Dr. Deborah Curtis discusses teams, diversity, and gratitude
Tim Leman: Have you ever felt like you're on the edge of something great? You've put in the work, you've done the hard stuff most people aren't willing to do, and now you can just sense a magical run lies ahead. This season we'll talk to leaders across the wide variety of industries to learn what it's like to ride the edge and own it. We'll hear what separates those special teams from the more ordinary experiences, the kind if we're lucky we get to be a part of maybe three or four times in our life. Join me, Tim Leman, Chairman and CEO of Gibson, as we discuss leading on the edge. Welcome to The Edge Podcast. I'm your host, Tim Leman. On this episode, we have Deborah Curtis. Dr. Curtis is President of Indiana State University, which just so happens to be my alma mater. And as a proud Sycamore myself, I'm very excited to have her as our guest. Welcome, Dr. Curtis and, Go Trees.
Deborah Curtis: Excellent. Good to see you and chat with you today, Tim.
Tim Leman: Yeah. Thanks again for coming on. Hey, so maybe start off with, tell us what makes Indiana State so special?
Deborah Curtis: It's one of my favorite questions, being an alum myself from Indiana State, I know what a significant impact it's had on my career. And what's distinctive about Indiana State? We've been here more than a 150 years, and I often say, I've almost got the governor saying it back to me, Indiana State University is the State of Indiana's university. Most of our students come from this state, most of them stay in the state, like yourself, and contribute to the economy, run businesses, raise their families, become taxpayers. And we're incredibly proud of that, but in addition to that, we have some very distinctive programs at Indiana State that you don't find everywhere, and try to make sure people understand that, because many times that's what people come to Indiana State for. Things like our package engineering technology. We've got a wonderful online construction management program, certainly a lot of our healthcare related fields, and, of course, the foundational piece, which is our College of Education. So, there's a lot of interesting work going on here that's pretty distinctive.
Tim Leman: Speaking of that, how often do you get an opportunity to engage with employers and leaders at employers who can tell you what they're looking for in future employees, and how does that all filter its way back in to the university?
Deborah Curtis: Well, indeed, another one of the distinctive qualities of Indiana State is we have an entire division of university engagement, and I'll tell you, in my now 36 year career, I've not been at an institution that had a division focused on that. So, we have a Vice President of University Engagement, and her division is focused on not only for the purposes of finding opportunities for our graduates, but connecting while our students are enrolled at the university, to make sure, number one, we hear from employers and we have a real sense of the pulse of the economic needs of the state. But number two as well, that we make sure we develop these relationships so that they're getting the theory here, but we have opportunities for internships and workplace experiential learning, so that we combine those experiences. So, when someone graduates, they've got theory and they've got real- world, and that's an important piece for us. So, since I've been back in the last, this is my fourth year back, we've even been, pre- pandemic, of course, been doing some listening tours around the state and inviting in employers as we visit and just hear from them,"What do you need? What are you looking for?"
Tim Leman: I'm a little biased being a graduate, but I completely agree with you, and I think both when I was a student in the Insurance and risk management program, I got a chance to do three internships one after my freshman, sophomore, and then junior year, and 25 years ago, that was actually pretty unique to get a chance to do something like that. And I still feel that way now as an employer, the ability to connect with the head of the program and literally talk directly about specific students and opportunities has been fantastic for us. So well done on that. As you're talking about that in a way you're describing some of the things you're involved with, but talk to us about what's the difference between being the president of the university, or maybe some of your past roles like a provost or a dean, and especially as it pertains to leadership and so on. I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.
Deborah Curtis: Well, it's an interesting role that I didn't really realize along my path that I would be sitting in this chair. The biggest difference is, and I've always known this in my administrative career in higher ed, the buck always stops at this desk, that's where it lands. So it's interesting because every step up the ladder you take, you think you see a broader picture, and you do, but when you reach this point, you're seeing quite a horizon out there of all of the intricacies of an institution of higher learning, five colleges and 2, 000 employees, 10,000 students, both undergrad and graduate students, online learners. So, that whole variety also requires that you're able to peruse that on a regular basis and certainly have really good leaders in each of those spots to not only inform me, but share with me where we are headed, and also listen to me about what the vision is. So, it's like a spot where you've watched it from one vantage point, and now when you're in it, you just see the broader horizon and it's really invigorating.
Tim Leman: What's your favorite part about your current role?
Deborah Curtis: It's two piece part, interacting with not only our students, but our alumni like yourself. Being an alum myself, I often hear the same things coming from our alumni about their gratitude for the experiences they had, and then our young people who are here pursuing degrees, who get to as well interact with our alumni and understand the really rich heritage and traditions of this institution. So the people, that's my very favorite part.
Tim Leman: Well, speaking of people, and you were describing, you lead a team of leaders, talk about your leadership team at a place like Indiana State. You talked about 10, 000 students, 2000 employees. What does your leadership team look like? And how do you all interact together?
Deborah Curtis: Counting me when we're sitting at the president's cabinet table, there are 12 of us in the room. Five of those are vice presidents, and that's certainly the finance and admin part. Our provost, who, of course, is responsible for all of academic affairs, our vice president for student affairs, our vice president for advancement and foundation in that work. We have our athletic director there as well. I have a new position, it's over a year now, an assistant to the president for human relations that I've appointed in the last year, and it's been really wonderful. We have my chief of staff in this space. We also have our government relations and university communication, executive director, our AVP of diversity, equity and inclusion on campus. So it's a real array of professionals who oversee every vantage point of this institution. A fun piece for me is, there are 12 of us and eight of them are women. And that's something I've not experienced at a leadership table at which I have been sitting in my career. And that's pretty exciting to see that taking place, and everyone in the room truly earned the role to be in the position they're in. I really feel blessed, because some of this team is comprised of people I've hired since I've been here. And another piece of it are people who were here when I came. And as we were dealing with the pandemic in the last year, I more than once looked at this team and said, you know what? If I had to pick right now, people to sit in your seat, I wouldn't pick anyone else. This was a team that really knew what everybody's responsibility was, and came together as a unit. And I've just felt blessed, truly blessed over this last year for this team.
Tim Leman: Hearing how you describe that, I think it's going to be tough to get an answer out of you on this, but what do you feel like your contribution to that leadership team, as a what's your secret sauce in there, maybe to support that being such a great team?
Deborah Curtis: Well, one thing I message to them, and I have since the day I arrived here, and I experienced this myself, so it's become very important to me is, I regularly say to them, I expect each one of you to be in service to one another. Everyone has their own responsibilities, but if there's one of us who's having a challenge, we all need to focus on that challenge for a while and help. I've said to them, I've never come up with a solution to a problem by myself that was better than one we came up with together. And so we really allow it to be a place where there's free exchange. Also, I want all voices heard, because I don't mind telling you there's a tremendous amount of diversity of opinion there, but that's what makes it so rich. So we work really hard to make sure everyone's voice is not only heard, but respected. And when it's time for consensus building, a lot of conversation, there's no doubt about it. I've told them all I have no wish for a leadership team that just does what I say, because otherwise we don't need all of us then.
Tim Leman: That's right. A couple of things you said there, and I want to come back to the diversity piece in a bit, but two of the positions you mentioned, you said human relations, human resources, or something like that. What is that role, human relations?
Deborah Curtis: So a year ago with the climate in society, it became very clear to me locally here in our environment, that there was a disconnect, and Indiana State University is a very diverse student population, we're about 30% diverse, yet the community we live in is only about 10% diverse. So it became clear to me that Indiana State needed to reach out and become more a part of this community, not just for internships, or community service opportunities, but really for me as president being a place where maybe we keep more of those graduates who come here to go to college, but also attracting and retaining employees in this community. We're one of the largest employers in the Wabash Valley, and that means if we can create a diverse environment for not only students and keep some of them, but also for employees, we contribute to the diversification of this community. So it was mainly focused on the person I invited into that role, this is a person of color who already worked for the university, but she was born and raised in Terre Haute. And we had had many conversations on the side about some of these musings I had about the connection of the university to the community, and what we could benefit from most, both ways. And it just became very clear to me last year, I could really benefit from having her sitting at the leadership table. And as a matter of fact, she and I just came back from a lunch with one of our community leaders. Having these conversations about how can we do this better, be a part of a community where the community impacts us more and we indeed impact this community in which we reside better. And I've said it over the last year, it's worth every ounce of effort we made to create that position, because it was a missing piece.
Tim Leman: Yeah, that is fantastic. I think people are recognizing that a little bit more, but I'm still not seeing a lot of people able to go the distance and put it in a cabinet level, leadership team level role. So, that's great. Another role, you mentioned your chief of staff. So we talk about those kind of things a lot. We talk with our clients, business owners, and think it's so important to have somebody in that visionary seat and then somebody in the, what we call the integrator seat, but that CEO and COO role. How do the two of you interact together, and what's that give and take like, and your personal relationship and business, and where does it start and stop, and all the rest of that?
Deborah Curtis: Well, a good news and a bad news. Good news of it, I walked in with a chief of staff in place who's wonderful, bad news is she's getting ready to retire. So we're actually really thinking about this role a lot, and a chief of staff job, pretty much a person can make it their own, it's not necessarily here's the list of to- dos, check them off. But in this role that my chief of staff has served in for quite a while here at Indiana State, and has been just a wonderful asset for me. She certainly manages the day- to- day in this office here and with all that variety of work, but also since I've arrived, I've put into that portfolio the management, monitoring, and in the last year, development of the strategic plan. So I tease her and say, you're the nudge. The leadership team is the visioning group and the development group, but you're the nudge. And she's the very best at that, in helping people keep that strategic plan right in front of them every day. The thing we've pledged to do is not have it be a binder that's put on a shelf as soon as it's developed. And she's done a wonderful job of that. Also, because we have a board, and we have a board of trustees here, she is the main liaison between the president's office and the board. So she has this tremendous knowledge of the bylaws, policies and procedures of the trustees, but also the historical role of that board. And she's the go- to for those folks. She also is the person that does a little bit of the door monitoring, if you will. If there's something she can address quickly without adding it to my calendar, she does. She's very good at discerning when, no, this really needs to walk in the president's door, and we need to sit down and talk about it. One of my favorite bits about her is we can almost now after three and a half years finish each other's sentences, which I think that's really crucial for a chief of staff. I think it's incredibly crucial. You also need someone who, when the door's closed and the two of you are there, who's going to straight shoot and tell you, here's the way it's been, doesn't have to be that way, but here's why it's that way and have those conversations. So we've already appointed a new chief of staff who will begin March 1st, next year. So we've got this great long window of transition for the two of them. And it's another person who has a long history with the institution, not necessarily in a role like that, which I have found to be really important. I think my biggest concern was hiring a chief of staff externally that didn't have that sense of Indiana State University, could have been done, but it's a much longer uptake for someone in that role. So I really believe, just because of how well this chief of staff has delivered her services, that it's going to be an exceptional transition.
Tim Leman: Oh, that's exciting. One of those key cogs in a team. Speaking of teams and leadership teams, what's the best team you've ever been on? And I know you've been involved with music over the years, so maybe it's a quartet or a band or something, but what's the best team that you've ever been on?
Deborah Curtis: Boy, because the word team is used, I've got to go back to my coaching history, back in my days as a public school teacher, that team environment, and I'm really going to point to volleyball coaching at that time. This was the time when Title IX had just begun, and I'm not going to tell you why some brilliant history coach, it was at a time where people needed to step up to coach girls sports, because they had not been staffed the way they had been once Title IX came. So I'm delighted to tell you at that time, we were teaching a lot of young women how to play sport who never thought of playing sports. And it was just a foundational moment that I think we all knew that at that time. I watch it, and I certainly have the great privilege of watching Sycamore athletics and volleyball, and it was sure not that way back when I began coaching a lot of the young women in a small community in Illinois when Title IX came along, but it was a real privilege. And so it just has a very special spot in my memory.
Tim Leman: Any little story from one of those teams, or players, or anything you can share?
Deborah Curtis: After that moving on through those years, and moving off into other roles, and raising my own family, my own daughter played college volleyball. And I remember chatting with her coach one time, and this coach almost looking at me as if we were going to have this coach to coach conversation. I said, hold the bus there, my girls would say, let's make it pretty girls. We were tying the standards to the edge of the bleachers to get the net taught. It was not what it has become. And the thrill for me in that story is watching what a difference it's made for young women. Just the confidence, watching young female athletes develop a certain type of confidence that for many of them, the opportunity had not been there before. So just the evolution, and seeing the opportunities has been wonderful.
Tim Leman: We love what Indiana State's doing with that, and with diversity in general. And as we were looking inward about how we've handled a lot of that over the years, we really wanted to take a step forward and we got caught up in, okay, well, let's find a risk management college, maybe from the historically black colleges and universities, and maybe we can build a partnership with them. And we came back all the way full circle like, wait a second. We have this great relationship with ISU and it's the most diverse state university in Indiana. We just need to start fishing in some additional ponds that we haven't before and keep doing what we're doing. So it's been exciting. We had a couple of endowed scholarships that we've been growing over the years that our employees contribute to and some of our partners. And so we converted one to now be awarded solely to women in the insurance and risk management field, and then the other to be solely awarded to minorities. And it's been really awesome, just even getting to connect with the first two winners since we changed their credentials has been fantastic. You started talking about that and with volleyball and what that was like, but I think today even still, what kind of advice can you give to employers about what they need to do maybe differently to support women and, or, minorities better, more, et cetera?
Deborah Curtis: Well, the first thing I would say is, and ask really respectively to step up and provide some of those internship opportunities, I very often find myself in a spot talking with future employers saying, I can't create your workplace on my campus. So think how great the graduate is, if we can combine our world- class faculty's teaching on our campus with your workplace environment, and providing that chance for not only our students to gain that experience, but for you to get a first look at some of this talent coming along, because many times, and you know that you've been one of those employers that turns into a hire that's far more useful for you to get that view than a 30 minute interview process, or a 45 minute, but you watch someone how they work on a team, what kind of work ethic they display? Are they a listener as much as a talker? All of those important, people used to call those soft skills and I've just resisted that my whole career, there's nothing soft about them, they're personal professional skills. And being able to develop those for young women, and certainly sometimes for students from minority communities, or in particular, we find low- income families. I was not necessarily from a low income family, but I was from a first- generation family. I was the first- generation college goer in my family, you just don't have the guides there. So for a lot of young professionals who are growing, they don't even know what they don't know. And to have that partnership between employers and the university is just critical to make sure that that young person you hire when they've earned their degree, has the right kind of start.
Tim Leman: Well, you guys are continuing to do great work on that. I don't actually wonder if the pipeline's ever going to end, but you can wonder, and every year we just end up having another great example of that, a young lady by the name of Mackenzie this summer from Indiana State. And she was fantastic and had an opportunity to have lunch one day. And she was talking about she's going to be getting married right after school's done, and all these plans for the future, and the work ethic and everything involved with, I got to plan this, and I need to save for my wedding, and turned into, she's continuing on in a newly created role, an overflow urgent roles for fourth quarter employee open enrollment stuff here for our team, which we've been dying to have for a long time as we support employers with health benefits in that. And it is really all about her, it's just this great example of work ethic and also being a sponge and everything, which that's been the hallmark for us, for our ISU kids, is they're hungry, they're not pretentious, they want to work hard. And we can look out my window and see the Golden dome right now, but we have some Irish grads and they're fantastic, but Indiana State has just been great for us. So love everything you all are doing with that. Dr. Curtis, you talked about your family a minute ago. I know you've got the hubs, you got five children, nine grandchildren, being in a demanding role like yours where you're always on 24/ 7, how do you find and make time for all those people who I know are also very important to you?
Deborah Curtis: Well, the beauty at this point in my career is that we're just four hours away from most of them, they're up in the Chicago burbs. And mainly we all gather around near the, one of the kiddos and her family that of all places live in Sycamore, Illinois. How perfect is that, right?
Tim Leman: There you go.
Deborah Curtis: So that's an opportunity that we can just hop in the car and get up there in a few hours and have some weekend chances to really just soak in those times that go by so fast for young people and our grandchildren. So it's a real delight for us to do that. And when people say, how do you decompress? That's what we do. We go spend time, pull out a back chair out of the trunk and sit and watch a baseball game of 11 year olds playing, which I got to brag a minute, because 11 year olds, that's a granddaughter, the only girl on a boy's baseball team. I just got to say that.
Tim Leman: Really?
Deborah Curtis: Oh yeah. Yeah. She's been doing that for several years on the traveling team. She's a catcher. And it's happening more and more going back to women in roles, because, of course, now her parents follow this, and there are a lot of young girls who are hanging with baseball a lot longer than they ever did before. So she's not the only girl anymore at events. So that's pretty fun.
Tim Leman: That's great. It sounds like she was born into the perfect family relative to having the perfect grandma to know what that's all about, breaking boundaries and all that. That's fantastic. Dr. Curtis, what would you say is your edge in life? What's given you your edge?
Deborah Curtis: It might take a few sentence to say it, but I immediately went to the answer, because at this point in my career, I've realized that it's my sense of gratitude for the path that I've had. I tell people, I didn't sit down as a 20 something year old and chart this path out. This has been just a blessing of opportunities, and I always say to young people, when a door opens, walk through it, seldom does it slam shut. I'm just so grateful for the opportunities with which I've been provided, and every day in this role. Every day I sit at my desk and I think how grateful I am for people in an institution like this, alumni like you, who are so not only grateful for Indiana State, but so supportive of us. And we have many, many alumni out there who do this. I can't imagine another career. As a matter of fact, I was on a leadership team once where that was an exercise, that was done at the inaudible, if this wasn't what you were doing, what would your ideal career been in? They give you so many minutes to think through it. I just had to cop to, I said, nothing else. I can't think of another thing I would have rather done. And I heard some really amazing stories. Somebody would have been a fighter pilot, and somebody would have this, there isn't another thing. And at this point I say, how grateful I am, and how grateful I am that I can sit in the seat at this institution that was so instrumental in building my career in higher ed. So I think it's a sense of gratitude that really lets me live in each moment.
Tim Leman: Okay. Let's shift gears to rapid fire. This is always my favorite part of the show. What's your favorite color?
Deborah Curtis: Blue.
Tim Leman: I thought I would know the answer to that one. And what was your first car?
Deborah Curtis: Oh, was a Plymouth, I used to call it the golden jet, because it was a convertible, but don't think it was fancy. It was a Plymouth. That's all I remember.
Tim Leman: The golden jet. So, we ask this of everybody, but being a music major, what's the most memorable concert or performance you've been to?
Deborah Curtis: Been to? Good, gosh, there are so many over the years. I think this is going to be an odd one for you to think, but it was as a young person going to a Who concert. It was my first mass concert like that with friends from college and I was just blown away by the whole experience. It wasn't just the music, it was the whole experience, because to me music is all about the experience.
Tim Leman: Absolutely. I love it. I got Baba O'Riley in my head right now actually after you said that. So what's something about you that very few people know?
Deborah Curtis: Wow. See, I'm an out there person. I'm trying to think of something that, well, I'll say this. I don't think people would think of it, but as a young professional, I sewed most of my own clothes because I couldn't find in the store what I wanted. So I sewed a lot. I always wanted something different.
Tim Leman: That's great. Who would play you in a movie?
Deborah Curtis: Well, so this is aspirational, right?
Tim Leman: I understand.
Deborah Curtis: I always tease people who have to take my picture. And I would say, it's a young Candice Bergen.
Tim Leman: All right. Murphy Brown, right?
Deborah Curtis: Yes. You know what? There's a funny thing, they had a picture of me on the Indiana State Magazine the year I came, and lo and behold, I was out there, oh, I glanced and I thought, oh, there's Murphy Brown. I said, oh my gosh, it happened. It happened. You had to blur your eyes a little bit. Right?
Tim Leman: I love it. That's good. Three people you'd like to have dinner with?
Deborah Curtis: Well, I'll definitely say one is Barack Obama, just because of what a figure he was, what a huge historical figure, but also just his persona. I've actually met him twice, but in a line of people shaking hands, and I would just love to be able to pick his brain a little bit. I think that would be fascinating. I have a feeling it will be something I wouldn't want to have over very quickly. So that would be a key piece for me. Golda Meir would be someone that I would be very interested to have dinner with and sit and talk to. What a trailblazer in her life. I've read books about her, and a woman who didn't even think twice about the role she assumed on the world stage, but made such a significant impact.
Tim Leman: Dr. Curtis, tell me about her just a bit, I guess I'm not familiar with her name.
Deborah Curtis: Well, the prime minister of Israel quite a while ago, but when women weren't doing that kind of work and engaging that kind of role, to interject such, it was clear wisdom, but it was certainly paired with an experience on the world stage that frankly, I think if you read about her, I'm not too sure she always thought that that was something she brought to it, but certainly it's one of those, your actions speak louder than your words. And I just think she's an icon for many women to study and think about how you can lead with a dignity and grace and still be firm and make a difference in the world clearly. And then I think a third one for me would have been Martin Luther King. And I remember, I was alive during that time, a lot of the young people here only read about him and there's something lost in the translation because I remember him as a human being, not this icon that a lot of young people see today. And when I talk to them, I say, here was my sense as a young adult, a teen at that time, it was another human being who was saying something in a way you'd not heard before. They've heard his words over and over again, and at that time in history, there was nothing to compare his words and his message to. Another human being who embodied a light greater than his humanity, if you know what I mean by that. And I wish I could teleport back there to actually soak up more of the reality. He was a human being, a person who cried and laughed and raised a family. He wasn't just this historical figure. And I really wish young people could have a sense of him as the living person. And I would have loved to have sat and learned from him, where did this come from? Because I think it was certainly spiritual, but it was, I don't think something he was taught. I think it was something in him that he was able to promote and give out to the rest of the world. So I think that would be a fascinating dinner as well.
Tim Leman: Those are great. I see a common theme on stuff you've talked about of these leaders that you admire that were trailblazers, but they did it with a lot of grace, but also had a lot of courage, combining both. And that's great. And then last one, what's something else big that you want to do before it's all over?
Deborah Curtis: That's a tough call because I feel like I'm living something big right now and always so grateful to have that. I think it's not going to seem big to others, but it is to me, I'd love to see every one of my grandkids get married and have a family. That's something one aspires to and you hope you're there for that. And I watched my parents have that benefit. My parents live to an older age than my husband parents did. So they didn't get to see that. And I did and thinking there's no better spot in life to see your family go on even beyond your own children. So that's an aspiration of mine, is to be here, see them move into careers and become citizens, contribute in our society and raise their own families.
Tim Leman: That's great. Well, I so appreciate having you on. And one of my favorite Indiana State memories was got a call to be the 2016 commencement speaker. President Bradley tells me I was first choice, but I think somebody fell out of the rotation, but I was happy to answer the call and it was just a ton of fun and super exciting, but I love what you had to say today too. And even going back where a big theme of ours is around teams and just your words of being in service to each other, to a leadership team. Fantastic. So keep up the great work, as an alum I appreciate it. And selfishly, I appreciate it a ton too for Gibson because we can't get enough Sycamore. So thanks again for your time today. I really appreciate it.
Deborah Curtis: Well, Tim, we're so proud of you and everything you've done in your career. You're a great calling card for Indiana state university. So thank you so much.
Tim Leman: Thank you for tuning in today. I'm Tim Leman, and remember to own your edge. Subscribe to The Edge Podcast on Apple, Google and Spotify.
Dr. Deborah Curtis, President of Indiana State University, joins Tim to discuss her leadership experiences, the secret sauce to a strong & cohesive team, and the role gratitude plays in her life. You'll also hear stories of how leadership, diversity, and empowerment are making an impact at Indiana State.