like you’re onto a lot of things that I think are going to be hot topics in the coming years, efficiently mentorship in all forms. It’s like you’re saying with your podcast, there are so many people we can learn from and I think a lot of people could learn from you and they probably want to know how to reach you. Is there a website or something you’d like to share?

You can follow me @ChristinaBlacken on Instagram, @CBlacken on Twitter. My website is I’m sharing episodes of the podcast, there’s content. There’s me singing and doing different hygienes because I feel like even if we’re talking about serious topics, we should have fun. We should laugh.

Thank you so much for being on the show, Christina. This is interesting and we have so much that we share in our beliefs of what we see for leadership. I enjoyed this.

Thank you so much for having me.

You’re welcome.

I’d like to thank S. Renee and Cristina for being my guest. We get so many great guests on this show. If you’ve missed any past episodes, you can catch them at You can tweet out some of the tweetable moments if you find something interesting. If you want more information about Cracking the Curiosity Code or the Curiosity Code Index, you can get it on that site or you can go right to I hope you enjoyed this episode and I hope you join us for the next episode.

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About S. Renee Smith

TTL 636 | Building Personal BrandingS. Renee Smith is an advisor, coach, and strategic partner to senior leaders with a focus on organizational change through talent development. Her area of expertise is in soft skills for current and future leaders.

In her early thirties, she landed a seat at the table as the youngest member of a university president’s cabinet, and has since spent a considerable amount of time sharing the stage and working with corporate CEOs, mid to senior-level leaders, and small business owners of multi-million and billion-dollar operations. However, she effectively provides talent development at every level of an organization.

About Christina Blacken

TTL 636 | Building Personal BrandingChristina Blacken is a speaker, storyteller, and founder of, a storytelling platform and consultancy helping high-growth leaders leverage their stories to align their people to a purpose, increase buy-in of bold ideas, & create inclusive culture during times of change and transition.

Her story expertise spans 10 years – from motivating 300K young people to volunteer on various social causes (from discrimination to women’s rights) with cause marketing campaigns she led and wrote, to closing 6.5M in profits with teams across four different industries, all through story. You can peep her work in, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Huffington Post, and among other outlets. As a Utah native & NYC resident for 9 years, she knows more uses for Jello than she’d like to admit.

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