Curtis Watkins (Curious)

Curtis 4

Curtis and Cheryl above the town of Noli in the Liguria region of Italy.

Part 3 of 4

Geoff:  Are there other kinds of problems that you see in companies you work with that you could share?

Curtis:  Lots of problems.  They want people to work as teams, but they are paid as individuals.  That doesn’t make any sense.  The other problem that I see is that they have visions on the wall but they are meaningless to the people that are actually doing the work.

Geoff:  Why do you think that is?

Curtis:  Because they probably hired a consultant like me to come up and do a workshop to create a vision instead of really being with their people and go, “So, why do you do what you do?  Why are you here?  Because if you’re just here for a paycheck, okay.  I understand.  We have bills to pay.  What would it be like if you were here for a paycheck and you were here because you made a difference in the world?”  Unfortunately, I don’t think the way our economic system is structured now there’s much opportunity for the corporate individual to have a sense of living in a vision that matters to them.

Geoff:  All the companies you’ve worked with, and I know you’ve worked with a number of companies, especially large companies internationally, what kinds of things would help them and help their leaders address some of these problems?

Curtis:  You know, the demands of profit oftentimes keep leaders from doing what they know is right in favor of what the business demands.  I see this over and over and over and over again.

Geoff:  Are these public companies?  Private companies?  Both?

Curtis:  More public than private because private companies don’t have to answer to Wall Street.  But they also want to make a profit and they have the flexibility to say, “You know what, I think it’s more important that our employees are really engaged than we squeeze every drop of profitability out of this organization.”  That’s the nature of the capitalist system.  You have got to maximize profit, no matter what.  It’s not that these leaders are mean or greedy or any of that.  They don’t wake up in the morning going, “Ha. Ha. Ha.  How can I screw the little guy?”  It’s they’re under the wringer.  They need to produce.  They need to perform.  And there’s only one metric.

Geoff:  One of the things that I’ve been reading lately that struck me over the weekend was that the amount of employee disengagement is now up to 85%.

Curtis:  It’s amazing to me that there’s even 15% that are engaged.  And what kinds of things would help?  For me—and this is what I coach on a lot—having them have greater clarity as people on what really matters to them in life.

Geoff:  That’s a question that I ask that I often get blank stares back with.

Curtis:  Because I have to pay the rent.  And is there a way to bridge that gap?  Here’s what really matters to me:  if you ask anybody, they’ll say, “My family.”  “How many hours did you spend with your children this week?”  “Well, I had to go to Singapore. . .”  “And so how many hours was that?”  “Half an hour.”  It’s a trap.  It’s a really, really hard conundrum.

Geoff:  Let’s talk about a particular success story or two that you’d be willing to share.

Curtis:  Sure.  I just want to go back one time and say:  something that would help is, the thing that would help me, is listen.  As leaders of their lives, are you really listening to what matters in life?  Are you listening to your children?  Are you listening to your wife?  Are you listening to your employees?  What is important to them?

Geoff:  That unlocks a lot of problems, doesn’t it?  And it’s such a simple question.

Curtis:  It is.  And that’s why robots are so great.  I’m serious—robots are fantastic.  They don’t have families, they don’t have wants or needs or desires, they just do what they’re programmed to do.

Geoff:  But unfortunately or fortunately we’re leading humans, right?

Curtis:  Yeah.

Geoff:  Let’s talk a little bit about a particular success story or two you’d be willing to share.

Curtis:  There was an owner of a 20 million dollar energy generation company, a small enterprise, maybe 60 people, something like that.  They had several plants—they had a plant on the West coast that would burn tires and create energy, which has great value because you don’t know how many used tires there are just sitting in dumps.  They would turn rice hulls into energy, lots of different ways.

The owner brought an investor on board.  The investor proceeded to take over his company.  The owner hired me as his coach as really a sounding board.  Do I have expertise in the field of mergers and acquisitions and hostile take-overs?  Totally not.  But as a thought partner with him, which he found to be “invaluable” (his words, not mine), I was able to support him in staying focused on what it was he wanted to accomplish and not getting distracted by all the other stuff that he would get distracted by which was a successful sale of the company with his team intact.

Geoff:  When you say “he,” you’re not talking about the investor; you’re talking about the owner?

Curtis:  Yeah.  I’m talking about the guy who brought me in—the owner.   How to negotiate, and how to stay in negotiation with the investor and survive.  It was about a three-and-a- half year process, but indeed that is what occurred.  That was fascinating for me to watch—I learned a lot.

One of the key aspects of that success, believe it or not, was me introducing meditation to this guy.  He didn’t use it as a spiritual device or a spiritual practice; he used it help him go to sleep.  Because he wasn’t sleeping.  Can you imagine trying to negotiate without being able to sleep?  For him, it was huge.  That was one.

And then, there was a woman who was brought in to take over the second largest law office of this international law firm.  They had offices all over the world.  This one was in DC, and they had tasked her with head count reduction.

Immediately she was not on good terms with the staff or the lawyers.  Unfortunately her personal style did not help her very much either.  She was very brusque, head down, get the job done, don’t let these people get in my way—”these people” being her team.  She was very well meaning.  Nobody sets out to say, “How can I mess with people’s lives?”  She was trying to do the job she was tasked with doing the most effective way she knew how.

When I got down there to be with her, the first thing I noticed was, I walked in her office and the only piece of furniture in the entire office was a standing desk.  So I said, “Where do you have conversations with your people?”

“Just here.”

“Standing up?”

She goes, “Yeah.  They go much faster that way.”

I go, “Okay.”

You know, in America, speed is everything.

I said, “So walk me around the office.”  She walked around the office—I think I lost three pounds trying to keep up with her.  She strode through the office with her brows furrowed and her head down, like she was a linebacker or something.  Not that bad, but. . .  And quickly, very quickly.

When we were back in her office, I said, “So, how often do people come up to you and talk to you as you’re going through the office?”

She said, “They never do that.”

I go, “Would you like to have some communication with them?”

“Yeah, but they just don’t seem to want to.”

I said, “Okay, well here’s what I’d like you to do.  I’d like you to walk around the office again.  And this time, I would like you to walk more slowly, and I’d like you to lift your head up so your eye level is even.”

She said, “You’re probably going to ask me to smile, too.”

I go, “Actually, no, I’m not.  If you want to, great.  But no, I’m not going to ask you.  I’m just asking you to walk slower and lift your head up so you can actually see 180 degrees.  Are you ready?”

So she did that.  I go, “What did you notice?”

She goes, “I noticed people.”

“And did you catch anybody’s eye?”

“No, I didn’t do that.”

I said, “Okay.  Did you think there was an opportunity to catch somebody.”

She said, “Yeah, there were a couple there but I didn’t want to.”

I said, “Okay.”  Time was up, and I just gave her her practices.  An important part of coaching, is what are the generative practices to produce a new skill set or new way of being.

Geoff:  So could you define “generative” for us.

Curtis:  Another big influence of mine, and I can’t believe that I forgot, is a guy named Richard Strozzi Heckler.  He was my somatic coaching teacher—an amazing guy.  One of the things that he says is, “We’re always practicing something.  Is what you are practicing generating the life or result that you want?  If not, what might be a practice that would generate the reality that you want?”  That’s what I mean by a generative practice.

Geoff:  Thank you.  So back to the story.

Curtis:  When I left, I gave her those two practices.  And she was flabbergasted because she was thinking it was going to be something different than what is was.

I said, “Here’s your job—your job is to walk more slowly through the office when you walk through the office, and keep your head up.   Part one, slowly.  Part two, head up.  Part three, you are to make eye contact with at least one person once a day.”

She kind of got backed up around that, and I go, “Are you okay with it?”

She goes, “Well, I don’t know about that eye contact.  One person, once a day.”

I go, “Do you want me to play this back for you.  This is what I heard you say:  you have a problem making eye contact with one person in your office, which you are leading, which you are in charge of, once a day. How do you possibly expect to lead these people if you can’t even make eye contact?”

Geoff:  What was her reaction?

Curtis:   She said, “Okay, I’ll try it.”

“That’s all I’m asking you, just try it and see what happens.”

The next time I went down there, there was a whole different office, and she was a whole different person.  There was furniture in her office, the door was open, there was actually some place for somebody to actually sit and have a conversation.  It was great.  She was a great client.  At first she was hesitant, but she really wanted to succeed.  So this is one example of where being told that you’re going to get a coach actually worked, because it usually doesn’t.

Geoff:  I’d say the other part of the equation was she had a great coach, too.

Curtis:  I was able to get over that barrier and actually let her see that there’s going to be value here.  This wasn’t a punishment.  This was actually their way of saying, “Listen, we value you.  That’s why this guy is here.”

We’ll finish the interview with Curtis in the next post, where he’ll talk about the challenges he still faces as a coach, how he sees leadership, and advice he’d give to any leader, based on his years of experience working with them.

You can also see Curtis at the “Meeting (extra)Ordinary Leaders” Conference, to be held October 29, 2019 at the Ware Center in downtown Lancaster, PA, where he’ll be speaking on “The Emotional Territory of Leaders” as well as helping facilitate a “Marketplace of Ideas” for our attendees. 

© Geoff Davis 9/13/19


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