Part 1 of 4
Curtis Watkins and partner, Cheryl Palmer
Curtis Watkins is a Master Coach who’s lived a full and fascinating life. In 2004, I enrolled in an ontological coaching course through the Newfield Network and was assigned a mentor coach – Curtis. When the course ended, I asked Curtis if we could continue to work together and all these years later, we’re still meeting twice a month. He’s been an incredible mentor, teacher, confidant, colleague and friend. And the bizarre thing is – we’ve never met face-to-face. Curtis lives in upstate New York and our coaching sessions have been by phone. He’ll be presenting at our upcoming Leadership Conference, facilitating the “Marketplace of Ideas,” – and we’ll finally get to meet. I know you’ll like this series.
Geoff: I’m here with Curtis Watkins on August the 14th, 2019, to record an (Extra)ordinary Leaders interview. Curtis, thanks a lot for agreeing to do this today. Before we dive into some of the questions, could you share with me what one word you think describes you the best.
Geoff: Okay. Tell me a little bit about you and your personal history.
Curtis: First of all, I just want to say thank you very much, Geoff, for honoring me with this interview. I really appreciate your considering me to be an (extra)ordinary leader. I’m really looking forward to our conversation here. So, thank you.
A little bit about my personal history: I grew up in a bedroom community in Connecticut, so my father commuted to work each day. My mother was a homemaker. I really didn’t like school at all until I was a junior in college. But I did manage to make it through. I loved learning; I just didn’t like school.
Geoff: What didn’t you like about it?
Curtis: It was just too structured; it was too regimental; it was too focused on stuff they thought was important and wanted me to learn—not really focused on or curious about who I was or what I was interested in.
It was a different time. The pedagogy back then was, “Children should be seen and not heard.” It’s no accident that that’s the way the school system was set up, and to a large degree it’s still that way. You have a lot more experience with school systems than I do.
Anyway, I didn’t really feel seen, if that makes sense, in school. I wasn’t an athlete; I wasn’t a particularly outstanding student. Unless you were one of those, you were kind of just in the mix. Every so often I’d get a teacher that was extraordinary and did see me. That really saved me, if you will.
Geoff: Are there one or two teachers you could point to who really made a difference?
Curtis: Absolutely. My third grade teacher, Mrs. McCorquodale (how’s that for a name?), she made a huge impact on me and I think was responsible for my staying in the school system. She was probably the teacher that had the biggest impact on me.
And then there was—I can’t remember his name—but there was a biology teacher who taught me about accountability. We got along really well. But there was one section of the school work that I didn’t do; and I thought because we were “pals” or “friends” or whatever, that he’d let me skate on that. I was very much surprised when he said, “No. That’s part of the classwork so you get it in or you’re going to get an F.” I went, “Okay.” That was an early lesson in accountability and responsibility.
Geoff: Where’d you go to college?
Curtis: I went to college at Emory University in Atlanta. It was quite a formative time for me in that it was the Civil Rights movement time and it was the anti-war movement time and it was the sexual revolution time.
You know—it was the 60’s. It was quite a revelation to me because prior to that, all I knew about the Viet Nam war was what I saw on the news and read in the newspaper, which was, until the Pentagon Papers were released, what pretty much anybody knew about it. So the scales fell from my eyes, as it were. When I got to college, I got to hear different viewpoints on the Viet Nam war which were completely different. So I guess they say in today’s parlance, I got radicalized. Although I wouldn’t call it radicalization; I would call it education. After college, I really didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted to do. I applied to graduate school. I got into graduate school, but I didn’t go.
Geoff: What did you do?
Curtis: I just hung around the college scene for a year after I graduated (because I had a lot of underclassmen friends) until I saw an ad in the newspaper that TWA was accepting flight attendants. So, I joined TWA’s second class of male flight attendants. I worked with them for two years. Boy, was that fun!
Geoff: What did you enjoy about it?
Curtis: I got to travel for free. And I got to travel for free with incredibly beautiful young women. For a single guy, it was heaven. Of course, the cockpit didn’t like it too much because they had this territory all to themselves and then all of a sudden male flight attendants were showing up. So they were not happy.
Geoff: What made you get out of that work?
Curtis: The job itself was just terrible. The perks were great; the job was just a waiter in the sky. So after two years I left.
I followed my passion that I’d had ever since high school, which was theater. I studied with Stella Adler and got my Equity card, got my SAG card, got all my union cards, which back then was really difficult to do. You couldn’t get a card, if you didn’t have a job and you couldn’t get a job if you didn’t have a card. Through persistence I was able to do that and sign with an agent.
Then I got married, and I realized that I wasn’t making a living as an actor—I was making a living as a waiter. There was no way for me to support a family and pursue an acting career. I looked in my heart of hearts. This is one of the things I think is important for leaders to do: what is it really in their heart of hearts that they want to do. When I looked in there I go, “You know what? I don’t have the singularity of focus that it takes to succeed in this profession, nor do I love it enough. There’s just too many other things that I want to see and do.” Realizing that, I said “Okay. I’m not doing this.” But again, I don’t know what I’m going to do.
I’ve had many, many, many different jobs. I was a cab driver in New York City for a year. That was quite an education. I was a waiter. I was a carpenter. I actually did get some paying acting jobs.
Then I did the EST training in 1976. That changed my world significantly. It was the first time I had taken a really hard look at myself in a structured way. From that point on—I mark that as the point where I was committed to the process of human development. It was fascinating to me. I had never seen it before. I got really curious not only about myself but other people and what made them tick. From that point on I was intrigued by—they called it back then the Human Potential Movement. I volunteered to be an assistant in a lot of these organizations. Towards the end of that I actually got a job working as what they called a Leadership Coordinator.
Whenever leaders talk to me about how difficult it is to motivate people, I go, “Okay. How about this: I was in charge of motivating an entirely volunteer group of people to sell these trainings.” There’s no authority power, no positional power. It’s all vision and influence. That was a big lesson for me. Every time I tried to use positional power, it would just blow up in my face.
I remember one time I was coaching one of the volunteers. She was the girlfriend of my boss. Little did I know when I was coaching her, I wasn’t really coaching her. I was powering over on her. Little did I know she had me on speaker and my boss was listening in. At one point, she says, “So that’s what Curtis says, what do you think, Jim?” That was a great lesson. She’s still a friend of mine- 40 years later, or however long it is. That was a special moment. And then in that organization they invited a guy named James Flaherty to come and talk about this new thing called “Coaching.” We spent a weekend learning about coaching. That’s when I first discovered this is what I was meant to do.
Geoff: What time frame are we talking about?
Curtis: This is 1990. I was almost 50 years old. People talk to me a lot of times when I’m coaching them and say, “I don’t have a clear picture of what I want to do.” And I use myself as an example. I go, “I didn’t have a clear picture of what I wanted to do either. In fact, what I wanted to do didn’t exist when I was your age.” There was no such thing as coaching unless you were coaching basketball or baseball or football. In fact, when I was first a coach, people would say, “Oh, yeah? What sport?” So from that point–what was it 1989, 1990, somewhere around there–that’s been my direction ever since. That’s probably a lot more than you wanted to know.
Geoff: That’s absolutely fine. That’s really good stuff. If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself during your early years of your adult life?
Curtis: If I could go back in time—listen more. There’s an acronym W.A.I.T. in coaching: Why Am I Talking? We were given two ears and one mouth, so you should be doing twice as much listening. So for me, I was a big know-it-all. That’s not a great way to lead.
Geoff: Or coach, right?
Curtis: Or coach, for sure. A know-it-all and a smartass. That was a great combination. As you can tell, I’ve had to do a lot of work. For me, all the work is money in the bank. Any work I do on myself, I find has always been valuable down the road. May not know it right at this moment, but ten years later it’s like, “Oh, that’s why.”
© Geoff Davis, 8/30/19