Past Client Experiences

Jimmy Neil Smith

Founder CEO
Now President Emeritus
International Storytelling Center

Until I retired 18 months ago, I was founder and president of the International Storytelling Center for 40 years. The Tennessee-based institution and its signature event, the National Storytelling Festival, launched a revival of appreciation for the tradition of storytelling that has  spread across the world and through a multitude of fields.

But it didn’t just happen. Instead, this cultural renaissance came about through the sound and effective leadership of a handful of dedicated, capable leaders, advisors, and consultants. One of the key, critically important individuals who helped breathe life into ISC and the revival was Karen Heller Key.

In 1997, ISC, then known as the National Storytelling Association, faced a difficult challenge. NSA was headed into the dawn of the 21st Century with a confused mission and conflicting goals, and the disagreement was tearing the organization apart. What were we to do?

The NSA board of directors hired Karen in 1998 to consult with the institution’s leadership on an organizational restructuring of NSA—forming two separate, independent organizations that would, in tandem, lead and serve the growing storytelling movement. One entity, the National Storytelling Network, was to focus only on membership services, and the other, the International Storytelling Center, was to focus on building the world’s first facility dedicated exclusively to storytelling and launch from this worldwide beacon an international program of outreach and service.

The restructuring was not without tension. There were hours and hours of telephone conversations, reams of detailed plans, and an ongoing, public education program to calm membership fears. However, under Karen’s guidance, the emergence of two separate, independent storytelling organizations from one, single institution occurred without a serious hitch. A total of 98% of the NSA members approved the restructuring.

In looking back on this enormous challenge, it is clear to me, without a doubt, that the single most critical factor of success was the wise and effective guidance of Karen Heller Key.  She was both gracious and direct, and she never lost an opportunity to share with the planning teams the guidance, advice, and counsel she thought we needed at the time.

Over the past 15 years, Karen has remained my friend and mentor. She is the best advisor, consultant, and “thinking partner” I have ever had in my 40-plus-year career. Wise. Experienced. Knowledgeable. Gentle. And honest.

Anyone or any organization would be blessed to have Karen Heller Key on their team.