Episode 388: Choosing Greatness with Christina Curtis

Episode Summary

In today’s episode, the inspiring Betsy Clark and Tom Burbage join us for a great conversation about leadership, management, and the keys to building high-performing teams, inspired by the story depicted in their book “F-35: The Inside Story of the Lightning II,” where they gift us with an inside look to the creation of the most advanced aircraft in the world.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. This is Steve Shallenberger, your host, from Becoming Your Best. We are delighted to have a terrific guest with us today. She is the founder of Curtis Leadership Consulting. Based in Denver, Colorado, our neighbor. Supporting a range of high-achieving clients from world-class entrepreneurs to executives from Fortune 500 companies and Olympic athletics. So, welcome Christina Curtis. 

Christina Curtis: Thank you! Excited to be here. 

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, we’re excited to have you. I’ll just tell you a little bit more about her before we get going. A thought leader on motivation and goal attainment. She has written articles and been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Psychology Today, Entrepreneur, and Fortune Magazine. She earned her master’s degree in Organizational Psychology and is certified in neuro leadership, which is an accredited master coach designation held by less than 2% of coaches globally. Christina’s groundbreaking new book, “Choosing Greatness: An Evidence-Based Approach to Achieving Exceptional Outcomes”. Outcome simplifies success by giving us exclusive front-row access to the daily choices made by exceptionally successful leaders and athletes. And it highlights the habits that hold you back and the choices that move you forward. So, as we had the chance to visit beforehand, and we talked about Becoming Your Best and the 12 principles of highly successful leaders, we can’t wait to hear some of the things she’s discovered and teach us. And I’m sure that they will have an impact on every one of us. So, let’s get right into it. Christina, just tell us about your background and any turning points in your life that have had a significant impact on you and where you are today. 

Christina Curtis: Thanks for having me. My background was actually originally in sales, believe it or not. Two decades ago, I started at Xerox running our sales training program. And I got really curious about the difference between the people who are making it to the top of the leaderboard and the people who are constantly struggling. And I decided to get very committed to finding that answer. And it’s brought me to all kinds of remote parts of the world studying human psychology, whether it’s out swimming with sharks and watching how people react, whether I’m skydiving and watching people react there, or even sitting in silence with Buddhist monks for two weeks in Thailand. I have been driven to find out why is it that we react differently to whatever’s in front of us rather than thoughtfully responding based on the outcome we want to achieve. What it really comes down to, Steve, is understanding that we are hard-wired in a certain way to avoid risk and seek reward, and this shows up in our business environment in a very fundamental way. We may show up in a meeting and say, “Gosh! I’m not sure I should say anything here, I might sound like an idiot.” So I don’t talk. And immediately, I’ve limited my ability to drive results, even though it’s just a reaction to the fact that everyone’s looking at me right now and I’m feeling uncomfortable. Or you may react to feedback negatively and become defensive during a performance review, and that can derail your career because you’re now seen as not interested in growth, even though it was just a reaction. So this whole concept of bad habits and our neural response to threat and risk is a big differentiator in terms of how people achieve success or whether they’re constantly eroding their own results. 

Steve Shallenberger: What a background! Great going. We love this subject, don’t we? 

Christina Curtis: Well, it’s such an important one because we all deal with it. We all go out. We wake up in the morning, we’re committed to having a great day, and then things happen. I don’t know about you, Steve. But suddenly, some email pops up in your inbox and triggers you, or you’re having a conversation and it throws you off, or you get home and the world is bombarding you via all these different devices that we’ve got on and you can’t even be present your family. This is normal everyday life. So, the question becomes: how do I just interrupt all that? How do I turn the noise down on the things that are causing me to react in a way that isn’t moving me forward from a result or relationship standpoint so I can choose the future I want and actually show up and choose how I respond, day in and day out? And that’s what I noticed. If I look at the Olympic athletes I work with, or Richard Branson, who I feature in the book, or many of the CEOs I capture; they are allowing the emotions of a reaction to flow through them without just showing it, without allowing it to just be them. It’s just an emotional reaction. It doesn’t drive my behavior. And in the book, we talk about that; how to use that thought process of choosing how you want to be in your environment. And in fact, that’s what you get reflected back. 

Steve Shallenberger: Christina, what are the habits that hold you back and the choices that move you forward to realize the things that really count in life? 

Christina Curtis: One of the greatest bad habits—I’ll put it in that box, the bad habit that holds us back—is we actually don’t choose what we focus on; we just focus on whatever is popping up in front of us. And that could look like, “Hey, I was choosing to accomplish a particular goal this month, but then life happened and my focus was distracted to the daily fires that I’m engaged in, and I never actually moved the needle on my goal. I never moved it forward.” So, choosing your focus is a critical component. And even to the point that when you choose your focus, you have to remember what you’re saying yes and saying no to. So, being very—I use the word “ruthless”, my mum hates when I use that word, but it’s true—ruthless in terms of what you’re choosing to focus on; not everything requires or deserves your attention. And we just react. It’s like someone shares a problem with us, and suddenly, it’s my problem. Well, actually, that may not be the right expenditure of my energy or my time in that moment, what else do I need to be focusing on? So, every day waking up and being really conscious of that. The other part that I think is really important, when I look at all the people who I work with, who have achieved exceptional levels of results and relationships, it’s that relationship piece; choose who you’re spending your time with, choose very consciously who fills your cup, who drains it. And be aware that whoever you’re spending time with is either helping you and you’re helping them like a strong community and moving people forward, or not. Some people even isolate. If you think about COVID and the pandemic, over the past few years, many of us have retreated, and that may be impacting our networks. So, just choosing those relationships really wisely and looking at your calendar and saying, “Where am I meeting with the people who bring me up, who energize me, who push me to be my better self?” And making sure they’re in your network. That’s really important. 

Steve Shallenberger: I love the fact that you’re using the words “making the right choices.” There’s absolutely no doubt that we are a result of the choices that we make in life, and they directly impact our outcomes. How do you make good choices? How do you make the best choices in your life and follow your passion as an inspiration to do good things, right things, best things? 

Christina Curtis: Steve, I think it all starts with slowing down to figure out what you want. What do you want? If you get to the end of your career or the end of your life, and you look back, you want to be able to say, “Heck yeah! I did that.” And feel a sense of accomplishment, feel a sense of satisfaction. And I’ll tell you, I was working at Xerox in sales for quite some time and I kept looking at the positions that were higher than mine and thinking, “Is that what I want? Maybe that’s not what I want. Actually, I don’t want that role.” They were phenomenal people who have gone on to do great things. It wasn’t about them. It was just that was not aligned with my passion. I wanted to run my own company. I wanted to be very successful at it. I wanted to write a book. I had a clear vision. And that allowed me to make clear choices, that allowed me to make my move. You think about Richard Branson. When he was 18, he looked up at the moon and saw Neil landing there and said, “I want to be able to do that. That’s my choice. I want to choose to land on the moon someday or make it to space.” And lo and behold, 51 years later, he’s out there floating. But it dictated what he focused on, the network he built, the experts he engaged, the learning he focused on, it drew him towards his chosen future over the course of five decades and 400 brands under his portfolio management. So, getting clear on what you want in this lifetime, to me, is really important. And for me, my primary choice is actually family. I want to be very successful in business, I want to operate in circles of people who make me better, and it all has to be aligned with as a working parent, being really closely connected to my husband and to my children and to my parents and to my friends’ network. I actually interview people in the book who not only achieved exceptional levels of results and are titans in their industry but are also happy. I think that’s important. Choosing happiness for me was critical. 

Steve Shallenberger: I love that. How do you keep that vision in front of you? In today’s world, where so many just filled task saturation, just being bombarded by urgency and requests here and demands here, and “I have to do this,” how do you keep your vision in front of you so that you can have that type of focus? Because, no doubt, I think ultimately, having that kind of clarity that you just talked about the things that bring you happiness, joy, and peace, and motivate you also, you feel like you’re in the right thing. I can tell, Christina, you’re doing the right stuff. You started talking about it and a big grin came across your face. 

Christina Curtis: I love this stuff.  

Steve Shallenberger: I can tell. So, how do you keep it in front of you so it doesn’t get lost? 

Christina Curtis: Not only does it not get lost, but you don’t talk yourself out of it, because what I often see is people will say, “Gosh, Christina, if I really get down to what I want, this is what it is, but it feels a little too big, feels a little too bold for me, feels like I couldn’t achieve that.” They get nervous. We get nervous. I get nervous every day. In fact, so do all the executives that I interview in the book, self-doubt is a natural part of this process. So, I’m a big component of thinking of your life in terms of chapters. And right now the chapter of my life, as an example, it took me three years to write a book; that was a whole chapter, that was a multi-year chapter, and I knew that it was going to get to completion. I didn’t know when. Turns out, Steve, it takes longer to read a book than I thought. But I got committed to that being this chapter. So there was no ending the chapter without a book being written on the shelves at Barnes and Noble and making the Amazon bestseller list. I was clear that that was going to be the outcome. And now I’m in this new chapter, and I’m getting clarity on what that looks like. It all fits into a bigger picture. But for me, I’m spending my summer as I’m working, thinking through what would be really fulfilling for this next chapter, what’s the next big goal that fits into my bigger vision. And I put it up, I see you have a whiteboard; whatever chapter is going, my vision is on my board, whatever that chapter is called. Sometimes, frankly, it’s been family. Sometimes I’ve had a summer or a year where it’s like, “You know what, I’m going to keep doing my job, but I’m not going to push really hard there. I’m gonna push hard with family.” So, it’s being thoughtful on what that chapter is, and just choosing it instead of it just happening to you, and you waking up feeling like you’ve been in a laundry machine cycle all year, and you don’t know what the heck happened. 

Steve Shallenberger: Well, that’s great. I love it. I love having the clarity, the direction, tying it to your passion, feelings, and an intuitive sense about “I want to make a difference here.” And whether these are people that, for example, are technicians, or on a sports team, or a teacher, it’s tapping into this feeling of how to create excellence within your company, within what you’re doing, or following that drive that you feel but how do you manifest it? So, I’ve got another question, from your experience, both writing about others and in your own life, what role does failure play? Because sometimes, we come up against a wall and it feels pretty rough. How do you deal with that? And what does that mean to you? What role does failure play? And what do you do about it? 

Christina Curtis: Such a great question. People interpret it as being the opposite of success. If you ask any Olympic athlete, or any executive, whether the failure is the opposite of success, they will say, “No, it’s part of the process in order to achieve something.” It’s not really about the end goal. Like if I looked at my book, right, this was the chapter of getting this book completed. I was I’ve wanted to do it since my grandfather was a writer. Since I was eight years old, I was clear, it was a goal of mine. I walk into Barnes and Noble and it’s on the bookshelf, and I broke down in tears. I didn’t break down in tears because it made it to the books, bookshelf of Barnes and Noble, I broke down in tears because I was so proud of all the setbacks. I’ve overcome the three years preceding that moment. And so to me, failure is not the opposite of success; it is every day your way of growing, every day your way of sharpening your skill set, every day your way of expanding your knowledge base that you didn’t have the day previously. So, I’m a big proponent of actually looking for your moments of failure so you can sit in it — sure, it stings, but also be like, “What did I learn? How did I grow? What can I now use that will make me even more powerful and effective tomorrow than I was today?” Rather than turning it into a moment of self-doubt. I think about athletes. I’ve got this particular client who plays tennis, and when he’s out there on the court and he hits the ball and it goes into the net; if he just focuses on the failure of that moment, he’s no longer in the game. He’s taken all of his efforts and he’s thought about how he’s no longer effective, he’s not good enough, he’s not smart enough, he’s out of the game. And he could be sitting there in Wimbledon on the center court beating himself up rather than “I got the ball into the net. That’s interesting. Why don’t I just adjust my wrist?” Doesn’t need to meet anything more than that. “Oh, I lost the game. Interesting. Let’s watch it back and see what I could do better next time.” Doesn’t need to mean anything. So, you’re constantly strengthening your skill set. Failure is part of the process; it is not a dead end, it’s just a sharp turn in the road, and it’s time to learn to drive a little tighter around that curve. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, first, having our vision, a clear vision of where we want to go, regardless of what our roles are in life, but really creating an inspiring vision that when you get up in the morning, it pumps you up, you start living your life from within rather than based on what’s going on without. And then second, we all have setbacks, and that’s okay. So, I love the way you say, “We learn from it. It’s a part of it.” And let’s just take, if you’re, say, a part of a crew, or say you’re an installer of some type of in-home service, your goal is to be among the best. Well, if anything else in life, you have to have a mental image of what it takes, and then you probably get kicked in the stomach a few times. And then all of a sudden, you turn around and a year later, you’re there, you’re among the very best, and you stay at it. It’s very cool. 

Christina Curtis: Yeah, it’s interesting. I work with a lot of folks in the agriculture space. So, you’ve got these people who are servicing equipment out there in the fields. I remember having a conversation with someone because they were struggling with “What is my goal?” And what got really clear is, it’s not about the job you do every day, it’s about the purpose of that job. For instance, for me, whether I wrote a book or I’m working with an executive, the real goal for me is to create a connection for people with what they are passionate about in life and to create wins. So, this particular technician, what became very clear to him, as we’re having this conversation is his goal is to get equipment up so he can help families feed one another, so he can support communities. And, gosh, when you move what you do into purpose-driven work, it changes the whole game because you wake up and you realize that there’s no cog in the wheel, your work is actually changing lives for the better. And there are very few rules I can think of that isn’t actually moving the world forward in a really positive way. So get clear on your purpose, get clear on what you’re driven by, what you’re passionate about. What you do every day is not just a job, it is in service of a bigger goal. And once you tap into that, man, happiness increases, fulfillment increases, and the quality of the work skyrockets. 

Steve Shallenberger: One of the things I think, Christina, as we talked about that you have written about is how you come across in an interview, how you relate with other people. So, I was just thinking about that topic, and in the very few minutes that we have left in this interview, I’d like to touch on that. So, it’s not just an interview, every single day, people are meeting other people. And indeed, it’s this contact, this connect we’re able to make that makes a difference. So, first of all, how does someone bring up positive emotion to meeting somebody, whether it’s an interview or a customer or fellow employee? What do you recommend on that? How do you bring good positive energy? Because it makes a difference, right? 

Christina Curtis: Yes, it makes a difference and it’s contagious. Energy is the most contagious element on the planet. Two people can actually sit in silence, Steve, next to each other and not say anything for 10 minutes, and the person with the dominant mood will transfer their energy to the other individual without saying a word. So you think about that, it means that what we are doing out there and the energy we bring into the world is what’s reflected back. If I start my day on a Monday, and I am beaten down already, and feeling down, and not having a good start to my week, I am likely to have that exact same energy reflected back to me because it’s what I’m bringing in. It’s like if I come home, I’ve had a bad day, and I show up in my house with my kids, and I’m crabby, guess what? Suddenly, they’re crabby. Well, suddenly I’m crabby that they’re crabby, and we’re all crabby. And I’m like, “This was not an effective use of our energy.” So you have to choose what kind of energy you want to bring into an interview, into a negotiation, or into just a meeting or discussion at home because it is the way that we communicate. We reflect back by empathy, what we are seeing, and what we’re feeling from the other person. What we do know is particularly related to human beings and interviews is that likability is a critical component of getting the job. So I recommend people be very clear on what they want to create, what feeling and experience they want to create for the interviewer. I want to show up but I’m going to ask you questions about your weekend because I want to create a connection. I want to show up enthusiastically because I want to show you that I’m passionate and that I actually care. So, consciously choose the experience you want to create, bring that into those meetings, and it changes the outcome both for you and for the other individual. 

Steve Shallenberger: I’m glad you talked about likability because we could ask our listeners if you had the chance to work for somebody, if you had a boss that’s likable, how has that been to work with that person? Versus, have you ever had a boss that was a grump? And what was that like? And everybody says, “Yeah, I want to work for the person that is likable.” And the same at home with your partner, you want to be likable. It’s just so uplifting, it creates an environment. I love the example you used of sitting next to someone and not saying a word, the dominant mood prevails. Well, having a positive upbeat, likable attitude makes a difference. So you just started to talk about some of those things. Any other final tips that you would offer in that area because it’s a game changer across the board of how somebody can be likable?  

Christina Curtis: It comes full circle back to the beginning, where we react to however we feel when an emotion shows up. So I may see an email come through that makes me unhappy, my day is now filtered through unhappiness. Guess what? That’s not particularly effective. So, I’m very conscious of choosing how I want to feel and choosing how I want to engage, and I’ve learned that by watching the titans in their field over the past 20 years. You have to choose the energy that you’re bringing into every moment, even when you don’t feel like it. So, here’s what that looks like. If I’m feeling down, I may sit in it and process it before I bring it into an area where it can have a big impact, unless there’s a purpose in the impact. I may move my body physically and shift the emotion so that I can get back energized. I may go exercise. I may talk call a friend, and just have a good moment where I vent my frustrations and say, “Hey, I’m gonna go and shop positively, I needed a space for this. Thanks for being with me. I didn’t want to bring it into this other space that I’m moving into.” But energy is contagious, motion is contagious, and so our dream. So dream big, live bold, and go out there and give it your best. Failure is not the opposite of success, it’s just part of the process. So, go for it. There is no failure in the big game of life. You just keep on trucking. 

Steve Shallenberger: Christina Curtis, how can people find out about what you’re doing?  

Christina Curtis: On Amazon, my book, “Choosing Greatness: An Evidence-Based Approach to Achieving Exceptional Outcomes”. Come there or check us out at Curtis Leadership Consulting,, and we can continue the conversation. 

Steve Shallenberger: Loved having you on with us today. What a delight. 

Christina Curtis: Thank you, Steve. Thanks for having me. 

Steve Shallenberger: You bet. And wishing you all the best and the good work that you’re doing. You’re blessing a lot of lives. 

Christina Curtis: I appreciate you. Same. Right back at you.  

Steve Shallenberger: Oh, thank you. And to all of our listeners, it’s such an honor that you would tune in today. Thank you for joining us. We love getting energy from you — we feel it. And you are blessing lives every single day as you’re working on becoming your best. So, you inspire us. Thank you. Wishing you a great day. This is Steve Shallenberger, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader

Christina Curtis

President & Founder of Curtis Leadership Consulting

ICF Certified Master Coach, Psychologist, Neuroscientist, Thought Leader, and Author

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